Teaching “polite”

polite, manners, etiquette
“Polite” means asking for something instead of demanding. iStock photo.

In a world filled with incivility and vulgarity, how do we teach young children to be polite? Being polite is more than saying “please” and “thank you,” although that is part of it. It is asking for something instead of demanding. It is answering a question when asked. It is saying hello and goodbye to others when coming and going. Ultimately it is also talking respectfully about a problem instead of melting down or lashing out.

In teaching polite, respectful behaviors, we first need to consider what is going on developmentally with our little ones as they build relationships with others outside the family. Then we need to tackle the habits they have developed in the ways they talk to us at home.

Two-year-olds are struggling with developing language skills. They understand more than they can express. If you want them to ask nicely for things, model and teach a two-word request: “Water, please.” If you insist they say, “May I have some water please?” you are not going to get it on a regular basis. If you always say “thank you” when they give you something, you will hear them start to do the same. The key to politeness at this age is to model it yourself – with others and with them.

Feeling shy is the main reason many young children appear impolite. They may feel they are being put on the spot when asked a question, so they hide behind a parent or become oppositional because they feel uncomfortable. Don’t push a 3-year-old to look visitors in the eye and greet them.

Practice it at home, play it out with dolls and sing songs about saying hello and goodbye. By the time they are 4 they will be more able to do it with others.

At preschool, children learn to wait for a turn to speak, find a teacher when they need something (instead of shouting across the room) and ask for things (instead of demanding). They learn to answer when people talk to them. But they often go home and forget those lessons when communicating with their parents.

Because we have been with our children from the beginning, we sometimes lose track of the times in their development when we should tighten up and teach the next level of mutual respect. Children who have been in the habit of yelling for mom from another room can be told at age 3 or 4, “you are ready to come find me” or “you are ready to use your eyes and see if I am busy” or “you can wait until I am done; then I will help you.”

As with any other skill, teach before you discipline. Explain how you want to be asked for things, model it, point it out when others do it and thank children when you get it. Ask children to repeat themselves or try it again as a first, mild form of correction. By the time children are 5, they should be able to distinguish rude from polite and it is time to hold them more accountable. Time outs and re-dos are particularly effective.

Within the family, addressing a sticky area with a “let’s figure this out” approach helps a lot with calming children so they can talk politely. Parents fret about bedtime, morning routines, eating or whatever and sometimes the situations escalate so that there is a lot of rude, combative opposition from children and not-so-polite responses from parents. Talking about the problem at a time when it is not happening – when everyone is calm – and then making a plan can impact overall on interchanges between parents and children throughout the day.

It should be noted that much of children’s television, especially Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, shows rude, yelling behaviors and language. Noggin [now Nick, Jr.] and The Disney Channel do a better job of teaching respectful talk among children, and within families.