I’ve often said that it’s more important for me to raise kind and mannered children than kids who get straight A’s and sports accolades (though I won’t complain if my two children are happy and do achieve the latter). Nothing makes me realise I’ve done a fairly good job at the parenting gig more than seeing my son wanting to give to charity, or having my toddler say “pwease” regularly (she needs reminders, but we’ve mostly got it covered).
It costs nothing to have manners, and it can sometimes be a reminder of all that we have – and to not take others and things for granted. There’s a big difference between my child saying “Please can I have some ice cream” and “I want ice cream”.
“Learning to be caring is like learning to play a sport or an instrument. Daily repetition make caring second nature and develop and hone your child’s caregiving capacities.”
And when the pleases and thank-you’s are missing in our day-to-day engagements, I feel their gratitude and humility are kinda lacking too, and so I look at my kids blankly, waiting for them to have an epiphany that they need to watch their manners.
While meaningful and earnest pleases and thank-you’s are melodies to my ears, there is more to manners and courtesy than just these words.
Here are other ways I’m trying to cultivate manners in my home, based on things I’ve learnt along the way. Some of them are suited to my toddler, but all of them apply to my nine-year-old, who has the understanding and ability at this stage to follow through.
Say hello and goodbye
We say it as adults, and there’s no reason why kids shouldn’t do it too as it’s common courtesy, and a skill that they’ll use for the rest of their lives.
My son knows that when he’s introduced to a new person or he sees someone he knows – whether an adult or child – the polite thing to do is to make eye contact and say hello, and where appropriate, acceptable and comfortable, shake hands or hug. Teach your kids a firm handshake from early on – it inspires strength. A limp handshake as an adult is never popular.
To be honest, I don’t always get this right, but it’s something that my parents made a big deal of when I was a child – table manners. Chewing with my mouth closed, no elbows on the table, and serviettes on laps were all encouraged. It sounds stricter than it is, but table etiquette is a critical skill and, while I might sometimes check my work emails while at dinner (not great, I know), I’m not chewing with my mouth open.
Whether they’re interrupting you while talking or doing a task, or getting a teacher’s attention, these two words are great for teaching your kids awareness, and politeness and respect for others.
Looking people in the eye
This is such a tough skill, as it’s often awkward and uncomfortable, especially if your child is shy. But this is another skill that can serve your kids well through to adulthood. Eye contact not only shows respect, but interest too. A lack of eye contact can indicate disinterest, a lack of confidence and disrespect.
Empathy and kindness
How do you learn these? I think it’s by leading by example and encouraging kindness where possible just because, whether it’s giving to charity or sending flowers to your child’s teacher. I also think it’s about teaching your kids to care about others and to ask them: “How would you like to be treated if you were that person.”
Richard Weissbrond, a Harvard psychologist who runs the Making Caring Common project, aimed to help teach kids to be kind, has the following five strategies to raise caring children:
- Make caring for others a priority
Children need to learn from parents that caring for others is a big priority. A big part of that is holding children to high ethical expectations, such as honouring their commitments, even if it makes them unhappy.
- Provide opportunities for children to practise caring and gratitude
Learning to be caring is like learning to play a sport or an instrument. Daily repetition – whether it’s a helping a friend with homework, pitching in around the house, or having a classroom job – make caring second nature and develop and hone your child’s caregiving capacities. Learning gratitude similarly involves regularly practising it.
- Expand your child’s circle of concern
Children need to learn to zoom in by listening closely and attending to those in their immediate circle, and to zoom out by taking in the big picture and considering the many perspectives of the people they interact with daily, including those who are vulnerable. Children also need to develop concern for people who live in very different cultures and communities than their own.
- Be a strong moral role model and mentor
Being a moral role model and mentor means that we need to practise honesty, fairness and caring ourselves. But it doesn’t mean being perfect all the time. For our children to respect and trust us, we need to acknowledge our mistakes and flaws. We also need to respect our kids’ thinking and listen to their perspectives, showing them how we want them to engage others.
- Guide children in managing destructive feelings
We need to teach children that all feelings are okay, but some ways of dealing with them are not helpful. Kids need our help learning to cope with these feelings in productive ways.
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