Kids And Manners: How To Teach Children To Behave

11/18/2011 12:47 pm ET | Updated Dec 30, 2011

Dear Susan,

My kids are ten and seven and have terrible manners. I've tried telling them how to behave when we have guests for dinner or friends for play dates, but they don't get it. How can I teach them to have good manners?

Old-Fashioned Mama

Dear Old-Fashioned Mama,

Good manners are simply behaviors that make people feel comfortable. Some of us get hung up on the idea that teaching manners to children is old-fashioned, or only important if they're introducing princesses to dukes. But when it comes to launching our children into successful adult lives, having the instinctive ability to put people at ease is as -- if not more -- important as having a diploma from an Ivy League college. We may not know if someone graduated from Harvard, but we can instantly tell whether we feel relaxed in their presence.

Children, however, are innately egocentric; if there's only one cookie left on the plate, they'll grab it. If your son is having fun on the swing, he's going to resist giving it up to a child who's waiting for a turn. This doesn't mean they're selfish; it just underscores the fact that they're behaving like, well, children!

"Me first!" "I want more!" "That's mine!" are all predictable expressions of a child who hasn't yet developed empathy or diplomacy. A parent's uncritical guidance helps young ones learn the basics of showing concern for the needs of others.

There is no better way to teach manners than to demonstrate them in the way you live your life in their presence. Here are a few pointers:

Establish a mealtime routine that ensures no one starts eating until everyone has been seated and served. If your children slip up, let them know that you understand they're hungry while modeling patience as others dish up their food.

Show your children how to make eye contact while offering a handshake when they greet a guest. If a hug is more appropriate or comfortable for your child, that's fine. What's important is that you make friendly greeting rituals part of the way you welcome guests into your home.

Teach your children how to introduce people to one another. "Grandma, this is my friend Jason", or "Ms. Edwards, I want you to meet my cousin Sara."

Let your children hear you apologizing without justifying your behavior if you've offended someone. Part of having good manners is acknowledging another person's feelings. By showing your children what it looks and sounds like to be accountable for an oversight or inconsiderate remark, they will follow your lead.

Create expectations for sharing and taking turns when your kids have friends over to play. Tell your children that you know it can be hard to wait for a turn on the swing, or to resist snatching the bigger piece of pie, but that in your home, guests are treated with special care.

Good manners aren't taught through long-winded lectures. Civility is developed when children grow up in the midst of caring and respectful behavior. Acknowledge when your children do demonstrate good manners, and gently correct them when they forget to be polite. Don't expect them to behave perfectly, and factor in their developmental stage as you set expectations for their behavior. Avoid power struggles about manners, especially with your teens. With your guidance -- and patience -- your children will become the kind of people who make others comfortable. Ultimately, that's what good manners are all about.

Yours in parenting support,

Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.

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