Unpleasant interactions — from gruff to outright aggressive — are the order of the day. Whether it’s nasty comments exploding across social media, daily commutes colored by road rage, or cranky holiday shoppers cutting in front of you to snatch a coveted toy off the shelf, the death knell for common courtesies has seemingly been rung. And it’s affecting the way kids see the world and other people.
Studies have shown that prolonged exposure to incivility may contribute to childhood depression, as well as bullying and other antisocial acting out. But the good news is that kindness, empathy and respect are all learned behaviors, and your child’s first, best teacher is you.
Start with the basics
Good manners begin with teaching your children to use “please” and “thank you” whenever appropriate, every single time. Encourage them to greet people — especially new acquaintances — by saying “hello” and, when leaving, “goodbye” in a culturally appropriate way. Build on that by helping them to develop conversational skills; emphasize the use of key phrases like “How are you?” and “What’s new?” Teach them to shake people’s hands and look them in the eye when conversing. Urge them to say “excuse me” when trying to pass someone or if they absolutely must interrupt a conversation. Establish the proper way to answer a phone and the front door.
Lead by example
Model the behaviors you want children to adopt. Let your kids see you helping out family members and friends; volunteering at your church, temple or mosque; donating your time to a local nonprofit; or simply being kind and considerate in your daily interactions with others, including salespeople, cashiers and telemarketers. In fact, showing compassion to a stranger, as opposed to someone well-known to you, can make an even greater impression on your child. If you do slip up, say, by uttering an expletive when another driver cuts you off with your kids in the car, immediately acknowledge your mistake and apologize for the behavior.
Expand the caring circle
Talk to your children about the importance of community. Stress the idea that people who are able to help others have a responsibility to do so, in whatever way they can. For kids, that could mean donating some of their toys to a homeless shelter, inviting a new schoolmate to sit with them at lunch, or offering to help an elderly neighbor carry in their groceries. Foster empathy in your children by discussing difficulties experienced by others, including children their age. Ask them what they could — and would — do to help.
Turn a page
Books on good manners abound, from the light-hearted “Dude, That’s Rude!,” targeted to kids ages 8-13, to “Etiquette for the Socially Savvy Teen: Life skills for All Situations,” which parses social situations, dating, prom and job interviews. Board games that impart lessons in civility in a fun and engaging way are also available, as are a plethora of no-cost etiquette activities that can be found with a quick internet search. These tools for teaching kids to do the right thing offer a hands-on approach to potentially volatile situations that encourage discussions about correct behavior.
Revive old-fashioned niceties
In the tech-dominated world we live in, a handwritten note is a rare and welcome gesture. Post-holidays, sit down with your children to write thank-you notes together; they need only be 2-3 sentences long. If your child is too young to write a full note, scribe the message for them and let them sign their name. Related: sending birthday cards in the mail. Also teach kids to do things like hold open doors, offer their seat on the bus to a senior citizen or someone disabled, and wait until everyone at the table has been served before eating, shows of respect that will elicit positive feedback (from you and others) and fuel their desire to do more.
Zafreen Jaffery, Ed.D., a research and evaluation analyst for The Children’s Trust, brings more than 16 years’ experience in research, evaluation and teaching to her work, and is passionate about promoting educational equity and social justice for all children. For more information, visit thechildrenstrust.org.