With everything little kids have to learn these days, having manners—actually conquering the rules of social engagement—may seem, well, irrelevant.
But in our increasingly global society, minding one’s manners—and knowing how to act in social situations—may be as important to future success as are academic achievement and business experience. In fact, according to some, if you are socially, emotionally, or culturally awkward, in the end it may not really matter how smart or well connected you are.
Of course, the best way to teach good manners is to model them yourself—around the house and in your dealings with others. Here are five rules of social engagement you can teach that preschoolers can practice now.
1. What to teach: The magic words: please and thank you
What it shows: Respect and gratitude.
How to get started: If you notice your child helping herself to a special toy or a trike everyone wants to ride, gently instruct her to ask her playground pals whether she could “please” play with or use the coveted item. Upon receiving it, direct her to say, “thank you.” Reinforce this behavior by making sure your own requests always start with a “please” and end with a “thank you.”
2. What to teach: The phrase “excuse me” to enter an ongoing or closed-door conversation or to get an adult’s attention
What it shows: Respect and social awareness.
How to get started: If your child interrupts you during a business call or while you’re chatting with grandma, pause and calmly encourage him to say “excuse me” to capture your attention. Urge him, too, to knock first if a door is closed and to ask permission to enter—a great skill to have in place at home and at preschool or kindergarten.
3. What to teach: How to address adults courteously, making eye contact, and using titles such as Ms., Mrs., and Mr.
What it shows: Confidence, respect, and social competence.
How to teach it: Before you approach a friend at the mall or market, turn to your child and ask, “Lucy, do you remember Mr. Peters, Jamie’s father? Let’s go say ‘hi’’ to him!” Encourage her to smile, look directly at your friend or neighbor, and advise her say hello. Later, role-play the scenario at home. This will help her feel more confident in formal settings. Encourage older preschool kids to follow up a warm hello with a sincere, “How are you?” or “I’m fine!”
4. What to teach: Taking turns and sharing
What it shows: Patience, self-control, respect for another’s feelings, and fairness.
How to teach it: Encourage your youngster to participate in games like soccer or play dress up with friends—activities that turn out best when kids are thoughtful and work together. Go a step further and divvy up sliced fruit or cookies to show its fun to split snacks and goodies.
5. What to teach: Dining etiquette
What it shows: Self-control, maturity, and awareness that a meal is a social event to be enjoyed by everyone at the table.
How to teach it: Stick to simple mealtime basics since little ones will not comprehend the complicated rules of fine dining (Umm, whose glass is this anyway? Which spoon am I supposed to use now?). Instead, demonstrate:
How to sit at the table (fanny in the seat, no slouching, and no elbows on the table).
How to ask for the peas (no reaching or grabbing).
When to start eating (when everyone else is seated and served, using utensils, not your fingers).
Don’t expect kids to grasp manners overnight. There will be plenty of setbacks. But if your message is clear, you are consistent, and you give your little one lots of time to practice at home and in public, you will be creating the foundation for a lifetime of winning interactions.