Good manners are headed your way! (Tips for teaching manners)

I was gone for less than a minute.  I simply ran upstairs to put the clothes in the dryer.  I literally yanked everything from the washer, shoved it the in the dryer, and pressed start.  45 seconds later I returned to the family room to hear the following transaction:  “No Liam it goes over there.”  “No YaYa, this semi-truck go to the car wash.”  “NO LIAM! STOP!”  “No thank you YaYa!  NO THANK YOU!”  “MOMMY!  He’s not doing what I want and it’s FRUSTRATING me!” Right words, wrong voice tone.  Good manners are always a work in progress around here.  Sound familiar?  Despite the yelling, they each did something right, and that’s the important thing.  Liam remembered to say “no thank you” instead of just screaming “no” when the truck was being pulled from his hands.  It took her a couple of minutes to get there, but Riley verbalized her feelings instead of resorting to hitting or just melting down completely.  There are moments when I want to remove every toy from the house so that there’s nothing left to argue about.  I suspect they would find something anyway.  In this moment, I chose to focus on the positive and help them resolve the conflict.  I praised Liam for using his friendly words, and Riley for sharing her feelings and seeking help.  Then we sat down on the play mat and created a new game together.  All quiet on the western front, for a minute anyway.  We can’t always be there to see who had what toy first.  We can’t always jump off the phone because a preschooler has a question or a toddler needs a snack.  And sometimes we actually have to get the laundry done.  I hear a lot of talk about “demanding” good manners and that children are allegedly less respectful today than in previous generations.  I’m not sure that’s entirely true.  I can conjure up some grade school memories involving ill-mannered kids and disrespect.  Manners are important.  Kindness, consideration, honesty, mutual respect, and gratitude are all building blocks for developing appropriate social interaction skills.  The good news is that good manners are easy to teach.  The bad news is that it requires near constant repetition!  The best piece of advice I can give you is to remove the word “demand” from your vocabulary.  When was the last time someone demanded something from you and you actually wanted to do it?  Probably never.  Try to keep it fun or, at the very least, easy.  Below are some tips for keeping the good manners flowing:
1.Set the rules:  Kids need rules.  This is not new information, I’m sure.  More importantly, kids need rules that they can understand and remember.  And they need frequent reminders of the rules.  Riley is the master of louder is better.  She talks a lot.  And when she feels like she’s not being heard she keeps hitting the volume until someone responds in some way, no matter the response.  This is usually a good time to refer her to the rules.  “Riley, one of the rules in our house is that we don’t yell at each other.  Should we double check our list and then try a different way?”  Our “house rules” are posted (with a picture of the rule in action by each rule) in the kitchen at eye level (for them, not us.  Not that my husband and I are immune from refreshers every once in a while!).  The rules are simple, yet they require regular repetition.  It’s ok. I expect it.  Next to the rules is a list of “house fun stuff” that we developed together.  So when we check to make sure that, indeed, there is no yelling in the house, we might switch gears and give dancing a try.  Ah, the art of distraction!  Sometimes kids have to hear “no”.  They don’t always act appropriately.  Particularly in times of frustration.  But when you follow a negative with a positive, it leaves them feeling good about something they just learned.
2.Teach identification of feelings:  Kids are on a constant ride through the world of feelings each day, yet many never learn to label what they’re feeling.  Start early.  When they can label the feeling they can work toward understanding it.  When they understand it, they can work toward coping with it.  Get on Amazon and buy a feelings faces poster.  Put it in the most high traffic room in the house.  Use it.  Don’t expect them to use it on their own.  Use it when they’re happy, use it when they’re sad, use it every chance you get.  Teach them to put a feeling with a face.  Talk about what it might feel like physically when they are angry (clenched teeth or fists, breathing fast), sad, or even happy.  Help them understand.  Teach them to use “I” statements.  When Liam grabs a toy and Riley gets upset I step in and get the toy and then have her say “Liam I feel mad when you take my toys”.  Liam is then asked to say, “I’m sorry”.  It sounds basic, I know, but can easily be forgotten in the heat of the moment.  These are the moments where we really need to step in and teach.  I often have parents say to me that my kids are really good at sharing their feelings.  I feel like a cheater.  I’m a therapist.  What would it say about me if my kids couldn’t identify their feelings?!
3.Model:  Performer or not, you are always on the stage!  Just today my husband asked me a question about a new cereal I bought at Whole Foods.  Two seconds after he stopped talking Riley piped in that she was “hungry for something new”.  She was allegedly watching Max & Ruby at the time.  The reality is, she was listening in just in case something interesting was happening!  An old friend just told me a story about someone who swears so regularly in front of a preschooler that that preschooler recently decided to try out the same language at school.  The parent was shocked and mortified.  Don’t be.  If you say it, they will say it.  The unspoken rules of society (and the explicit rules of most schools) dictate that it’s not appropriate to speak that way to other people.  Remove bad language from your vocabulary.  Always remember your “please” and “thank you”.  Share often and point it out every time.  Sit at the table the way you would like your kids to sit.  If you have your feet on the table, chances are they will too.  And, if you only take one thing away from this post, please avoid sarcasm.  Kids don’t understand sarcasm.  They understand voice tone.  They know when you’re mad.  But they don’t understand sarcasm.  It just feels mean.  Please, please, please save it for another time.
4.Teach kindness and consideration:  Sharing is one of the most difficult lessons to learn, and yet it’s one of the most important.  Whether we are at the park or at home, we are always working on sharing and taking turns.  In our house we each have “special toys” that we put away for play dates or parties.  Other than that we share everything.  Sometimes there are tears (Liam), and sometimes long faces (Riley) but we always take turns and share our toys.  Kindness doesn’t end there.  Friendly words should be used all of the time.  Teach your kids the appropriate time to use please and thank you, you’re welcome, excuse me, and I’m sorry.  And cue them every time.  Eventually it will just come to them naturally.  Encourage them to hold the door for someone else, or help if a friend drops a toy.  Help your friends clean up their toys before you leave to go home.  When they see another child crying help them consider why that child might be sad and what they can do to help.  Riley is fond of bringing Liam his favorite car when he gets sad.  And Liam brings her a stuffed animal.  Empathy is one of the greatest skills we can teach our children.  Start now.
5.Discuss differences:  Kids are naturally curious, and sometimes that curiosity results in staring at people who appear different from them.  After filling out paperwork during a recent ER visit I turned to find Riley staring at an elderly man in a wheelchair.  I didn’t tell her to stop staring or lead her away.  I sat her on my lap and said, “Are you wondering why that man has a chair with wheels?  Sometimes when people need help walking because their legs are tired or sore, they use a chair with wheels to help them get around so that they can rest their legs”.  Satisfied, she turned her attention back to her DVD player.  Sometimes an explanation is all it takes.
6.Teach honesty:  Right on cue (she turns four in a few weeks), Riley has learned the art of the white lie.  “Did you wash your hands?”  “Yes.”  No.  As it turned out, she wanted to use a wet wipe instead of washing her hands because she was afraid she might get her favorite dress wet.  “It’s always better to tell Mommy the truth.  The truth means the right story.  That way I know exactly what happened or what you really need.  Like a wet wipe.”  Of course, it’s not always that easy and it requires repetition.  After a few rounds of excessive praise for giving an honest answer, however, we are all about the truth for right now!
7.Focus on gratitude:  People often ask me how much is too much.  What constitutes spoiling?  While kids can get by on a few toys and a great imagination, it’s not how much they have that matters.  Teaching your child to be thankful for what they have, and that the best part of a gift is that someone special thought of them is the most important lesson here.  They might not be able to write a thank you note yet, but you can and they can decorate with stickers and crayons.  When it comes time to get a gift for a friend involve your child in the process.  Bring them to the toy store and let them do the thinking.  At the end of the day, it is the thought that counts.  Please teach this very important lesson.
8.Teach altruism:  Children who learn to look out for the well being of others at a young age are likely to continue to help others as they grow.  I’m not saying that you should sit down and explain homelessness to a three year old.  That would not be appropriate and would likely result in nightmares or worries for your child.  But you can teach young children that it’s nice to share with others.  Riley passes along her clothes to two of her friends, and gets excited to receive clothes from her cousins.  Liam sends his things along to “Baby James” on the East coast.  This weekend Riley and I talked about sharing some toys that we don’t use as much anymore with some kids who might need extra toys for Christmas.  “Toys for Tots” is an excellent opportunity for children to pick out a couple of toys to send to other kids for the holidays.  Not long ago a couple of 7-year-old girls in our neighborhood held a bake sale to raise money for Haiti.  Their mothers told me that they came up with the idea independently.  Start young and they will continue to want to help as they grow.
9.Books:  “Madeline Says Merci” by John Bemelmans Marciano, “Do Unto Otters” by Laurie Keller, and “The Berenstain Bears Forget Their Manners” by Stan and Jan Berenstain are great books that address manners while keeping it fun.
Model always.  Repeat often.  Praise regularly.  And enjoy the good manners that come your way!
About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)