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Sonoma Family Life Magazine

Mini Manner Lessons for Kids

By Jill Morgenstern

Most of us hope to raise children who are a pleasure to be around, people who take others into account and use common courtesy. How do we lay the foundations for respectful manners and etiquette? It begins earlier than one might imagine.

Ages 0–3 Infants may not have language abilities, but they are always learning, taking in what they hear and see. So model good manners. Let them hear you say “thank you” to the grocery store cashier or “please” when you speak to them. As they begin to learn words, ask them to say “please” or “thank you” when they interact with you.

Family dinners are perfect places for little ones to watch and mimic your behavior. Infants may be too young to pass the peas, but they’re not too young to notice how nicely you asked. As they get older and their attention span increases, kids can begin to understand that others have the same feelings, wants, and needs that they do. Play dates are good times to introduce toddlers to the concepts of taking turns and being kind to others. 

Ages 3–5 As toddlers grow into preschoolers, family meals continue to be an important time to teach manners. Your child can begin to learn to take turns during conversation, appropriate ways to behave when they don’t like what’s being served, and how to show appreciation for the food they do enjoy. While children of this age range may begin to use manners, it is too early to expect consistency. For example, they may understand the concept of waiting their turn to speak way before they have the impulse control necessary not to interrupt.

Children learn better when they aren’t feeling the pressure to perform. And picture books (see box, “The Picture of Etiquette”) are great instruction tools. For example, if your children often interrupt conversations, pick a time when they are not bursting with information to share and then pull out David Ezra Stein’s book Interrupting Chicken. The humorous tale about a little chicken who ruins story time with his continuous interruptions will provide a good springboard for discussing conversational manners, at a time when your kids can be relaxed enough to absorb the information.

Ages 5–12 Elementary-aged children are capable of understanding what’s expected of them, and they are more able to control their impulses. You can reasonably expect kids of this age range to: say “please” and “thank you” without being prompted; say “excuse me” or “sorry”; greet people when they arrive and say “goodbye” when they leave; and share and take turns like a pro. If you’re really lucky, they’ll even keep their fingers out of their food! Of course, there is a big difference between a kindergartener and a fifth grader; you’ll see more consistent behaviors as kids get older.

Ages 13–19 Gigi Lewis, owner of the manners-education company Club Etiquette, says teenagers build on the manners they’ve already assimilated. New behaviors may include self-introduction, and formal and informal dining etiquette as well as interview skills, and relational skills such as self-respect and boundaries. 

Freelance writer Jill Morgenstern has 13 years of teaching experience as well as a master’s degree in teaching reading. She has four children.