The days when children were seen and not heard are long gone, but that doesn’t mean good manners are a thing of the past. And with the holidays fast approaching, the last thing you want is for your little one to be remembered as “that kid” who didn’t sit still at the family dinner, proclaimed everything being served as “gross,” and capped off the meal with a burp at the table without so much as an “excuse me.”
Preschoolers seem pretty self-centred sometimes, but they can master basic manners and courtesy. “Empathy starts at birth,” says Louise Fox, owner of The Etiquette Ladies, which teaches social graces to children, youth and teens. “Young children can understand the concept of thinking of the other person first.”
Kids aged three to five should be using “please,” “thank you” and “excuse me” in their proper context. They should also know not to play with or throw their food at the table, how to say “no thank you” when being offered something they don’t want, and learn how to hold their knife and fork, although they may need a little help. ““Squirmin Wormin’ is one of the table monsters we talk about in our classes,” says Fox. “Children should learn to stay at the table until they’re finished eating, and then ask to be excused.”
It Starts at Home
Heather Cook, a mother of two from Calgary, started teaching her son Michael, 6, early on that it’s important to be polite to guests because they want visitors to feel special in their home, and want them to come back. “We label actions as “polite’ or “rude’ or “sometimes okay ‘ and discuss behaviours that might fall into each category.” Michael is learning that manners aren’t just about words — they’re about how your words make someone else feel.
Good manners aren’t just for visitors either. “Manners and courtesy are important in daily life,” says Fox. “If kids develop and use these habits at home, they’ll be more likely to show off their good behaviour everywhere they go.”
One of the most effective methods of teaching children about manners is to set an example by being polite with and around them. “When I started being more vigilant about practicing manners with Michael, he became better at practicing them with his friends and other adults,” says Cook.
Surviving the Holidays
Kids are more likely to forget what they’ve learned when they’re stressed, tired or cranky — factors that might come into play during the busy holiday season. “Anticipate problems,” says Fox, “and try to prevent them by making sure kids are rested and up to the challenge that holiday events might present.”
That means teaching your child how to accept gifts graciously. “Before we open any, we discuss what to say if he already has it, or doesn’t like the gift,” says Cook who explains, “Saying “thank you’ is always appropriate!” Thank-you notes should always be sent after a gift is received. Preschoolers can start by drawing a picture of the gift they received, or colouring in a pre-printed note that Mom or Dad makes on the computer. Turn it into a fun art activity rather than making it a chore.
And when kids do forget their p’s and q’s? “Don’t nag,” says Fox. Kids don’t like to be embarrassed or humiliated in public. Instead, take your child aside later, whisper a reminder if you can do it subtly, or even develop a family code word to point out that they’re forgetting to be polite. Be realistic about your kid’s ability to retain what they’ve learned — consistency and a positive example will get the message across eventually.
Shelley Divnich Haggert is happy to say her three daughters are usually on their best behaviour.