Why Manners Still Matter in the Digital Age

How to encourage them in your children

Posted Sep 28, 2016

Despite the skyrocketing amount of time our children spend in front of screens, they will always need to know how to get along with other people if the world is to be a comfortable place for them. How they get along in the world beyond screens is largely determined by how they behave with those other people. This is where good manners come into play. What has always made manners a complex issue for parents is that, of all the incredible abilities our children are born with, the ability to behave appropriately is not among them.  Manners must be learned. Learning how to behave sensitively and sensibly towards others begins with how parents behave with each other and their children. This task might feel daunting but it is less so when separated into the stages of early childhood

  • Infancy. Babies watch us like hawks. They see how we treat each other, how much regard we have for the needs of others, how we wait our turn, share, help out (or not), the tone of our voices and the expressions on our faces as we interact in everyday life. These are the earliest lessons on which manners are built.
  • Toddlerhood. Lay a strong foundation. Ask your child to hand you the cereal bowl when he or she is finished, introducing the magic word ‘please’ as part of family life – not just the password for getting what the child wants. The magic is the smile on the parents face when these words get used – the meaning and intent come later. Make-believe play with stuffed animals and dolls help reinforce this lesson. Around 18 months, children begin to figure out that others have feelings similar to theirs, so it makes sense to introduce the vocabulary of polite talk beyond the ‘magic word’ , such as ‘excuse me,’ sorry’, and the regular use of people’s names when asking or telling them something. Empathy usually starts to develop by the end of this period.
  • Preschool. Build on that strong foundation. Sharing and turn-taking should be easily understood and expected more often than not.  It’s also important to explain, in simple terms, the impact of behavior on others – ‘We just don’t hit. It hurts and you don’t like it when it happens to you’ or ‘When we hurt someone, we look in their eyes and say “I’m sorry.” It helps them feel better and still want to be your friend.’ Try not to overuse these messages because overdoing it will lessen the impact of them.
  • Kindergarten. Now it gets real. Expect and appreciate the picking up of toys and dirty clothes, helping set/clear the table or safe food prep, keeping hands to themselves, being fair with others most of the time and being able to introduce themselves (having learned in preschool how to do it with dolls/puppets).

If you want to check on how effective your ‘manners curriculum’ is, arrange a play date before which you remind your child about using good manners. Then during the play date gently remind and/or affirm your child of proper manners. You could also enter the fray if things get dicey and articulate what needs to be done to fix the problem so your child can get back to playing. Such ‘experiments’ will let you and your child know how the lessons are going.

Dr. Kyle Pruett is a Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine and Educational Advisory Board member for The Goddard School, an early childhood education franchise and leading preschool teaching learning through play (www.goddardschool.com).