What Are Good Manners for Kids, Anyway?
We set out to write an article on good manners for kids: when parents can reasonably expect them, and how to instill them. But as we reflected on what that list of good manners might be, we started to question the underlying assumptions inherent in creating that list.
First, while all parents might agree that having children with good manners is a reasonable goal, they would probably disagree about what those manners for kids are, or when they might expect children to reflect them. The truth is, every culture — and every family — across the world might have dramatically different ideas of what good manners are. (Case in point: good table manners in North America would dictate that kids would eat with cutlery; in India, kids with good table manners might eat with their hands just as often as with utensils.)
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When most parents talk about good manners for their kids, usually what they are referring to is raising children who embody kindness, empathy, and respect for others. This is a very different thing than raising children who obediently do exactly what you want them to, in the moment you want it.
Of course, there are some behaviors that could be classified as “good manners,” such as saying please and thank you, tidying up after oneself, sitting nicely at the table while eating, and not interrupting, that can be taught and are developmentally perfectly appropriate by late toddlerhood/early childhood. But again, these behaviors are part of a larger learning environment where values like empathy, independence, and responsibility are consistently valued and reinforced.
Given the right role models, who genuinely embody these so-called good manners (even when they think no one is watching!), kids will pick them up very quickly. It’s all about setting the expectation for these behaviors, positively reinforcing them (the only way to really affect behavioral change long term), and ensuring kids see you doing the things that you expect of them.
Recall our previous writing on discipline and the pitfalls of ascribing unspecific descriptions to your kids’ behavior. There is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” child; there are only children who respond to the specific cues you give them. So if you see a behavior you want to see more of, praise that specific action. Kids won’t magically know that saying “sorry” when they’ve hurt someone is a sign they’re a good person; rather, they will gather this is the kind, empathetic thing to do from the behavior you model and reinforce.
There’s no universal barometer of good manners. They are what your family decides they are. And only you know the values you want to emphasize in your household. So don’t worry about your kid measuring up to an ideal that doesn’t exist; just focus on setting the standard that you want to see in the little people you’re raising.