Already dreading the thought of taking your rambunctious brood to Grandma's for a holiday meal? Most parents know that manners don't come naturally to children, and though we strive to teach children niceties like “please” and “thank you,” etiquette doesn't begin and end with the magic words. What about the tot who squirms at the dinner table and jumps up after two minutes? What about the grade-schooler who runs wild at friends’ homes? Or how about the high-schooler who shrinks during introductions?
If you’re raising a manners-challenged child, you’re not alone. Childhood manners mishaps are as common as children themselves, says Chris J. Rock, etiquette coach and founder of Etiquette and Protocol Consulting in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The good news: youth is a time to learn and practice appropriate behavior, and mistakes are expected. Even better, swift etiquette intervention can lay the groundwork for a lifetime of civility.
TODDLER/PRESCHOOL: Table Training
The golden rule—treat others as you’d like to be treated—is the basis of all etiquette, says Rock. So how soon should parents start teaching children manners? “You can’t start them too young,” she notes. “There is no certain age when the magic begins.”
That means establishing family behavior norms early on. If you don’t want your children to run indoors, traipse through airplane rows, or jump on furniture, correct these behaviors in toddlerhood with a firm, gentle reminder: “That is not how we act in this family. It doesn’t matter what other children do.” Toddlers have notoriously short memories, so catchy songs can help etiquette lessons stick, says Rock. “We sing ‘Yes is better than Yeah’ with our grandchildren,” she says.
Table manners training can also start early. Rock recommends introducing flatware as soon as children can hold it (often in late infancy or early toddlerhood), discouraging eating with the hands, and gently stretching the time tots can sit still during meals. Start with just four or five minutes, and build to 15 or 20. Children as young as two can be taught to ask their host—in most cases, mom or dad—to be excused from the table when finished.
ELEMENTARY YEARS: Social Graces
The grade-school years bring more friend visits and sleepovers—potential manners minefields, since kids will be away from parents’ watchful eyes. Teaching children to be a respectful guest in friends’ homes will ramp up confidence at a time when children are developing a social identity (and increase the odds of receiving a repeat invitation).
Pre-playdate, remind children that being a guest means respecting the household rules of their host. If the host family removes their shoes at the door or doesn’t allow snacking in bedrooms, a guest should comply. To show respect, ask children to address their friend’s parents as “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” unless directed by the parents to do otherwise. And for an especially nice touch, follow up a sleepover or a special playdate with a personal thank-you note from the child.
TWEENS/TEENS: Introduction Anxiety
Want your tween or teen to make a good impression? Teach them to make a proper introduction, a habit that pays lifelong dividends. To start, insist that children learn to introduce themselves with confidence and greet new acquaintances with eye contact and a firm handshake.
“Today’s teens are typically more comfortable interacting with technology than they are face-to-face. And yet, those who master the ability to meet and greet others with ease will always be viewed more favorably,” notes Deborah King, president of Final Touch Finishing School in Seattle. The basics of a positive introduction include standing up straight, making eye contact, smiling, saying hello and your name in a clear voice, and extending a firm handshake. Like any skill, repetition is the key to mastery.
“It’s important for parents to know introduction protocol themselves to they can model correctly,” says Rock. For example, when introducing two parties, the senior or more important person’s name is said first. Likewise, when introducing two friends, use equal terms for both; never use first and last name for one and just first name for the other. Polish introduction prowess by encouraging tweens and teens to introduce you and others at social gatherings and in group settings. Soon, they’ll be ready to take on the world—civilly, of course.
Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three. Her latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.