You want kids to internalize basic courtesy. But you don’t want them to be snobs who choose their friends according to who knows the difference between a fish knife and a salad knife. Here’s my Top Ten list for raising polite children:
1. Set an Example. That should go without saying, but a surprising number of parents are chronically sharp-tongued with their children (or with everyone), then wonder why the kids just won’t speak politely to adults. It’s a near-universal rule that your children will do as you do.
2. Put Respect for Others First. That means not only teaching your kids to show respect for adults, but you treating your own children with respect. And it means everyone respects the feelings and personal space of peers, service workers, and anyone else who could be affected by your attitudes.
3. Emphasize Patience. Especially when in a hurry, it’s easy to treat others with “Outta my way” or “Don’t you know anything??!” impatience. Besides verbally emphasizing patience and respect, reduce temptation by not overloading schedules.
4. Appreciate the Value of Paying Attention. Look at your kids (and everyone else) when they’re talking to you; and always let them finish what they’re saying, even if you think you already understand. Anything less sends a “you’re not worth respecting” message.
5. Allow for Differences of Opinion. Don’t overdo “this is right, that is wrong” emphases; many behavioral “rules” are simply customs that differ from subculture to subculture. If you’re too strict about details, you invite children to look down on others who do things differently.
6. Know the Difference Between Rudeness and Healthy Assertiveness. To many people, “politeness” means never saying no—which leads some to scorn the whole idea of etiquette. It’s not that hard to turn down an unreasonable request firmly, yet politely. Just state, “Sorry, I can’t” and stick to that, without insulting the other person or making a big deal over the why-nots.
7. Beware “Etiquette Cop” Syndrome. Some people—young children especially—are so proud of learning the “right thing to do” that they develop the habit of telling others, unsolicited, not to do it. Make it part of the etiquette lesson that, unless someone is under your direct supervision or causing genuine danger, the polite thing to do is ignore bad manners. (And when someone is under your direct supervision, make a point of delivering any needed corrections in non-embarrassing, polite ways.)
8. Practice Good Health and Grooming. Yes, this does have to do with good manners, and not just because many people find an ungroomed appearance offensive. It’s much easier to be positive and care about others’ feelings when you feel good both in general energy levels and in how you look.
9. Treat Property Right. Emphasize that this includes public property: no dropping litter on the grass, writing in library books, or tossing sharp objects onto padded bus seats.
10. Do Know the Standard Etiquette Rules. After the above basics are understood, make a game of learning “what’s expected when” specifics. You might use a children’s etiquette book with quiz sections. Just remember that good manners, like everything else, are learned best when the learning is fun!