Teaching good manners can seem like a lot of work, but it is as important as brushing teeth twice a day. As an etiquette expert who offers manners camp (Mrs. McVeigh's Manners), I have been helping children (including my own) practice etiquette for more than eight years. Any child can master the art of polite behavior. Just give it time; it will be rewarding when others note your child's respectful demeanor. Here are tried-and-true tips on how to help kids remember good manners on a daily basis.
Get Others on Board
Sometimes children are likely to listen to someone other than you. Seek out friends, family, and teachers for support. Explain why you want to enforce certain rules and encourage them to point out and practice acceptable manners at all times. If an uncle burps at the dinner table, have him say "Excuse me" or "Pardon me." If your children jump on the couch at Grandma's house, have her explain that jumping on furniture is impolite. For example, every summer, a friend of mine invites her niece to visit for several weeks and the niece always returns home using better manners. What my friend teaches her niece is no different than what the girl learned at home. This shows that a different messenger can be more effective than the same one who is heard all the time. If no one downplays bad manners, your kids won't either.
Use Positive Language
Some parents tell me they threaten their children with manners camp. The message they are sending is that learning manners is dreadful; however, it can be an enjoyable and positive experience, not an excruciating or punitive one. Tell your children all the benefits they will reap from having good social graces, from being invited on more playdates to having more success in getting what they want when speaking to others, including adults. Affirmative language is always a better motivator than negative language. Use "good" words such as fun, exciting, and rewarding instead of boring, dull, and ridiculous.
Try Out Silly Tricks
Imitate your child using bad manners in a silly way. If he asks for something in a whiny voice without saying "please," repeat the words back to him in a funny, exaggerated whiny voice along with exaggerated gestures and facial expressions. If you imitate his "wrong" behavior, with a goofy smile on your face, you will get a big laugh. You don't have to be a full-time comedian to be funny. After the hilarity, discuss better ways to ask for things plus other appropriate behaviors, or read children's books about etiquette such as The Berenstain Bears Forget Their Manners or Richard Scarry's Please and Thank You Book.
Prepare for various situations in which your kids need to demonstrate propriety. Pretend you're meeting someone for the first time and practice shaking hands. Act out a playground scenario in your backyard where a child has been on the swings too long, ignoring others who are waiting. Show how you would politely ask the child to give everyone else a turn. Or pretend you are both shopping at the supermarket, and have your child practice saying "Excuse me" if he needs to navigate past someone in an aisle. With practice, your child will have the confidence to approach any situation that calls for courteous and civil decorum.
Eat Dinner as a Family
Families who eat together typically have a happier and more cohesive unit. Dinners are also perfect situations for practicing table etiquette, such as learning how to handle utensils, chewing properly, and making appropriate conversation. The dinner table is a great place to get children to try new foods they may encounter outside the home -- at a restaurant, for instance, or a friend's house. By slowly introducing new meals, your child has an opportunity to experience and eat new things in a secure environment. This will encourage him to be open and excited about new dishes and situations. If he doesn't like the food, teach him how to decline it without making a big fuss. Advise him on how to compliment the cook and to eat as much as he can, perhaps in small and slow bites, and to announce politely when he is full.
Make the Little Moments Count
Practice the p's and q's on a daily basis by writing thoughtful thank-you notes after receiving a gift, eating quietly at a restaurant, and holding doors open for other people. Before my children were ready for prime time at a fancy restaurant, I took them to kid-friendly places. Eating out became a lesson: My kids had to be proper in a public setting before graduating to a more adult environment. Teach your kids how to quietly look at the menu, place orders or inquire about changing orders, and display table manners. You can also take kids to a mall when shopping, another public setting where you can give good behavior a test run.
Involve Your Child's Ideas
Always be on the lookout for learning opportunities. When one of my children used to point out scenarios where someone displayed bad manners, I would ask him what he thought that person should have done differently. Discuss various situations, and let your child provide suggestions on how he would display a different attitude. Ask what words he can use to sound respectful and polite when talking to an adult like you, a teacher, a family member, or a stranger. Ask your child to share his ideas with you, and then encourage him to implement them as soon as possible. Ask him to report what happens and if the outcome was positive.
Practice Makes Perfect
A key to learning anything new is repetition, so it's important to practice again and again. Insist that he always say "please" and "thank you," or that he takes turns setting the table or be the first to shake hands with adults. If a child forgets to say the magic words, try this tactic: Thank him for his request, and then ask him if he could please repeat it, emphasizing the bolded words when you speak. He will realize that he forgot to say the magic words. If he complains about having to set the table, suggest timing him to see how fast he can get the task done (and make sure neatness counts). If he forgets to put his hand out when meeting someone, gently move his hand toward the other person and help him shake if needed. With persistence, the repetition will pay off, and your child will soon have incorporated these good habits into his daily life.