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

Guest post by Hunny

This is how we dress nice for special stuff…
“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. Living in the south, you see kids with manners a lot more than you do in the north, but it’s still few and far between. I’ve taught my children (ages 3, 5, and 6) to say excuse me, please, thank you, yes ma’am, yes sir, etc, since they were old enough to talk. And I completely agree, the one surefire way to teach them is to use them with your child. If one of my girls comes to me with a question or trying to get my attention, I say yes ma’am. Many people think that it’s odd to call a child ma’am or sir, but to me, it’s the best way to teach them to be respectful. And it’s worked! My son won’t walk within two feet of someone at the grocery store without saying “Excuse me!”…he gets odd looks because it’s not like he’s walking into them, but many people have stopped me to tell me how adorable it is that they’re so polite and friendly 🙂 Great job, keep up the good work!

  2. I like this post a lot! We use a combo of positive reinforcement with forcing it (even if my daughter is in a bad mood or not happy about a situation, she WILL say please and thank you). My husband and I have agreed that manners is a very important issue for us. We never ever want a rude kid. It is great reading how others are handling it with all the different kinds of personalities out there.

  3. Great advice! My son just discovered the word no and likes to use it. Of course he picks it up from me and others so we now try to say no in other ways and always encourage him to say no thank you.

  4. my daughter was one when she surprised me by saying thank you the first time. we were at a restuarant and the waiter refilled her tiny glass of water her little voice chirped “dank yu” please isn’t coming as naturally.

  5. I don’t have kids, and I know I’m late in posting on this topic, but in my freshman year of high school, I was actually made fun of by peers for saying please and thank you to the point that my teacher had to call my mom and tell her about it.

  6. I’m an American expat living in Norway with my Norwegian husband. Obviously our future children will be bilingual/bicultural. That being said, as much as I love where I live, Norwegians are known for not being a polite people. I’m a little nervous about raising my children in an environment where ‘no, ma’am’ and ‘yes, sir’ are non-existent.
    I’m an old-fashioned Midwestern girl, I guess…offbeat or no! I’ve just resolved already that future children will be raised with my family’s manners when they speak English, and as much genteel speak as the Norwegian language can offer when they speak Norwegian…even if that makes them the odd ones out!

  7. I know it’s been said, but I want to emphatically agree with leading by example with everyone we encounter. And I do in fact completely agree that when we don’t look the part of the perfect suburban family, it drives us to be even more polite than usual to begin with (even if it raises my hackles to admit the necessity). At any rate, Nicely done, madam!

  8. What to do with sir/ma’am in a world of gendered and transgendered people? I ask because this has come up a few times in the last week on my FB newsfeed. I’m currently living in the South, but was born and raised in the pacific Northwest, so this whole sir/ma’am thing is totally weird for me. Lots of people here are adamant about using sir/ma’am and love it for a variety of reasons…but a few are starting to wonder how to use these terms of respect (in their opinion) without disrespecting some set of the population. Thoughts?

    • Related: This 3-year-old knows more about gender than you do:

      “Hi I’m Alec, are you the babysitter? Mommy said that we can go to the park if you want to and feed the ducks. Do you like legos?”
      “Yep, hi, my name is Andy.” I said, kneeling down, “Let me talk to one of your parents first, ok?”
      While I was saying this, Alec was looking me up and down.
      “Yeah ok, hey, Andy, do you use boy words or girl words, or the other words but I can’t really ‘amember them?”
      I looked curiously at his mom, Amelia, who was busy tiding up the table.
      “Oh,” she said, “he can’t remember the word ‘pronouns.'”
      “Ah,” it clicked, “I use boy words. What about you?”
      “I use boy words, too. Do you like legos?”
      “Of course I do!”

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