How to Raise a Polite Child

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Have you ever wished your little one hadn’t blurted out that naughty word to his oh-so proper grandparents — an expletive he evidently learned when you accidentally slammed your finger in the door last week? Have you ever watched your child eat and, in horror, had to ask yourself, “Did he just watch Animal Planet before this meal?” Has your child ever done something so embarrassing that the only thing you can do is smile politely, apologize and glance around you with the I-want-to-crawl-in-a-hole-right-now look?  Welcome to the club!

Two women, both of whom have four-year-old daughters, recently described such an incident that left one red in the face and one gleaming with pride. While at their weekly mall-walking excursion, the moms decided to treat the girls to an ice cream cone. One of the girls decided she didn’t want a cone and flung it onto the floor in a fit of toddler angst, while the other took her cone, said “thank you” and began quietly licking away. If we could only press rewind and start again. Unfortunately, we can’t, but fortunately, there are some easy tactics you can use to help raise a more polite child. After all, a more polite child makes mommy and daddy less stressed. And who couldn’t use a little less stress in their day?

Our children live in a very busy world, where playdates, soccer practice and television shows come before some of the more crucial life lessons: Manners.

Our children will be the future politicians, businessmen and women, entrepreneurs, parents and key figures in society.  Their success in life is directly related to what we instill in them now.  It may be something as simple as knowing how to shake hands, how to introduce themselves to grownups or, as complicated as how to discreetly answer a question or accept a compliment.  Giving a child this knowledge and confidence is one of greatest gifts you can give.

TIP #1 – Practice What You Preach

Our children are like parrots: They repeat what they hear. And let’s not forget that they are smarter than we often give them credit for. Although this is a wonderful thing (the parroting, that is), sometimes it can wildly backfire. It’s as if their minds are little tape recorders, saving our indiscretions for that oh-so-perfect-time to press play and embarrass you. And typically, it is usually in front of someone with whom we want to make a good impression.

Parents must follow the standard we expect for our children — and this means all the time, not just when it is convenient. Reminding children to say please and thank you is great in theory, but if you yourself are not using the words at home, they will pick up on this.

On the other hand, if they hear you use foul language when you feel frustrated, don’t be surprised if that word slips from their mouth when they, too, are aggravated. How can we really get angry at a child when they have learned certain behavior from our own wrong actions? By keeping the standards up at home and instilling proper speech, you won’t have to worry about them in public or when they are not with you.

Tip #2 – Help Your Child Write Thank You Notes

Children are always receiving gifts for birthdays, holidays, from grandparents and relatives, etc. Whatever the gift may be, whether it is an item, a kindness shown or an unexpected favor, an acknowledgement is in order. There are no if’s or but’s about it. Gratitude for a gift is imperative. Showing thanks is done immediately (if possible), not many, many weeks or months later. The sooner the better. When someone has taken the time and energy to do something for you, it seems only natural that a show of gratitude is in order. This may be common sense, but it is far from common practice. And this means writing a thank you note (and not a pre-fab, fill-in-the-blank thank you!)

Helping your children to structure a thank you note is priceless. If they cannot yet write, you do the writing, while they draw a picture on it or decorate the card with stickers. Once they can write their names, they can sign their John Hancock on the card. Soon enough, they will be writing notes by themselves, in a timely fashion.

Raising a gracious child is worth every bit of the time and energy it takes to teach them. Then, hopefully, in 15 or so years (when your hard work of raising a child is over), you won’t get a call asking how to write a thank you for a job interview.

Tip #3 – No Means No

Most parents can relate to the five acts of Hamlet that they must go through after telling their toddler ‘No!’  Many parents tell their toddler that she can’t do or have something by saying “No”.  They then ask her to stop, then they plead, then they deal with the ensuing tantrum or cry-fest and give up altogether and give in!  Why did they bother saying ‘No’ in the first place? 

Teaching your child to understand that ‘No’ means no, is not as hard as it may seem.  As soon as your child can sit up and crawl, you can begin to teach him.  If he goes near an electrical cord or touch something he should not, firmly tell him, “No!”  Next, physically remove him from the object or situation.  Of course, no one expects a 6-month old to understand and obey, but eventually he will learn that when Mommy says no, it is best to do as he is told.  As your child begins to walk, it is helpful to get down to their level, have them look you in the eyes and firmly tell them ‘No’ when they are misbehaving. 

Toddlers are much smarter than we often give them credit for being.  If you say no and then give in, you are teaching them that crying and whining is the way to get what they want.  Be consistent and in the long run, your hard work and effort will pay off.  You will have a child that listens the first time. Children who listen are often more polite and will be looked upon favorably by other adults in their life.

Tip #4 – Extend that Paw!

A child who shakes hands is a rare sight these days, but it shouldn’t be this way.  Learning to shake hands not only gives your child more confidence to interact with adults, but shows respect.  You can start teaching your child to shake hands as early as one year of age.  Cheerfully tell her to ‘shake hands and say hello’ and put her hand in the other person’s hand.  This will instill the principle and make it second nature. 

As she approaches the age of two, you should begin teaching her some basic handshaking rules.  First, extend the right hand.  Of course, there will be many, many times when you will have to say, “wrong hand.”  Second, have her make eye contact with the person. How many times have you said hello to a child and he stares down at his feet?  Making eye contact is something children struggle with, so gently lift your little one’s chin if necessary. 

Third, teach her to squeeze the hand and say “Hi, nice to see you”.  By age three, she will have it down pat and you can have your child add the name of the person they are shaking hands with.  Have your child shake hands when they arrive and when they leave.  Teaching your children to shake hands is a lesson that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.  There is nothing worse than a fishy or pathetic handshake from a grown adult. It shows a lack of confidence and authority so teach them while they are young!

Tip #5 – One for You, One for Me!

When children don’t share, we tend to solve the problem by taking the toy or item away and giving it to the other child, without explanation. A simple, “SHARE” is usually uttered in a loud decibel and we go about our business of tending to our house or chores.

Taking the time to explain why it is important to share will ingrain the principle in their little noggins. We will not always be in the next room to break up the argument between children whenever sharing becomes an issue. Thus, we must teach our children to stand on their own and do the right thing. By instilling the sharing principle over and over, we won’t have to worry about them when we aren’t around. People remember a kind and generous child, while a rude and snatchy one isn’t usually invited back as often.

Tip #6 – Don’t Just ‘Let It Go’

How many times over the course of a day are we too busy or hassled to take care of something we deem impolite or inappropriate? It seems, if my case, that my children are apt to misbehave when I am chatting on a much-needed call with a friend. Rather than apologizing to the caller and getting off the phone to take care of the situation, we tend to wave the kids away, yell a quick “YOU BETTER STOP THAT,” (sometimes we press mute, sometimes we help to add to the deafness of the friend) and return to our call — only to forget to deal with it after we are done.

Don’t just let things go! Rather, you will find instant results if you take care of the situation then and there. Quick enforcement of rules will make more of an impact than waiting to handle it when it happens again. Putting our children first will help instill those positive behaviors we so desperately want them to have when in public, at play-dates or at school.

Tip #7 – Respecting Others Differences

People come in all shapes, sizes, colors and personalities. Polite children are respectful children. They respect and accept that everyone is not just like them.

Helping a child to understand that it is not nice to make fun or judge others for these differences will be a lesson they will remember forever. Kids can be mean, especially when they are testing their independence and voice. Yes, we cannot always be with our children to filter what comes out of the mouths, but we can give them the tools to know the difference between talking and being indiscreet and cruel.

When your child tells you something mean he heard, take the time to explain why it is not nice to say things such as this. Getting kids to think further on this is a wonderful way for them to truly understand the principle of thinking before they speak.

Tip #8 – Eating like Little Ladies & Gentlemen

If there is one lesson you have probably learned as a parent, it is to expect that the most embarrassing moments to occur at the most inappropriate times!  Many of these mishaps seem to happen at the table.  So, when your toddler says or does something that makes you and your husband appear as if you have absolutely no idea what table manners are, say to yourself, ”Don’t worry, it’s my rite of passage as a parent” (and of course, such toddler faux pas make for great dinner party conversation). 

With that in mind, I am a firm believer that your child is never too young to begin learning the basics.  The dining table will be the setting for many important happenings in your child’s life.  It may, one day, be the setting for meeting his girlfriend’s parents for the first time, a lunch with a potential employer or a dinner with upper management at the office holiday party.  No matter what the occasion, knowing how to navigate his way through a meal will tremendously benefit your child.  Most children will master these dining skills by age five, but you should start teaching them around the age of two.  Of course, there will be some exceptions to this, but as your toddler grows and matures, the more difficult dining skills can be taught and mastered.

Thus, these are only a few ways to help raise a more polite, thoughtful and generous child.

If we want to give them the gift of politeness, we must truly ask ourselves if we are taking the time and making the effort to help them acquire these skills.

So, the next time at the supermarket, when our child is flailing away, knocking down cereal boxes, and shooting dirty looks to other shoppers, we must ask ourselves, “Am I doing everything I can to help teach my child to do what is right and be polite?”

And remember, being polite is something that will make them stand out and stand apart — in a good way!


Melissa has been wowing clients and readers over the past few years with her fun and dynamic approach to the so-called ‘stuffy’ world of etiquette. After having two children (well behaved, of course!), Melissa took her innovative style of teaching business etiquette and tailored programs for children, parents and yes, even yachting enthusiasts. Her distinctive style and sense of humor has helped put manners back into the ‘in-crowd’.

As a parent and adult, you probably encounter sticky situations every day. From a nosy neighbor invading on your privacy to in-laws who drop in at the worst possible times, from dealing with those rude strangers, to getting your kids to do what their told.

No matter what your dilemma is, our resident etiquette expert Melissa is here to help turn your problem into a solution. If you wish to be anonymous, just tell us in your email. Email her at askmelissa@modernmom.com

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