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How to teach Manners - the 123 and ABC

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In our last post we discussed how important it is to guide your young child in developing good manners because it will affect his self-concept, create higher EQ and eventually culminate in more success later on life (if you missed the post, go here). However, we're still just human beings, and some clear directions come in handy from time to time!

So, this post is going to give you the '123 and ABC' of manners - what you can realistically expect, when and how!

Although we all know this as parents, it can't hurt to repeat it - children learn by example!  So, if you want to foster respect in your child, treat them and those in their world with respect. If you want your child to say 'please', use the term when you ask something of them. If you want your child to greet people warmly, then make sure you greet them and those in their world warmly as well. And the list goes on...

1 and 2 year olds
You can realistically add 'please' and 'thank you' to your child's vocabulary from when they are able to say a few words. Be consistent and after you're sure that your child knows the words well, prompt him to say them when requesting or receiving something.

Introducing your child to dinner-time around the table around the age of two is also great! Even if they've eaten already, give them a bowl of yogurt or fruit, so that they don't feel left out. Talk to your toddler during dinner to demonstrate the social side of family dinners and let him experiment with a spoon. There may be a bit of a mess, which is understandable, but don't allow him to make a mess for the sake of it. Remember to praise your child when you're done, for example, "What a good job you did eating with your spoon tonight buddy!"

Two-year-olds can also be taught to greet politely. You can start by practicing at home, with all his stuffed toys, creating a little 'pretend' visit where he says 'hello' and 'goodbye' to each toy. You can also prompt your little one when you're going to visit a friend by saying, "We're going to visit aunty Mary. When we get there we're going to say 'hello'". However, some little ones get 'stage fright' anyway when it comes to saying hello to real people, and in this instance you can say hello for your child, reinforcing the social principle.

Toddlers will rarely 'play nicely' without adult supervision, so be prepared to closely monitor play dates. Sometimes it helps to have a special 'play date toy box' with two of every toy, but if this is not possible and there is a single favourite toy that everyone wants a piece of, ensure that everyone gets a turn. In this way you can introduce your toddler to the word 'share'. Sometimes you may need to change the scenery by going outside or to another room. And don't forget to praise your toddler when he does share nicely.

3 and 4 year olds

It is important to remember that whatever rules you put in place need to apply both at home and while you're out. However, don't ever embarrass your child out in public, if he has done something that requires a talk, do so in a private place like a washroom. Also remember that if you threaten consequences, you need to be willing to follow through.

Your three-year-old can now learn to not interrupt. You can teach him to tap your leg or put his hand on your arm when he wants your attention while you're in mid-sentence. Simply putting your free hand on his will reassure him that you know he's there and that he's waiting his turn to talk to you. Unless he's in real distress, he can only benefit from learning to wait for 5 or 10 minutes.

Now is the age to build on the table-manners you started the previous year. Make a light-hearted game out of sitting still and straight up for up to 10 minutes or longer. You can expect him to use his napkin properly and eat with a spoon or fork correctly. In addition he should be drinking from a cup neatly and can learn to ask to be excused from the table. He is also old enough to help to lay and clear the table around dinner time.

Your child is also old enough now to follow some basic 'birthday party etiquette' - such as not going for the pile of gifts that are not for him. When it's his party, you can teach him to accept gifts graciously through role play - remember, children often learn better when a concept is demonstrated to them. Praising your child for his efforts is so important, and try not to sweat the small mistakes he might make.

Saying 'sorry' and accepting a 'sorry' is also important at this stage. As parents, we instinctively prompt our children to say 'sorry' when they've hurt someone or taken someone's toy, and just as we'd like them to say sorry, we also want them to learn to graciously accept an apology if they are on the receiving end of the 'offence'.

Most children won't be able to say 'sorry' and mean it until they're about 7-8 years old. So while your child is still far from reaching that milestone, you will need to help him understand why he needs to say 'sorry', otherwise the word will end up having an empty meaning for him. For example, you can say, "Johnny, see how sad Ben is that you took his toy? Please give his toy back and say 'sorry' to help Ben feel better."

Another way to teach 'sorry' is to do so yourself if you have been in the wrong with your child, if for instance you've lost your temper with him. If you - the 'invincible' parent - can apologise, then it becomes easier for your child to say 'sorry' too.

Around this age, young children can sometimes lash out and call people names like 'stupid'. If your child does this you can simply say, "We don't call people stupid, I will not have you talk like that," and remove your child from the situation, explaining that he can't be around his friends or family if he doesn't talk nicely.

By the age of four, most children can remember to use the words 'please' and 'thank you' appropriately. They can also remember to say 'excuse me' after burps, and greet people without being prompted. But again, don't feel as though you've failed if they forget every now and again - Rome was not built in a day after all!

5 and 6 year olds

Your child should now be able to sit around a dinner table with the rest of the family and guests in an appropriate way - sitting still, receiving food graciously, eating with utensils, chewing with his mouth closed etc. 

As always, role-play is always helpful as it builds self-confidence. So if you want to you can 'simulate' a restaurant dinner, light candles and put flowers on the table. Make sure to give your child a list of the manners you want to see around the table, and then reward him in some way for a job well done.

Dinner is a wonderful time to share and come together as a family. Practice asking each other questions about the day and sharing in a light-hearted way. Try to avoid making dinner-time a battle-zone by keeping lectures and comments about unfinished chores for other times of the day, away from the family dinner.

Manners, at this age, should be second nature for your child, as he behaves in a way that is acceptable to your family and your culture.

What is important to remember is that manners are taught - they do not just 'happen' to a child. When you give your child the gift of manners and the self-discipline that goes along with it, you are not only shaping the way in which they perceive themselves and the world, but equipping them with a higher EQ and the potential to be a truly successful citizen of the world.

Having said that (and again...), Rome was not built in a day. There is fine line between firmly and lovingly guiding your child, and becoming a dictator who dissects everything your child does. You know your child best, and you know when they're doing their level best - reward their efforts, tell them you're proud of them, and lead by loving example.

The key principle to remember when you're not sure if you're doing the right thing? "Teach your child that he or she is very important, but no more important than anyone else."

Words: Loren Stow
when we know better... we do better

Comments? Email lizette@practicaprogram.co.za

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