Teaching Your Child How to Politely Interact with Adults

Manners matter when addressing adults. Here's how to help your child master the meet and greet

Illustration by Yasmeen Ismail

In her recent bestseller Bringing Up Bébé (Penguin) author Pamela Druckerman devotes a good portion of a chapter to describing how French toddlers are taught the importance of acknowledging adults and other children with a sincere “Bonjour” and “Au revoir” at the beginning and end of each social encounter. These simple words are more than just greetings, notes Druckerman; they signify civility and politeness—traits that French adults, she says, hold in high regard. So much so that should a child not extend one, it is considered bad manners, or worse, a sign of poor parenting.

Christine Giorno of Toronto says her boys (13, 11 and eight) are pretty good at exchanging pleasantries with adults. “They will make eye contact most of the time and answer whatever question posed. We don’t let them ignore people so they know they have to do it. As for their friends, I’d say about half are outgoing and will answer and look at you and the other half are too shy and you can just tell they don’t want to do the small talk thing.”

Admittedly, interacting with adults can be uncomfortable for some children this age, who may be self-conscious. But teaching them the social graces, such as a how to make a proper introduction and how to speak clearly, will benefit a child in the long run, says Toronto-based etiquette expert Louise Fox, who also holds manner classes for children. “These good habits are important now, but as teens or adults, they are essential to help your child stand out as being confident and self-assured.”

Saying Hello
A quick “Hi” may satisfy some people, but a “Hello” with eye contact, a smile and possibly a handshake makes a far more favourable impression, says Fox. (“Hello” followed by “My name is…” is even better if meeting someone for the first time, she says.) Mastering a proper greeting can be daunting at first, so Fox encourages parents to model the behaviour they want their child to emulate and to practice greetings in a stress-free situation. Role play is an effective tool, she says. How would your child introduce herself to her new school principal? Or even the Queen? All this prep will hopefully alleviate any need to address any manner missteps in public. “Correcting is not good,” says Fox. “It is better to tell your child what type of behaviour is expected, practice at home beforehand and make it fun and positive.”

Addressing Adults
You may be fine with your child being on a first-name basis with an adult, or you may insist on her using mister and missus—it really is a matter of preference. Danielle Eveleigh, a Toronto mom of three, says she struggles with teaching her boys, ages 10, eight and six, how to greet adults. “If I call my friend by her first name in front of my kids, they know her as that, so if I said ‘Go ask Mrs. Smith…’ for whatever reason, they’d wonder who I was talking about until they figured it out.” She says she is making the effort to teach her sons to use mister and missus for adults they have just met or who prefer it. “I know some people think it creates an unnecessary barrier between kids and adults, but I think it’s just basic manners.” Eveleigh says she likes how adults are addressed in the southern United States. “When I was a teen, I went to Louisiana and the kids referred to the grown-ups as Miss Meg, or whatever, which I like. I’ve tried that with the boys, but it hasn’t stuck.” Even if you think mister and missus is somewhat old-fashioned, it is the best way for your child to start out, agrees Fox. “We are so casual here in North America, but using first names would be seen as disrespectful in other countries. So it is best to teach children to use the proper title until someone says ‘Please, call me by my first name.’”

Engaging in Conversation
Once your child has mastered the greeting, the next step is to teach her to reply to the polite questions that often follow. Eveleigh says she often has to remind her boys to expand on their one-word answers. If an adult asks something in particular, such as “How is school?” encourage your child to answer with one or two complete thoughts such as, “I really like my teacher this year” and “I made the cross-country team.” If she wants to elaborate, she can. “You want your child to be heard,” says Fox, so remind her to make eye contact and speak clearly. And praise your child for her attempts at introductions and maintaining a conversation, says Fox. “It’s always better for a child to try it and make a few mistakes than to not do it at all.”

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