Every parent is concerned at one point or another about their child’s manners. These unavoidable situations come up almost daily; saying please and thank you, greeting an aunt or uncle and going out to eat. What behavior should parents expect from young children and what are they capable of? Young children are actually capable of learning and practicing good manners, and the older they get the better they’re able to remember and practice them to be polite. That means starting early will be most effective for instilling manners in your children in the long-run. Here are tips for how to start fostering good manners that are respectful of your child and of others.

The best way to start is by modeling the kind of behavior you want from your child. Say please and thank you when talking with your child. If this is a natural part of your daily conversation they will pick up on it and won’t have to be asked “What do you say?” when someone gives them a gift. The same principle applies to negative behavior that we’d like to avoid. A child who doesn’t experience spanking or yelling is less likely to hit or yell in anger or when they’re frustrated as well. In general, young children have difficulty controlling their emotions and expressing themselves, but as they grow older they become more capable of practicing self control and practicing the manners you’ve been modeling.

Sharing, or lack of it, can sometimes be a challenging situation for both kids and parents. Very young children under the age of 2 cannot yet understand the concept of sharing. Somewhere between the age of 2 and 3 children start to develop the idea of turn taking and sharing, even though it’s still difficult for them to let go. You can help young children avoid tears during playdates by having doubles of favorite toys, or by simply keeping them out of sight. Practice turn taking with less tempting toys to get them used to the concept. For older children, continue practicing turn taking with siblings and yourself. You can use an hourglass app to help your child visually see how much time is left till getting the shared item back. With repetition your child will start to understand that toys do eventually come back when taking turns. They will develop the patience to wait and to share with others.

When your child hurts or upsets someone else you’d surely want them to be apologetic and show empathy. While children are definitely sensitive to others and can feel empathy at a very young age, the concept or ability to apologize is still not there. Even older children can find it difficult to recall what to do in what would constitute an emotional situation. I tend to believe actions speak louder than words, and it is important to raise an empathic child not one who quickly rushes to saying sorry to get out of trouble. If your child accidently hurts another, instead of insisting on sorry, you can try to talk about how their friend is feeling and how you both can help make them feel better. Help your child by emphasizing and explaining what to do instead of what not to do. If they’ve hit their friend or taken a toy saying, “We don’t hit, hitting hurts. We use our hands to be gentle and hug/pat,” or “Look at how sad your friend is that you’ve taken his toy. What should we do now so you both feel happy?”, can be more helpful in teaching long term manners and empathy than demanding “No hitting, say you’re sorry!”, or “Give that back and say you’re sorry!”.

Don’t Force Behavior
A gentle reminder to your child to say please or thank you is great, but try to avoid insisting that they say it if they’re uncomfortable. Children can express their gratitude in different forms, and your child might flash a big smile or give a hug instead. Maybe they don’t like the gift and are unsure of what to say. Physical contact is also something not to be forced. While relatives and friends may want to kiss and hug your child to greet them, let them know that your child won’t reciprocate if it makes him/her uncomfortable. Find a way for them to greet people that is acceptable for both of you, like a high five. Young children can generally be shy and tend to avoid physical contact with people they don’t know well, so give your child their space and let them know they can shake people’s hands (or whatever agreed upon greeting) when ready. With time, they’ll understand ways to greet people that feels comfortable, while respecting their own physical boundaries.