Parents always say they want their kids to be polite. Who doesn't? Well-mannered kids are nicer to have at the dinner table when guests come over, they're pleasant to be around, and they can carry on a polite conversation with a college recruiter or a potential employer later on.
But, like money, manners don't grow on trees. I've found that I'm always reinforcing, and yes, correcting, the manners of my kids. According to Susan Stiffelman, a licensed family therapist, kids are innately egocentric, so it's not in their wheelhouse to always remember to say thank you or you're welcome, to wait their turn or to look an adult in the eye and introduce themselves. If I've said "What do you say?" once to my boys when they're shown a kindness, I've said it a thousand times.
But when I'm correcting manners, I sometimes get suspicious looks from other parents. As if they're thinking, "What kind of fuddy duddy are you?" Or, "Where are you from? The set of 'Downton Abbey'?"
I understand where these parents are coming from. We live in a frenetic society where everyone's in a rush, and there aren't enough hours in the day for family time, let alone manners instruction. Some parents are just too harried and tired and teaching manners goes by the wayside. Besides, society is less formal now, so isn't teaching children manners old-fashioned?
Like everything else with parenting, it's about balance. Learning proper behavior is a lifelong pursuit, and good manners don't grow roots without a lot of nurturing. Children have to be reminded constantly and consistently to use their manners. Manners -- like all good behaviors -- must be practiced until they become habit.
But that doesn't mean you have to come off as a nag. Be measured, positive and reasonable in your comments and expectations. Don't scold or ridicule. And when your children do behave politely, praise them for their good manners.
At the same time, make sure you reinforce their good behavior with your own. You are your kids' #1 role model. If we're not setting good examples ourselves, how can we expect kids to be polite?
You also have to pick your battles. Give your kids small doses of manners instruction at first; then build from there. For example, instead of drilling table manners into your children every evening, start by having one formal family dinner every week where manners are observed. Ours is on Sunday night. Napkins on lap, correct use of utensils, no eating before all are seated, and no leaving the table until being excused. Everyone is expected to contribute to the dinner conversation... what we're thankful for, the highlights of the past week and what's on the agenda for the coming one.
Another great activity is having parents help young children create thank-you cards when they receive gifts. Making and presenting thank-you cards (even to immediate family members) can be as fun for children as receiving the gift itself.
Here's another tip. When teaching manners, try not to overwhelm your kids with too many dos and don'ts. Choose the top five manners you want them to learn and practice those first. Our top five are (1) the basics -- saying please, thank you, and you're welcome; (2) how to politely ask for things; (3) essential table manners; (4) how to answer the telephone; and (5) making eye contact and introductions. Allow no backsliding on your top five. As kids learn and take pride in practicing these core manners, introduce a few more and see how they respond. Once a foundation of good manners is established, adding more manners to the mix will be easier.
I'm not too much of a manners curmudgeon, though, to realize that children may need incentives to learn manners. Kids want to know what's in it for them. "Cause I said so" isn't a reason that's going to cut it.
If your family thinks it's a good idea to pay children a weekly allowance, you might consider linking allowance to improvement in behavior or practicing good manners. For example, in our home, we reward our children for using their manners, treating others with respect and doing something nice for someone else.
Another reward is to treat your children to a meal at the restaurant of their choice. Restaurants aren't only festive for kids, but they serve to reinforce good behavior. When kids see real tablecloths and napkins, a cordial atmosphere and other diners practicing good etiquette, they may respond by upping their own behavior accordingly.
But rewards don't have to be monetary. Praise from a parent or teacher can go farther in impressing the importance of manners on a child than any new toy or deposit in the piggy bank.
It takes hard work and commitment to teach our kids manners. But when you receive a compliment from a teacher that your child is one of the most polite in class, or if your kids shine at a dinner party hosted by a neighbor, you'll know it was well worth it.
John McCormick and his sons William and Connor are the authors of "Dad, Tell Me A Story," How to Revive the Tradition of Storytelling with Your Children (Nicasio Press 2010). For more information about family storytelling, visit the authors' website and blog at http://DadTellMeAStory.com.