Raising Miss Manners: how I taught my toddler to be polite

Guest post by Hunny

This is how we dress nice for special stuff…
“Please.”
“Thank you.”
“Excuse me.”
“I’m sorry.”
“No thanks.”

These words are hard to come by in the twenty-first century. Have you held a door for a stranger recently? How did that go?

When it comes to small kids, they learn by rote. If you have ever heard a two-year-old count to 10, then you know the idea of each number being its own separate thing from the other nine numbers is a lost concept. It’s the same thing with manners — the meaning of those words isn’t always inherently understood, but they can learn to use them appropriately, for the most part.

Maybe I am old-fashioned, but I think that by teaching my children manners, even before they fully understand them, that I’m laying groundwork for a future where they show others respect, and are respectable. What’s more, I feel that because my family is unconventional in many ways, (we are multi-racial, pierced, tattooed, and can sometimes be seen wearing fur suits in public), that it’s even more important to observe conventional manners and etiquette. My reasoning may be flawed, but my family has to work hard for respect sometimes, because we are different. Manners, in my opinion, are a great way to show people that you plan on treating them decently and that you also expect to be treated decently.

The challenge is teaching these seemingly meaningless words and phrases to a child before he or she can fully grasp the concept; how do I instill the habit of saying “thank you” in my kids? In my day, we were not allowed to get what we asked for until we said please. Things were taken out of our hands if we forgot a thank-you. I remember my mom pinching me under my arm, discreetly, until I said “Sorry” to my little brother.

Eventually I did learn the meanings and purposes, but as a kid I was bent out of shape about being made to say words when often, I wasn’t sorry. My two-year-old, on the other hand, says “please,” “thank-you,” “no, thank-you,” and “I’m sorry,” and occasionally, “excuse me.” She uses these phrases appropriately, without prompting, bribery, cajoling, or arm pinches. I’m pretty proud, but I can’t take all the credit. She did a lot of it all on her own — she is just that kind of kiddo. Still, I think I have an idea of how she came to learn this stuff, and, how other kids can too:

*Start by making a conscious effort to use manners with the people in your child’s home.
Your partner, their siblings, the people you speak to on the phone, your extended family, and your friends. Instead of “Hon, get me a beer, ‘k?” make an effort to lead by example and say “Hon, can I please have a beer?” Just like the idea that infants and toddlers are ready to learn a second language through immersion, they can learn manners through immersion too.

*Use manners with your children.
I’m not saying ask your kids permission. You are still the parent, but you can still say please! “Please help me put on your socks. Please be gentle with the kitty,” etc. Say “I’m sorry that happened to you,” when they bite their tongue or miscalculate the edge of the couch. When you need them to scoot, say “excuse me.” When you don’t want them to put crayons in your mouth, say “no, thank-you.”

*When they remember their manners, show them that you appreciate it.
I don’t mean stickers or gummy bears, just “I heard you say thank-you to Joey. I liked that.”

It may not work for all families or all children, and it may or may not work better than demanding manners and forcing thank-you. I don’t know. I just know it’s working for my child, for now.

Comments on Raising Miss Manners: how I taught my toddler to be polite

  1. I think this is excellent and plan to teach my own little monkey how to be polite. It is funny thought, watching their process of how and when to use the terms. I have a friend with a very talkative 4-year-old, and if her mom and I are in a conversation and she wants to say something, she’ll say “Excuse me! Excuse me!” over and over again until one of us stops what we’re saying and lets her know that she needs to wait until one of us finishes a sentence before chiming in. She gets what “excuse me” means but doesn’t quiiite grasp the nuance involved 🙂 But the fact that her mom has taught her what to say when she wants to speak is way better than the child just not understanding social courtesy at all and being allowed to interrupt willy-nilly. I for one really appreciate it when I can see that a child is trying to be polite even when it doesn’t totally go as planned…that says to me that the parents are concerned with raising a considerate person, and that the child is taking that seriously and will in turn teach other kids by example.

  2. I know someone who is trying to teach their kid to say “please” and “thank you.” While out in public, it’s not fun to hear a mother screaming “SAY PLEASE! PLEEEEEASE!!” while the kid cries.

    I like your suggestions much better.

  3. I use similar methods on a co-worker who has a hard time using the words “please” and “thank-you”. 🙂

    • I do that too!! When I offered a friend a snack and he said no, I asked ” no, thank you?”… I felt like an asshole, but so did he!

  4. I feel exactly the same (since I am different, I make a more concerted effort to be polite). AND because my son has a speech delay and autism we make an even stronger “effort” to mirror politeness and kindness to him.

    He forgets and we keep mirroring and reminding (and yes, appreciating it when he does something polite). It’s a longer road, with a child who has speech delay/ autism, but really worth while!

  5. As a waiter, I thank you. It’s funny to see children who sometimes have better manners than their parents. More than once I’ve served a table where the children said please, thank you, and excuse me, but not the adults. It was priceless. Polite children always make my day.

    • It was probably their preschool/pre-K teacher who taught them to be polite! When I was working with the preschool kids, my coworker and I were discussing how rude the kids were and we decided to teach them manners, first in little ways. At lunch, every child was given an empty cup and I would come around with the juice and say “Would you like some juice?” They either had to say “Yes please” or “No, thank you.” If they just said “yea” I’d pass them by. It took very little time before these kids were being polite!

      • My mother-in-law is a preschool teacher, and you bet that the kids in her class are polite! She’s the sweetest woman, but she doesn’t take anything from her toddlers. 😛

  6. Love this! It makes my day to come across young’ns with good manners. A close friend’s son (7) likes to race to a door in order to open it for his mother, and it’s so refreshing!

    Also, setting the example works wonders! I’ve done this as a camp counselor, and now catch myself doing it to my dog: “Sit, please.” I’m convinced if she could speak, she would be all about the please-and-thank-yous! 🙂

    • I’m the same with my cat – I’m a nanny, and then I come home and offhandedly say, “Calcifer, please don’t scratch at that door.”
      …it doesn’t work.

      • I’ve asked my lizard to “Please eat your veggies before you get worms” but it’s not working either.

      • This doesn’t work on pups either!
        “Gracie, please don’t gnaw on mama’s dirty laundry.”
        It just doesn’t happen.

  7. Great article! My husband and I are both really polite, even by Canadian standards so I’m hoping that our kid will just mirror us that way. It’s a big part of who we are as people.

    I think that manners are a way of showing respect and kindness to everyone and its especially important to maintain those manners with the people you’re closest to, and people who aren’t normally given that kind of consideration, including kids (and homeless people, but that’s a whole other rant). Honestly, it amazes me how rude people can be to kids while at the same demanding that the kids be polite. Kids are people too and respect isn’t a one-way street. Thanks for writing this – I loved this article.

  8. I LOVE THIS: ‘I don’t mean stickers or gummy bears, just “I heard you say thank-you to Joey. I liked that.”‘

    It’s nice to know that kids can be rewarded without candy and doodads that get lost in the car anyhow. Also, so many people don’t voice positive thoughts anymore, I can see how this would be very rewarding to a child, and would be easy to keep up with as they grow older.

  9. Love this. I don’t particularly know how I ended up being so polite, but saying “please” and “thank you” and “yes sir” and “yes ma’am” come very easy to me (and my line of work). We do it with my son-thank him for giving someone a “gift”, and please would you pick up that block, and honestly, my husband and I have become a lot more polite with each other. And yes, off beat folks need to set an example that first impressions aren’t always correct.

  10. I am happy to see this post. Great suggestions…leading by example is so important. Many people seem to miss that these days.

  11. I try to do the same thing. I just say the words where they should appear in my own conversations with my daughter. She seems to be catching on. Once in a while I’ll ask her to say whatever word is appropriate for the situation (when we’re alone together mostly, I try not to “correct” her speech in public).

    It’s so sweet to hear a teeny little “scuse me” or “ank you” when they’re unpromted 🙂

  12. I feel a bit perplexed that this article even needs to be written. Obviously I know how rude people can be these days, but I practice good manners without thinking about it, and I guess I don’t understand why some (many?) adults just aren’t polite on the most basic level.
    I say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to anyone I speak to – my mother, my partner, a checkout operator – for anything, so naturally I say those things to my toddler, too. He’s not quite speaking yet, but when I give him something I prompt him with, ‘thank you, Mum’, and he repeats it in his own way, and I reply with ‘you’re welcome’, but I don’t, you know, withhold things until he says it and have it end up in a tantrum. Definitely the best way to teach kids anything is to lead by example.
    Sometimes I feel like an extremely rare breed, especially at only 23, to use social niceties regularly. It’s a bit sad.

  13. When I was in theater school, my stage management teacher said that the most important words for any stage manager to know were “Please,” “Thank you,” “Hello,” and “Goodbye.” Say Hello when you first see your coworkers and goodbye when they leave, and always treat them with appreciation, and 80% of the not being hated part of the job is done. I’d always had pretty good manners — the threat of having the holy hell beaten out of you for failing to have good manners is a very effective way to learn them — but after she told us that, I understood the value of it more.

    When I babysat, I had one pair of boys (8&11) who thought I was their slave. They went to a very exclusive, all-boys’ school that taught them how gentlemen behave, but didn’t teach them about compassion, respecting others, etc. Imagine the twins from The Social Network: very cultured and sophisticated, and total jerks. “Thank you, sir” to bus drivers, but “I’m hungry and I want a sandwich” to me. Well, I was the brook-no-nonsense kind of babysitter, and I’d just say mildly “Well, how about that.” They’d usually say “Ugh, fine, PLEASE get me a sandwich.” I’d tell them to try it again without being rude, and then, if they could stop ordering me around and actually ASK, I’d give them what they wanted. They were both old enough to make their own sandwiches anyway.

    • I wish your instructor had been at my university. It always felt like the stage managers had no manners, which then lead to actors and other folk resenting the SMs, which then lead to even bitchier SMs, and it was a terrible cycle. A well-timed please or thank-you here or there could have solved a lot of problems.

  14. I completely agree, the best way to lead is by example.

    My husband and I both use polite manners instinctively anyway, and our 2 year-old has definitely picked it up. She always says “please” and “thank you” and “bless you” when someone sneezes… but we’ve never once told her to do so, she just copies what she hears.

    Mind you, being shown this at home has also lead her to often say “thank you, darling!” and “have nice day, love you!” to bus drivers, shop assistants and other complete strangers.
    Oh, well!

  15. Definitely lead by example. I say please and thank you to my husband and my kids, and it gets returned easily and with no thought because it is ingrained in us all.
    As the ‘strange’ people at school and at large, we are noticed more because of our kids manners these days and you can tell it is appreciated by others, because they come and tell us. It’s fantastic to have people tell you how lovely your kids manners are, and ensures they’ll get that second playdate with their friends if they throw a ‘thank you for having me’ before they leave.

  16. Great advice, Hunny. We’ve been following similar “rules” since Miles was born and it’s really cute to see how he is already (at 16 months) spontaneously using polite words, before he can even really pronounce them. When he wants something he grins and says, “bees!” and often when you give him something that he’s excited about, he’ll say without prompting, “kyou!” and pat you on the hand.

    • Our guy too. We don’t hear “thank you” yet, but when we wants something he doesn’t know a word for he reaches toward it or points at it and says “Peas? Peas?”

  17. I have moved all around this country with little money and little family, and the thing that has always gotten me buy is a BIG smile and good manners.

  18. I don’t think your reasoning is flawed at all, as soon as you said it, I knew exactly how you felt. I am a very unconventional person too and living in West Virginia, no less, I am often openly stared at and laughed at about mine and my kids’ hair colors. I have always felt like I needed to go out of my way to be polite and courteous to others because my appearance, right down to the way i dress, has always been outlandish. It probably sounds silly but I felt like I was representing something. I wanted to prove to people that I deserved respect no matter what I looked like. So when I had my children, “please” and “thank you” were the first words we started teaching my son in sign language, right after “milk” and “more.” Thank you for this post, it’s nice to know I’m not alone and that manners aren’t a thing of the past.

  19. love Love LOVE this! My husband and his kids didn’t even know the words please and thank you, let alone what they were used for before I moved in! I can’t stand rude people and I ignored the eff outta them unless they spoke to me properly. It pissed em off, but they’re better people now because of it!

  20. I love this. My Mother taught us manners and it still makes me bonkers to this day that so few people can even bother to say ‘excuse me’ when they shove past you in the grocery store. I fully intend on teaching our little miss to have great manners.

  21. YES! When I hear kids not using manners I wonder how they get away with it, but then I hold the door for their folks and I don’t even get a smile, let alone a “thanks!”. I also totally get you on the importance of manners to a funky family. I always made a point of being super polite and being well read (with very good grades) when I was a teenager immersed in street punk with every-color hair and ratty clothes. In the end it is equally important for everyone to have good manners, but in a world where they’re being left behind alot it is especially pertinent for offbeat folk to hang on to them!

    Thank you for posting 😉

  22. Our girls are older now (12,10 & 8) and it’s been very interesting to watch the whole manners thing through their development. They ALWAYS said “please” and “thank you” when they were little, but, interestingly, it’s been harder as they’ve gotten older. I attribute this to two things: 1. where we live – NJ, between New York City and Philadelphia. Not the most overtly polite place. 2. TV – kids on television are constantly portrayed as snarky and disrespectful to, well, just about everyone but themselves. With some intense, but not dramatic, coaching they are remembering. -When we visit my parents in the Southern US, the manners return in full force because you hear them from almost everyone.

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