How early can parents begin teaching children to be kind, considerate and use the magic words “please” and “thank you?” Believe it or not, learning manners begins during infancy, when babies are first starting to develop a capacity for recognizing language.
Beginning at birth and throughout preschool, children are sponges – soaking up everything they see and hear, and modeling and mimicking what they observe – which is why it’s important to start modeling manners early. Young children can learn and demonstrate behaviors readily, but they do not yet have the cognitive ability to understand abstract concepts, like distinguishing between polite and rude behavior.
For this reason, we must focus on teaching by example and through direction, without relying on wordy explanations for why manners are important. They’ll gain an understanding of this later after their brains develop that capacity! At a young age, parents should simply strive to shape desirable behavior.
Here are some simple, effective parenting tips for teaching your child to be polite and respectful:
1. Be a respectful role model. Set a good example for your child by using manners throughout the day and demonstrating kindness and respect for others. This is the most important and effective way to shape good behavior.
2. Teach polite words and phrases. When your child asks for a toy or snack, acknowledge her request and consistently remind her to ask politely by saying “please.”
3. Practice manners playfully. Use puppets, dolls or stuffed animals to act out a scene in which one character is kind and polite to the other. Keep it fun and playful to help your child remember the lesson.
4. Reinforce polite and kind behavior. Respond with delight when your child uses the “magic words” or displays kindness. Your pleased reaction is a form of reward which will naturally provide a positive feeling for your child and entice her to repeat the desired behavior.
5. Avoid giving a lecture. I was recently in a store where I overhead a well-meaning young mother giving her 3-year-old an in-depth lecture on why it is so important to behave politely in stores. The lecture went on for a good 10 minutes – an eternity for a preschooler and well beyond the little one’s ability to understand. Your child will learn more efficiently if you follow the suggestions outlined above instead. Little ones respond best when they receive positive reinforcement for desired behavior, rather than punitive reactions when they behave undesirably.