Health & Fitness

Manners matter: Raising a polite child is more important than ever

Pushing to get on a bus. Stepping onto the express checkout lane with too many items. Talking loudly in public on a cellphone. It’s easy to forget common courtesies when you’re stressed, rushed and feeling overwhelmed with everything on your to-do list, but if you’re doing any of these things in front of your children, you’re subconsciously teaching them bad manners.

Kathleen Dexter, M.S.W., is a contract administrator for The Children’s Trust, and a licensed clinical social worker.

And good manners matter, especially because our country has gotten ruder.

Nearly 8 of 10 folks believe lack of respect and courtesy is a serious national problem, with 79 percent saying we’re nastier to each other now than 10 years ago. Many blame the failure to instill good behavior in kids as one of the top reasons for this poor behavior.

Needless to say, today’s aggressive “hurry up” society doesn’t help. Nor do divisive politics. Which is why, now more than ever, there’s critical value in good manners. Children who are taught proper etiquette have a powerful advantage over those who are not. They make friends easier, get along better with their teachers, and eventually even make better employees and spouses. Being respectful of others also helps kids learn to respect themselves.

Here’s how to make sure your children never miss manners:


Start early. Before your child even learns to speak, encourage waving hello and goodbye so they can learn how to recognize and greet people.

Ages 1-2

Model good behavior. This may sound like common sense, but you should never underestimate how much children emulate the behavior they see from their parents.

Parrot polite phrases. Toddlers won’t grasp the meaning of “please” and “thank you” until they’re older but get them in the habit of using them now. Use both phrases throughout the day — to your children, to your spouse, to the sales clerk at the mall — and make sure to encourage your children to use the words, too.

Stay put while eating. Don’t keep getting up and down during meals and don’t let your child do so either. Young children have a short attention span, but 10-15 minutes in a high chair will give them an important lesson about sitting at the table while you eat.

Ages 3-5

Provide positive feedback. Let your child know how nice it was that they responded a certain way by calling out what they did and praising the behavior, i.e., “How nicely you asked your sister for that toy!” If they didn’t, gently remind them the correct way to speak or act.

Role-play. Prepare your children for situations in advance, i.e., what to say before — and after — they receive a gift (even if they don’t like it) or what to say or do if they don’t like a meal they’re served. Remind them, too, that it’s rude to comment on someone’s appearance, as well as on the kind of home they live in. Use dolls or stuffed animals to practice possible scenarios.

Encourage thank you notes. Even a scribble on a piece of paper or a drawing helps teach children the importance of thinking of others.

Be consistent. Acquiring good manners takes practice and reinforcement, so make sure that you, your partner and your caregiver are encouraging (and discouraging) the same behaviors.

Teach empathy. Stress to your children the importance of treating others the way they like to be treated, and help them understand the harm caused by thoughtless, unkind words and actions. Even toddlers can be taught that snatching a toy from a playdate is a no-no and hitting hurts, and the rules are, “We don’t do that.” Prompt an apology by explaining that when they hurt someone, they say, “I’m sorry.”

Ages 5-6

Ask them to look people in the eye. In many cultures, being respectful means looking others in the eye when spoken to and responding in kind. Make this fun by having your child report back to you on the color of a person’s eyes. Also practice meeting and greeting, i.e., how to shake hands firmly and repeat back the person’s name.

Don’t interrupt. Teach kids that interrupting is rude, and to not start speaking until someone else is finished. Come up with a secret word or sign which can help remind your child to wait to interject when you’re speaking with someone.

Work on more sophisticated table manners. Enforce more nuanced etiquette such as no elbows on the table and saying “please pass” instead of reaching. Point out good-manners moments as reinforcement, i.e., “Look how Sebastian put his napkin in his lap without being reminded.”

Putting these tips into practice — as early and as often as possible — will help make sure your child is a welcome presence wherever they go and whatever they do.

Kathleen Dexter, M.S.W., is a contract administrator for The Children’s Trust, and a licensed clinical social worker with extensive experience in the design and implementation of child and family services programs. For more information, visit