Charm school: How to teach your child good manners
Manners may maketh man, says Pip Jones, but they don't exactly come naturally to children
We've all been there, haven't we? Perhaps at a wedding when, at a particularly romantic moment, your toddler let one rip then laughed his little face off? Or maybe you've endured stressful and messy restaurant outings? Or cringed when your little angel point blank refused to say goodbye when your in-laws were leaving? It can take quite some time for little ones to really grasp the point of polite, or even socially acceptable, behaviour.
'Much that we consider polite is completely alien to small children,' says parenting and child behaviour specialist (and Gurgle expert) Eileen Hayes, 'babies aren't born with social skills. It's something they have to learn about over time, and it can take some children much longer than others.
'Even by the toddling stage, most still have very little comprehension of right and wrong and why they shouldn't be able to do, or take, whatever they want.'
As parents, we don't want other adults rolling their eyes and muttering about how we're raising a brat, because that in itself can be mortifying. But more importantly, teaching polite behaviour equips our children for the outside world, and their future.
'People respond much more positively to those who are polite and thoughtful, and children won't be very popular with their own friends – or with adults – if they don't learn these things at some point.'
At what point, though? It can feel as if constant requests to be polite fall on deaf ears when those ears are still so very little.
'If you're thinking about good manners from a young age, the behaviour becomes habitual,' Eileen says. 'Your toddler might not completely understand why you're saying they should do something a certain way, but nevertheless it will become 'normal' to do it that way.
'It's important, though, to be realistic about what your child can and can't manage. Children respond incredibly well to positive encouragement, but telling them off when they forget to do something nicely or politely won't have any positive effects at all.'
So patience is really key. It's also hugely important, Eileen advises, to lead by example. 'Children learn so much from watching their parents. You should use language as well, to explain why it's nice to do things in certain ways, but always remember that what you do teaches more than what you say.
Teaching conversational courtesy might be the area where 'do as I do' most strongly comes into play, so the time when your baby is beginning to communicate with languageis definitely the time to really consider how you communicate yourself.
'Talking is such a natural thing, so we're not always aware that we're doing things we'd rather our children didn't,' Eileen says.
Excellent point. Do you tell your child they should say hello and greet people nicely? Great! But is that something you always do yourself? Or is your partner sometimes on the receiving end of an exhausted grunt in the evening? Do you tell your toddler not to interrupt? Then be sure you're courteous enough to not talk over them.
And if you want your child to understand that shouting is not the way to get what they want, then just check it's not you, standing in the hall, shouting to hurry up because you just. Need. To. Get. Out. Of. The. DOOR!
'Some things are easier than others,' Eileen admits. 'Many parents do raise their voices out of sheer frustration when they're trying to get their children to do things – but if you do that you can expect your child, at some point, to do the same!
'When it comes to polite conversation, do be sensitive to the type of child you have – shyer children might feel uncomfortable being pushed towards a little-known relative to say hello. So don't force them. Or do it together, holding hands. Don't make a big deal out of it.'
Say please? Thank you!
Ah, the most basic of manners! And don't we just love all those different versions they come up with – 'Peeeas!' 'Ang-oo!'
Many a parent will find 'please' and 'thank you' becoming their most overused words as their baby begins babbling. And that is indeed the best way to teach children to use them, according to Eileen.
'If you always say thank you when your child hands you something, it will become ingrained for them,' she says. 'They will begin to imitate, parrot fashion, when you give them something back. 'It's a good idea to explain that these are the nice words we use when we ask for something, or when we receive something. However, each child develops a comprehension of language at their own pace and so, to begin with, they won't entirely understand the significance of the words.'
It's for this reason that Eileen advises against making particularly forceful requests for pleases and thank yous, because it could turn into a battle of wills. 'You should encourage your child to use those words, of course. But if you hold something back until your child says please, the chances are they won't really understand why you're doing it. 'That could lead to them becoming frustrated. Remind them gently and praise them when they remember.'
What's mine is...mine
Doesn't every parent feel it's their duty to rear a child who is good at sharing? I can't think of a single mother who wouldn't consider it the height of good toddlers manners if their two-year-old offered up a ball to another child (even if they did take it back again a nanosecond later).
This is a conundrum, though, because hardly any children are brilliant at sharing – not in the pre-school years anyway.
'Toddlers think everything belongs to them and simply don't understand why they can't have something, just because another child wants it,' Eileen explains.
We've all seen how hard some children find it to share – and it's not necessarily an area where parents lead by example. 'It's not as if, as grown ups, we go about sharing our beloved possessions, is it?' Eileen laughs.
'We don't share our car with our neighbours. If a friend comes round, we don't let them sit there with our gold watch on for the duration of their stay!'
Could it be, then, that we expect too much from toddlers when it comes to sharing?
'Of course, sharing is a good thing to start talking to your child about early on, and there are ways to encourage it,' Eileen says, 'while at the same time being fair.
'If your child has a friend coming over to play, tell them they can pack away a few things which they don't have to share, and explain that the other toys are for their friend too.
'They'll be more willing to share if they understand there are some favourite things they can keep, just for themselves. Forcing them to share something precious will just make them feel sad.'
Whichever way you look at it, making the transition from mush-covered baby to child with napkin-dabbed mouth is going to be a messy process – and in the early stages, the best you should really be hoping for is laying the groundwork.
'Good table manners are very much about social convention,' says Eileen. 'Different people have different standards.
'But in the real world, at school, or if you want to go to restaurants, these are good skills for children to have.'
As ever, it's about leading by example. 'If you want to encourage your child to eat nicely and stay at the table, then sit with them. They'll never understand that this is "what people do" if they always have separate mealtimes, and you're busying yourself in the kitchen while they eat.
'If you sit together, you can demonstrate how it's done – and praise them when they manage it too.'
Remember that the stages your child goes through will affect their behaviour – if they've just started walking, they might be considerably less willing to sit still. Try to go with it to a degree.
'It's essential not to get into battles of any kind at the dinner table,' Eileen warns. 'The priority should be encouraging your child to eat a healthy plate of food, so don't make mealtimes a negative experience by enforcing table manners. Teach them with a gentle, laid-back approach.'
Let's get physical
Some toddlers are not only extremely comfortable with their own bodies and bodily functions, they are also completely fascinated by them. I mean, how brilliant is it to have a vessel containing endless amounts of sticky snot – attached to your own face?
No one is likely to bat an eyelid at a tiny child shoving their hands down their pants or picking their nose in the library – but at some point, every parent starts to feel it's time to temper that sort of physical behaviour.
'Most children don't have any sense of social embarrassment whatsoever,' Eileen says. 'They'll happily talk about doing a poo in public.
'But children do gradually learn. Some of it comes as they begin to spend more time with their peers. When a three-year-old starts nursery, they might be with children a year or more older than them so they'll naturally pick up the information that you behave in a certain way.'
That's not to say toddlers won't need some encouragement from their parents. It's important not to make them feel self-conscious, though, or as if they've done something naughty.
'If your child comes out of the toilet with their knickers round their ankles, just take them back to the loo, and explain that we pull our pants up before we open the toilet door.
'When they do something well, praise them. But when they don't get something right, give them a flat and unemotional comment to correct them. Don't make a fuss about it, just be matter of fact.'
Sorry seems to be the hardest word
Toddlers can't help being naughty sometimes – they really can't. They're constantly learning, for example, that it's not acceptable to push another child over because they really really wanted to play with their fire engine. So toddlers will often find themselves being told to say sorry – and while that's an important thing to learn, Eileen says it's essential that young children are taught in the right way. And it's tricky.
'Every child is different, but most simply won't be able to completely grasp the concept of empathy until after the age of three or even four,' she explains.
'So you need to be very clear. If your toddler pushed another child over, explain that by doing that, they made the other child sad – and that's why they need to say sorry.'
Timing plays a part in helping your child understand, too, says Eileen. It's really important to ask your child to say sorry immediately after the event. If you give them 'time out' on the naughty step, then ask them to apologise a few minutes later, the chances are they won't even remember what it is they did.
'Children need to understand the correlation between their bad behaviour, the consequences of that behaviour, and being asked to apologise. A sorry after a long "time out" will be a false sorry. They'll say the word, but they won't make the connection as to why they are saying it. They'll just feel guilty and ashamed and not really understand why.'