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The art of raising polite children and why it is now more important than ever

by Amanda Cassidy
06th Apr 2019

Sit up straight, say thank you, fingers out of your nose! Teaching manners is one of the more exhausting parts of parenthood. But raising polite children is also about teaching self-control and delayed gratification – something Amanda Cassidy thinks we might be beginning to let slide…

Every morning when I drop my three-year-old daughter to her playschool she is greeted at the door by her teacher. Miss Sinead drops down on one knee and looks Isabella in the eye. Good morning, she says solemnly and shakes her little hand. The first few times, Isabella (like most 3-year-olds) looked around happily, eyes darting about from the colourful artwork to her BEST FWEND’S arrival. Good morning, she would offer, distractedly.

Now, after weeks settling into her new digs, Isabella holds eye contact every morning when greeting her teachers. It may only be for about 10 seconds, but it is a tiny step towards teaching her to respect adults and to be mindful of her actions. When we meet someone in the supermarket or have visitors at home, she looks up and answers their questions (about important things like whether she is three-and-a-half or three-and-a-quarter) and she understands that it is polite to stop and greet our guests formally.

In contrast, my two other monkeys (who went to different playschools) bounce around, looking anywhere but at an adult’s gaze and barely grunt hello. Let’s just say that they are a work in progress. But is it all my fault for not placing enough emphasis on manners? Are we so absorbed by our own needs and activities, paying bills, doing homework and getting up the dinner that traditional manners are now falling by the wayside?

More frequently I’m noticing on playdates that the children don’t seem to be using the same kind of manners that were drilled into us as children. I wouldn’t have dared refuse something I was offered when in a friend’s house when I was small. Now I try not to be offended as other people’s children groan, eughhhhhh as I set their plate in front of them or when they dump their coat at my feet.

I’m not saying my children are much different. They know how to use their knife and fork correctly and say please and thank you, but I know they could be a lot more polite. A mum recently divulged that my son had demanded she buy him a toy in the local shop when they were choosing their Friday ‘sweet treat’ after school. She was laughing about it but I was beyond mortified. Vow. To. Try. Harder. With. Child. Number. Two.

Obviously, it depends on your child’s age, but as a general rule of thumb according to etiquette experts, by the age of 1-2  years it is all about using the magic words, ‘say ta-ta’ and using please when they ask for things. From about 3-6 years of age, we should focus on teaching children to respect others, no hurting! Your children should try and help with chores such as clearing the table and tidying away their toys. Try to encourage them to say ‘excuse me’ if they have to interrupt. From the ages of 7-10 years, the emphasis is on being gracious, being a good sport and respecting other people’s belongings. By 11-13 years of age, they should have perfected their table manners, be aware that using bad language is not acceptable, and understand how to be a (reasonably) good guest. Around the ages of 14-18 years, it is all about respect – you try to give it to them, and they are expected to understand the appropriate rules. (Ha, good luck with that!)

It is unsurprising that by the time we sit down at the dinner table (if we even sit down at all, together) we are not exactly in the mood to continuously call our little ones out when they chew with their mouth open or refuse to help clean up. We are usually more interested in hearing about their day and the formalities can get overlooked because we are increasingly time-pinched and always rushing, rushing, rushing. The mornings are the same – the extent of my parenting is making sure they are fed and wearing matching shoes -hardly the time for lectures on nose-blowing or table manners when I’m shovelling porridge into my own mouth while standing.

But Anna Post, author of Manners in a Digital World believes it may not be all our fault.

“We live in an impatient world where children are used to instant gratification. We need to teach our children that it is not acceptable to expect to get what you want instantaneously. But we live in a society where everything is available at the click of your fingers or the mouse. Impulsiveness gets rewards. This is at odds with the traditional adage to be patient and wait your turn or that ‘good things come to those who wait.”

How important are manners at the end of the day? Well, it is very hard to shake the label of being rude or disrespectful and we all know that first impressions really do make a dramatic impact on how we are perceived from the get-go. Looking the other way won’t serve your child well – no matter how distracted they (and you!) are. Such inappropriate habits are very easy to form and are extremely difficult to break. Here are some gentle tips to help overcome any potential bad habits:

1. Insisting on getting something comes very naturally to children. Encourage your little ones to request something rather than demand it. (Often, children don’t realise there is another way to get what they want.)

2. Remind them to adjust their tone of voice. Kids may appear whiney when they just think they are expressing their feelings. I will be teaching my children that asking for something is usually a question while demanding is a statement (Give me the bag!)

3. If your kids get frustrated (hello, my every waking minute) teach them the ‘I’ technique. Encourage them to start the sentence with ‘I’…I feel annoyed because you are not listening, or I am upset because you won’t give me the Ipad. It helps them to sort out their feelings instead of ‘Leave me alone, you are the worst mummy EVER’. This too will stand to them in the future when they want to express their feelings to someone who is causing them conflict – ‘I am upset because you are talking behind my back, I am angry that you don’t trust me to have a sleep-over.’

4. Don’t be afraid to bring back the old-school formalities. It is less common these days, but calling an adult that isn’t a close friend or family member Mr So-And-So might seem outdated but it is a mark of respect – and respect is something that we need a lot more of these days.

5. Talk it out. Talk about manners around the table. See how I use my napkin? Isn’t Daddy great for carrying over his plate? If they don’t know that alternatives exist, we can’t exactly come down hard and heavy on our children for not knowing there is a better way than grabbing the remote off their brother or shrugging their shoulders at the teacher.

6. Impress upon them that it’s important that their behaviour doesn’t hurt someone’s feelings, using examples to illustrate how their friend’s parent might be hurt if they worked very hard to make a dinner and a guest didn’t eat it and say thank you. This might even have a halo effect once they come home and make them a bit more grateful for what you do. Maybe?

Many of us have to work in tandem with a childminder/teacher or grandparent to make sure our children’s needs are being met, but it shouldn’t be an inconvenience to insist on them chasing manners. At the end of the day, raising our kids to be polite and respectful adults is an advantage that will carry them through this often turbulent world and let’s be honest, it is actual proof that we’ve done a pretty good job of raising them.

Now, I’m off to put my feet up while the kids clean up after dinner, thank you very much.