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The Matter of Manners
When professionals formulate developmental goals for young children, “having good manners” rarely makes the list. But most parents consider this to be a very important area of development and would put such behavior at or near the top of their list of desirable skills. They know that well-mannered children will make a good impression on others, and they want their children to be able to do that.

I’m not talking about mature and idealistic behavior that demonstrates a complete grasp of moral and ethical principles. Rather, I am simply referring to the small acts that take place in everyday life to signify social skills—or what we used to call “etiquette.”

Reflect for a moment on whether you have observed any of the following behaviors recently in young children:
  • Bobby rushes in to the living room, where his mother and a friend are talking, and interrupts the conversation to demand that his mother take him outside immediately.
  • Marsha steps on her grandmother’s foot and hurries on to where she was going without apologizing or asking if grandmother’s foot hurts.
  • Harry opens a gift his father had brought home from a trip, looks at it briefly and hands it back to his dad, saying, “I don’t like that. It isn’t what I wanted.”
  • Jeannie wears a new dress to school, and most of the children tell her it’s pretty. Ellen walks over and says, “Your dress is ugly.”

We could all think of many similar examples. Such behavior is rude, and it isn’t likely to win any admirers for the children who display it.

Interestingly enough, most older people will tell you that such behavior is more common today than it used to be, and I am one of them. It would be impossible to verify or refute such a claim, as there are no reports of the frequency of such behavior at different points in history. People who hold this position blame it on the increased permissiveness that has characterized parenting over the past 50 years. While that may be a factor, there are other changes in our culture that predispose young children to appear to be selfish and rude. Certainly our TV programs provide plenty of examples.

Thank goodness we no longer live in a “Children Should Be Seen and Not Heard” culture. We want children to be seen and heard. But we also want them to be able to quiet down, let others speak, eat in a refined way, show appreciation and respect for others, and acquire behaviors that will enable them to make and keep friends.

There are three different levels of complexity in the manners we want our children to acquire. I call them Rote, Rule and Right manners.

Rote Manners
Rote manners are the earliest manners we can teach our children. We should begin encouraging these as soon as they use any words or word approximations, which usually occurs during the second year of life.

The most common early expressions are “Please” and “Thank you,” with “I’m sorry” and “Excuse me” coming soon thereafter. The latter two should not be expected until the child is putting together short two-word sentences (“Me go,” “Want milk”) although each expression may come forth as a single word, such as “Sor-wy” for “I’m sorry” and “Coos” for “Excuse me.”

It is easy for a mother to relate the requested phrase to her behavior or to the child’s behavior, and that is important. For example, after the child can say, “Milk,” mom can request, “Say ’Milk, please.’” Remember that you are requesting a two-word phrase and that these don’t appear much before 2 years, so don’t make too big an issue of it.

Another caution I want to offer about being too diligent in teaching these early types of good manners comes from my own experience.

When my son was about 18 months old, I worked hard on “please” and “thank you.” If we were playing on the floor and he rolled a ball to me, I would say, “Thank you.” Then, when I handed or rolled it back to him, I would request, “Say thank you to mother.” It was really very dumb on my part, for soon he was calling everything a “taku,” which was as close as he could come to “thank you.” In other words, he thought I was telling him the name of the object was “thank you”; he was probably quite confused that so many different objects had the same name! So be sure you wait until a child clearly demonstrates that he or she knows the name of an object. Otherwise it may appear to him that you’re naming that object a “thank you.”

Rule Manners
The next level of manners, Rule manners, is very close to, and builds on, the first level, but it applies whatever teaching is done to more complex situations, in which the child has to consider more than one thing simultaneously.

At this level the child is not expected to understand fully why a certain pattern of behavior is requested but, nevertheless, should be able to follow a rule set down by parents or teachers.

After her son snatches one of his toys from a visiting friend, for example, his mother takes the toy away from him and says, “When a friend comes to see you, you must share your toys.” A teacher says to a child who always pushes to the front of the line, “Different children get to be at the front of the line on different days. This is not your day.”

In teaching the rules, which usually happens when a child is between 2 and 4 years old, adults go beyond the Rote manner level, helping the child move to the final level of good manners.

Right Manners
This final level emerges in children between the ages of 3 and 5. At this stage we want children to develop good manners because it is the right thing to do. When you use the word “right” in talking about manners, you are letting the concept of manners spill over into the domain of morals.

And I think they do. Most of the things we think of as “good manners,” even table manners, reveal a concern for others: not interrupting, not being rude or ugly, being courteous, pleasing parents, apologizing for inadvertent injury, for verbal or physical abuse of another person, etc. I like to call these “Golden Rule” behaviors in that they all reflect the child’s ability to project himself into the thoughts and feelings of other people.

We can’t “do unto others” until we realize that other people have the same feelings we have—an awareness that infants and toddlers don’t seem to possess. When this awareness develops, children can begin to take others’ feelings into consideration, which is what good manners are all about—adapting to family and cultural standards and respecting other people’s feelings.

We shouldn’t expect to see such behavior routinely in our children until near the end of the preschool years. As they advance, we will see evidence that they are internalizing the rules they have been taught. That means they won’t have to be reminded every time a behavioral choice is to be made.

Teaching Manners
We teach good manners to our children in two simple ways: (1) by what we say to do, and do with and to them and (2) what we model for them. At the Rote level, they are dependent on us to tell them what we want them to say or do, just as they are dependent on us to tell them the names of objects in order for them to learn language. At the Rule level, it is important that we explain the reason for the rule we are stating: “Jeremy won’t want to come see you anymore if you don’t share your toys with him.”

But, even more than what we say to them, they are dependent on what we do to indicate what we want them to do. If we talk with food in our mouths, telling our children not to do so will have little effect. If we command roughly, “Give me that glass,” our children are not very likely to soften a request they make by adding, “please.” If the adults in the family fail to use good manners in their reactions to one another – never saying, “please” or “thank you,” for example – this will leave an impression on the children that will be difficult to counteract simply by demanding that they do so. “Don’t do as I do; do what I say” doesn’t work any better in teaching manners than it does in teaching anything else.

So, as our children move through the early years, let’s remember that manners matter. In fact, although people seldom classify them in this way, good manners are as important as any of the other basic skills children must acquire during their early years. The levels discussed here—Rote, Rule, and Right—represent an alternate “Three R’s” that should not be neglected as we help our children grow and develop.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education