Repeat after me (please)

Teaching manners to kids takes patience, persistence … and a sense of humor


Jill S. Browning

Quick-what's the magic word?

If you're a parent, you've probably posed this question a time or two (or 10,000), and your kids know the answer by heart. The question we really want answered, though, is what is the magic behind teaching manners to kids?

Model behavior

Without parental intervention, kids would never transform from their innately rude selves into well-mannered and respectful human beings. Parents might feel like parrots, peppering kids with all sorts of rules and questions (i.e., a "What's the magic word?" or "What do you say?"), but Dr. Mark Rosenberg, pediatrician with Children's Healthcare Associates in Chicago, says that repetition is an effective way to teach kids how to respond appropriately. "That's how parents establish those expectations," he says.

Just as critical as the constant reminders is making sure that we follow the rules of etiquette ourselves. "A child learns manners based on the modeling of a parent," says Rosenberg. To gauge how well you're doing, he suggests taking an outside view of your day. While out on the road, did you explode at another driver? Act snippy with a store clerk? Make a smart-aleck remark after hanging up the phone? Darn those kids: They're making mental notes on every move we make.

Give respect (get respect)

In addition to taking care of our conduct outside the house, the way we treat members within our own family helps to coach kids about courtesy. "If two parents display good manners and appropriate behavior with each other … then the child is going to learn that," Rosenberg says.

Part of displaying kindness, too, is bestowing it upon your own kids. For Erin Metcalf, Aurora mom of two (ages 2 and 1), this just comes naturally. "I don't think we were consciously doing this, but we've always said 'please,' to our kids, even as infants," she says.

Rosenberg adds that if you want your kids to listen and to answer you, you should do the same for your child.

Start early

Rosenberg says it's tough to set a timeline of when certain manners will or should appear. "It depends on the child's developmental level. For example, it's hard to expect a 2-year-old to behave perfectly fine in all situations," he says.

Some people disagree.

Edith Vosefski, director of the Etiquette School of Northern Illinois, conducts etiquette programs for both adults and kids. She believes it's never too early to start teaching manners. "I think every child, by the time they're 3 years old, ought to be able to say 'please,' 'thank you' and 'excuse me,' " she says.

Mom Vicky Fernandez of Wheaton is on a quest to raise three gracious girls (4, 3 and 8 months). Recently, Fernandez was amused when after asking her 3-year-old a question, she answered and then added, "Thank you for asking, Mommy." Fernandez says it's a huge reward to hear manners spill out spontaneously.

Stay the course

Everyone loves hearing a cute "please" and "thank you" out of the mouths of babes. It's having the habit stick that takes true parental fortitude.

Kelly Murphy, Downers Grove mother of three (19, 17 and 7), and self-proclaimed "proven producer" when it comes to raising polite kids, expected nothing less than respect from them right out of the womb. "You can try to teach them manners when they're 8 or 10, or you can teach them when they're learning to talk, which is much easier … they don't know any other way," Murphy says.

Murphy doesn't move a muscle unless her kids ask for things politely. "My kids would never dream of coming to me and saying, 'I'm thirsty,' " she says. She says some people think she's hard on her kids, but she feels her persistence is paying off since her kids' considerate behavior is commended frequently. "It gives me more confidence with stickin' to my guns," she says.

"We are strict parents. And I don't apologize or back down from that," says Kelli Mitchell, Downers Grove mom of two boys (13 and 10). She believes that parents are doing their kids a disservice when they don't lay down the law. "Kids have to know what the expectations are and that those expectations don't change," she adds. Rather than feeling oppressed by rules, Mitchell says her boys feel proud when they manage social situations successfully, such as when they're praised by strangers for their good behavior at a restaurant.

Throw 'em a funny bone

Persistence in teaching manners is important, but it doesn't need to be a punishing process. For example, using humor works better than harping. Vosefski begins one of her classes on table manners by putting her face down into a soup bowl and slurping it up noisily. After the laughter subsides, she explains how to eat soup correctly.

"I love to use humor, because they don't feel like it's somebody who's just making a bunch of rules and throwing them at them," says Vosefski.

When shy kids gaze at the ground instead of looking her in the eye when she shakes their hand, Vosefski asks them, "Who's down there?" Kids will look up surprised and giggle. She claims, "Even a 5-year-old can understand the importance of eye contact, if you bother to explain it to them."

Reinforce positively

It's a piece of cake to point out a kid's poor manners. The challenge is finding that same kid in a shining manners moment and praising him for it.

"The word 'discipline' means 'teach,' " explains Rosenberg. "When you're always saying 'no, no, no,' but you're not telling or reinforcing what they're doing is appropriate … then it's difficult for them to learn."

Vosefski agrees and cautions parents not to nag their kids about every rule at every meal. Instead, she suggests that families declare a "manners night" on a regular basis, such as weekly or monthly. On these nights, family members come dressed in their "Sunday best" and parents explain ahead of time which manners they'll be practicing. Eventually, the game will turn into habit, says Vosefski. "Unless someone's doing something absolutely gross at other times, don't keep saying, 'Oh, you're not doing this right.' … That just makes the meal miserable," Vosefski adds.

Remember the big picture

To avoid getting bogged down in the minutiae of manners, keep in mind what it's all about: respect and courtesy for others. "If those two things are missing, it doesn't matter if they use the right fork or right spoon," Vosefski says. Let your kids know why manners are important, too, and they'll be more likely to jump on the bandwagon.

"I find it very hard to separate manners from values," says Fernandez. She was a teacher before becoming a stay-at-home mom, and felt the same way about her students as she does her kids. "Part of my teaching strategy was that I don't really care if you know how to do algebra in 10 years, but I want to know that you are a nice person," she says.

For Mitchell, it's that kindness for others that she believes will serve as her boys' foundation for success in life. "I've always considered manners an important stepping stone towards adulthood," she says. When her boys head off for college, she wants them to have the confidence to face any new situation. She believes that manners will help them form friendships and find dates and jobs.

Enjoy their success (and yours)

For some families, there's no greater lift than hearing from others that the kids are well behaved. Mitchell's boys receive frequent kudos from strangers. "You can tell they feel proud of themselves, and they should," Mitchell says.

When people praise Fernandez's girls in public, she also feels proud. "Honestly, it makes me feel like I'm doing my job." At the same time, she knows we're all human, too. "I like my kids to be perfect all the time, but they're kids, and you have to remember that too," she says.

Beyond manners: benefits of family dining When a family eats together regularly, kids not only learn proper table manners but also are:

Less likely to smoke, drink or use illegal drugs (CASA, The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University study, 2005). More likely to receive better grades (Columbia University 2005 survey). Less likely to form eating disorders (University of Minnesota 2004 study). More likely to have higher intakes of essential nutrients and vitamins and have lower obesity rates (Harvard University 2000 study). Manners that parents mind This timeline, courtesy of Edith Vosefski of the Etiquette School of Northern Illinois (, will help parents teach age-appropriate manners.

Age 3: Should know when to say "please," "thank you" and "excuse me." Teaching tip: Keep repeating your expectations.

Age 5 or younger: Can write thank you notes for gifts (with help for younger kids). Teaching tip: Give kids a sample letter and a list of recipients.

Age 5: Can look adults in the eye and respond to questions. Teaching tip: Prep kids about who they'll meet and what to say.

Age 7: Answers the phone properly. Teaching tip: If they're old enough to write messages, they're old enough to pick up the phone.

Age 8 and older: Can dine gracefully. Teaching tip: Hold a "manners night" dinner once a week to refine etiquette.

Chicago Parent's frequent contributor Jill S. Browning thanks you for reading this article. Please send feedback to All of the people interviewed for this article were extremely polite and received a prompt thank you note for their time.

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