Teaching Manners, Ages 6 to 12
Editors' note: Cynthia Gorney's children are now adults, but her remarkable articles about teaching them kindness, curiosity and respect for other people are timeless.
How important is it to teach my child good manners?
These are the years when your child needs to learn the true meaning of good manners: that if she conducts herself considerately in all sorts of different situations, from visits with relatives to overnights with friends, people will enjoy -- and even seek out -- her company. Even a 6-year-old can grasp the idea that different scenarios call for specific sorts of behavior: A visit to a great-aunt requires a handshake, an appreciative taste of the homemade apple cake, and an audible "hello" and "goodbye"; a sleep-over demands respect for her friend's doll collection, help picking up the debris after the pillow fight, and an audible "thank you" to the host's mom. This is really important stuff for learning to get along in the world, around adults as well as the all-important kid friends.
How do I convince my child that good manners matter?
You don't have to. They're part of the rules for growing up: This is what's acceptable, this isn't. (You don't have to explain to your 8-year-old why she can't go to the supermarket naked, do you? Same deal.) As kids get older, they may question certain points of etiquette: Why am I supposed to shake hands? Why do I have to take my hat off in church? You can decide which customs you want to defend with situation-specific logic: We shake hands to make contact with someone we're meeting; we take our hats off to show respect for God. But the truth is that we observe most civilities because having a set of rules makes people feel more comfortable together. That's about as logical as the whole enterprise needs to get. You start adding some specifics later.
Also, never underestimate the power of your example. If you seem to place a high degree of importance on politeness yourself, your child will pick up that this is important. It may sound ridiculously simple, but polite parents have polite kids.
What table manners are realistic to expect at this age?
That depends to some extent on how formal your dinner table is. By the time they're 6 or 7 years old, kids should be following the same house rules their parents do -- not all the time, since the parents probably never surreptitiously drop peas in each other's milk glasses or stab each other with forks under the table.
But you're doing your child no favor if you shirk from laying out Table Manners 101: Wash your hands and take your hat off (and put your shirt on) before you sit down. Put your napkin on your lap. If you don't like what's being served, learn to eat it without complaint or decline politely: "I don't care for any eggplant, thanks." Don't talk with your mouth full. Chew with your mouth closed. Don't interrupt when somebody else is mid-sentence. Ask for the saltshaker and bread basket; don't lunge across somebody else's plate. Use your cutlery unless the meal includes designated finger food. Don't leave the table without asking to be excused. Repeating and enforcing these rules at dinner may seem like a hassle, but if your child doesn't get them down at home she's going to make a fool of herself at somebody else's house, and then she'll come home and say it's all your fault. For once she'll be right.
In other social situations, the level of formality you want is also key. If it's important to you that your child greets people with "Pleased to meet you," then, by all means, teach her to do so. A 6 or 7-year-old is perfectly capable of a few social graces. If what matters to you is that your child meets people's eyes and responds pleasantly to questions, make sure she understands that you expect her to do so. It may help to explain, "You know how it makes you feel good when Grandma asks about your dance class? Well, it makes her feel good if you smile and look at her while you answer."
What's the most effective way to discipline a kid who acts up at dinner?
Try not to blow your top, even if the bad manners look to you like deliberate provocation rather than absentmindedness. You can often straighten out forgetfulness with a prompt so brief and light that it barely qualifies as nagging: "Hey, napkin on lap." "Yo, ask first, please." Provocation is of course intended to provoke, so the important thing is not to launch into a satisfying parental tantrum, but instead to say in a flat, disinterested voice, "I need to talk to you for a minute, please," indicating with a tilt of the head that the conversation will take place in the next room, in private. (Busting kids for bad manners should always be done one-on-one so it doesn't turn into a humiliation session.) Then, in the same disinterested voice: "That needs to stop, or you'll have to leave the table." If it keeps up, she leaves the table -- without her plate, without going to the refrigerator for alternative food, and, needless to say, without being allowed to go turn on the TV or her iPod. A few minutes of downtime may be all she needs, or it may be that she misses that meal completely and tries again next time.
What about telephone etiquette?
A child as young as six can manage the basic rules: Whether it's a cell or landline, answer the phone courteously. Don't scream down the hall so your voice blasts the caller's ear; put the phone down and go look for the person being called. Or say, "May I take a message, please?" and write it on a piece of paper somewhere in the vicinity of the telephone. (There is anecdotal evidence that in some households this results in adults actually receiving correct phone messages taken by their kids.) When calling a friend, identify yourself and ask politely for her by name.
Unless she's stunningly self-possessed, your child isn't going to do this right every time. At some point you'll hear her grunting monosyllabically into the phone. Resist the urge to tell her her phone manners stink. Instead, pick one or two things she forgot to do -- say "hello" when her friend's mother picked up on the other end, for instance -- and focus on how she might remember next time.
Is it important for my child to have good manners around her friends?
Exquisitely important, although you may not understand the fine points of the rules. Kids follow elaborate social codes and know exactly who has violated them and how -- which kid didn't handle the video game controls properly, which kid was incredibly rude at the birthday party, which kid acts like a jerk on the playground. And kids can be much harsher than adults about doling out punishment. That's why it's vital to keep teaching your child that being well-mannered doesn't make you prissy or stuck-up -- it makes you a person other people like to be around.
Pantley, Elizabeth. Kid Cooperation: How to Stop Yelling, Nagging and Pleading and Get Kids to Cooperate. New Harbinger Publications.
Sears, William and Martha. The Discipline Book: How to Have a Better-Behaved Child From Birth to Age Ten. Little, Brown and Company.