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Teaching Children Manners

Etiquette and polite behavior are signs of respect for other people. Here's how to keep these important principles alive and well in your family.

Teachers with 30 years or more experience say that today's child is, in general, much less respectful and much less mannerly than the typical child of a generation ago. Unfortunately, unless children learn respect for others, beginning with adults, they can never learn to respect themselves.

Manners and respect are inseparable. Children begin developing respect for others by first developing it for their parents. Children should be taught to behave in mannerly ways toward their parents. That means children should not be allowed to call their parents (or any adult for that matter) by their first names, to interrupt adult conversations unless in crisis, or (beyond age three) to throw tantrums when they don't get their way. We might even go so far as to recommend that children be taught to respond to all adults, including their parents, with "Yes, Sir" and "Yes, Ma'am." When adults speak, children should pay attention; and when adults give instructions, children should carry them out. It's as simple as that.

Try these tips for teaching good manners:

Work on one thing at a time. If you try to teach too many social skills at once, you will end up teaching none of them well. Instead, teach table manners first, for example. When those have been learned, advance to phone manners, and so on.

Praise your children for their successes. When your kids display proper manners at home or in public, give them immediate positive feedback. It's more critical that you do this during the early "learning phase" of manners instruction, but even older children need to occasionally hear how proud you are of their social deportment.

Be tolerant of your children's lapses, but do not overlook them. Children will make mistakes. The more patient you are, the more progress they will ultimately make. Under no circumstances should you reprimand a child's social errors in public, although firm reminders may at times be in order. Remember that children want to please adults and that it's easier to catch the proverbial fly with honey than with vinegar.

When it's obvious that your child has forgotten a certain social ritual, give a prompt. If, for example, your child forgets to extend his or her hand upon meeting an adult, quietly ask, "What are we supposed to do when we meet someone older than ourselves?" That gives the child the opportunity to do the right thing without feeling he or she is being criticized.

Last, but not least, set a good example. A "do as I say, not as I do" approach to manners simply won't work. Your children must see you setting a good example when it comes to manners. And by the way, manners are not a one-way street. If you want your children to behave in a mannerly way toward you, then you must behave in a mannerly way toward them as well.

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