Raising a Polite Child


“Please; thank you; how do you do?” In our fast-paced, increasingly casual society, little marks of courtesy make a big impression. Every mother wants to raise a child to grow up into a kind, considerate, happy person comfortable in the society around them. Here are some tips for raising a polite child and teaching those important social skills early on.


When to Start Teaching Your Child Manners

Although it will take years to completely master all the nuances of polite, respectful behavior, starting early and being consistent will pay big dividends later. Between the ages of 2 and 5, children are most receptive to learning codes of conduct. At this age, they have a strong desire to please their parents and are soaking up everything in their environment, says parent educator Chris Buker.

Start with simple courtesies and expand your expectations as they grow. Some courtesies such as staying seated during dinner and chewing with their mouths closed are easy to understand. Once they’ve mastered simpler expectations, try and expand the list to include other courtesies like greeting strangers, shaking hands, covering their mouth when coughing/nose when sneezing or saying excuse me when applicable.

When Sherry, a mom of two boys, started to see her boys pointing and asking for things around age 2, she introduced phrases such as “Please” and “Thank you.” She tackled table manners, too.

“I started teaching them to wait until everyone got to the table to eat,” says Sherry. They also have to ask to be excused and must clear their dishes. Chewing with their mouths open and talking while eating has also been addressed. Her oldest, Zachary, is doing pretty well at these, while Hunter requires constant conversation.



How to Teach Your Child Good Manners

What’s important is to be specific about your expectations. For instance, when you go out for dinner, say what you want you to see, and state specifics, says Carl Chenkin, Ph.D. child psychologist. This removes any ambiguity in your child’s mind and gives him opportunities to succeed. Likewise, if your child is venturing into an unfamiliar setting, coach him on what to expect and what your expectations for his behavior will be.

Offering incentives can help provide motivation for polite behavior, and one method is to create a manners sticker chart. Focus on one or two manners at a time and offer stickers for desired behavior. When your child has a good grasp on those, add new ones to the chart.

Role playing may also help. It’s a fun way to introduce a variety of social skills.

Role playing may also help. It’s a fun way to introduce a variety of social skills. Use play phones to teach telephone etiquette, or let kids practice greeting and shaking hands with their stuffed animals and dolls. A day or two before going out for a nice dinner, make a special meal with good dishes at home. Encourage your child to get dressed up, then play out the scenario so she knows what to expect.

Sherry’s boys have found this to be beneficial. If there’s a situation they are unfamiliar with, we coach them ahead of time on what to expect, she says. Just recently we celebrated my grandfather’s 97th birthday, and there were a lot of relatives the kids hadn’t met. Before leaving home, we reminded them to shake people’s hands when they were introduced, to not interrupt conversations and to say their pleases and thank yous. 

Other Ways to Practice Good Manners

Childrens’ books that focus on manners can also help reinforce refinement skills, as can television and movies. This has been Amy R.’ experience. While watching television one day, her 4 ½-year-old son, Nicholas, pointed out a scene where a group of kids was having a food fight. 

He said, “Mommy, they aren’t supposed to throw food, that’s bad manners!” By making him aware of manners, he started up a great conversation on his own. “He’s pointed out situations in public, too,” Amy added. “Just recently, we were in a restaurant and another child was having a bad moment. Nicholas said, Mommy, that boy is standing in his seat and yelling and throwing food; he’s hurting my ears!” I said, “You’re right. That’s bad manners.”

When you see others displaying either good or bad manners, it can be used as a teaching tool, says Chenkin. Just make sure you dont contrast another child’s good manners with your child’s bad behavior. Rather, simply praise the other child’s good manners so you aren’t counterproductive. 

Even after he has been grounded in social graces, your child may need a few gentle reminders. When he forgets to use eating utensils, offer a one-word cue such as fork. If he’s picking his nose, say, “Would you like a tissue?” If this doesn’t bring the desired response, wait and discuss it in private so as not to shame or embarrass him.

When you do see your child practicing polite behavior, be sure to praise him, as this will build confidence and self-esteem, and reinforce skills you are teaching him. You want your child to feel good about these new skills, so rather than lecturing him about what he isn’t doing, offer positive reinforcement when he does display good manners. Verbal praise, a hug or a high five goes a long way. 

You want your child to feel good about these new skills, so rather than lecturing him about what he isn’t doing, offer positive reinforcement when he does display good manners.

Amy does this. When she joined her son for a recent classroom party, another mother privately pointed out Nicholas’s well-mannered behavior. He was sitting there with his hands folded, quietly encouraging the other kids to settle down, says Amy. When the students got up to get their food, I told him, “You were being good and doing what the teacher told you to do. I’m very proud of you.” His face lit up at the praise.

Above all, be consistent with rules and expectations. Consistency sends the message that these behaviors you’re expecting from your child are important enough to use all the time, not just occasionally. If your child isn’t allowed to stand on his seat at the table tonight, follow through with your expectation tomorrow night.

And remember to mind your own Ps and Qs. It’s important to live by example, because our kids are always watching us. For more parenting and education-based articles, see our Health, Education, Family Fun and Food & Home sections.

Books to Help Teach Good Manners

Books for Children

The Berenstain Bears Forget Their Manners by Stan and Jan Berenstain
Cliffords Manners by Norman Bridwell
Emilys Everyday Manners by Peggy Post
Excuse Me! by Karen Katz
Grovers Guide to Good Manners by Constance Allen
How to Speak Politely and Why by Munro Leaf
Madeline Says Merci by John Bemelmans Marciano
Manners by Aliki
Manners are Important for You and Me by Todd Snow
Monster Manners by Bethany Roberts
Perfect Pigs: An Introduction to Manners by Marc Brown and Stephen Krensky
Please is a Good Word to Say by Barbara Joosse

Books for Parents

365 Manners Kids Should Know by Sheryl Eberly
Emily Posts The Gift of Good Manners: A Parents Guide to Raising Respectful, Kind, Considerate Children by Peggy Post
Miss Manners Guide to Rearing Perfect Children by Judith Martin


DENISE MORRISON YEARIAN is the former editor of two parenting magazines, a freelance writer who focuses on parenting issues and the mother of three children.


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