Raising a Polite Child

Every parent wants to have polite, respectful children with good manners. Fortunately nature is on our side. Children learn by copying what we do and love to do everything ‘just like mommy and daddy do’, as it makes them feel they are being ‘big’.

Child Smiles in a HatI was having tea with Melissa and two-year-old, André when André got the hiccups. He went, “hic – skies, hic – skies, hic – skies” (‘scuse me’ in Afrikaans). “How on earth did you manage to teach him to do that?” I asked her. “Well, actually I didn’t teach him anything”, she replied, “But if I cough or sneeze, I always say ‘skies’, so he copies me. I’m not trying to ‘train’ him to have good manners, but if I want something from him, I always say ‘please’, and when he gives me something, I always say ‘thank you’. When he is older, he will automatically do those things too.”

Do as I say or do as I do?

Melissa had discovered something very important – that trying to ‘train’ children to be polite can be counter-productive, especially if we begin when they are too young to do it naturally. Prompting children to say please and thank you or wave ‘bye-bye’ can be very embarrassing to them and set up resistance, at an age when they may still have a natural shyness about talking to adults, especially strangers. But if we treat children with politeness and respect, and if they see us treating each other the same way, they will imitate us as they grow. They watch everything we say and do, and are learning, “Oh, so that’s how people are supposed to do it”!

Real appreciation

Appreciation for opening gifts“Good manners are not limited to saying please and thank you”, says Cape Town psychologist Abraham le Roux. “Said without feeling, these can be empty words. How often do we say thank you to the person at the supermarket checkout, without even thinking. It has simply become a habit. Rather we should teach children how to show genuine appreciation to people who give or share something with them. We can help them do this in age-appropriate ways right from the beginning, especially if we understand that young children show their feelings in non-verbal ways”.

Parents who know their own children, will notice how each child shows their appreciation spontaneously in their own unique way. When we give them something, they may respond with anything from a shy smile to a big grin. At Christmas they may show their excitement and delight by jumping up and down, by their shining eyes and the way they rip the paper off their presents in their excitement to find out what is inside – or they may shout with delight, “Look what I got!”

Positive non-verbal behaviours young children use to show appreciation:

  • A smile
  • A nod
  • Direct eye contact
  • Playfulness
  • A physical touch they initiate
  • Excited behaviour
  • A shout of joy
  • Skipping or jumping up and down

“What do we say?”

Adults who understand children, know that they are saying thank you in the most genuine way they know how. If we intervene with “What do we say when someone gives us a present?” the child is likely to feel shamed and humiliated, especially if they have already shown acknowledgement in some genuinely spontaneous way. They will feel we are telling them they did it wrong, and learn that instead of showing their true feelings they must repeat empty phrases that have no meaning to them.

Rather we should allow children to communicate their appreciation spontaneously. As they grow older and watch how we show appreciation to them and to other people, including words like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, doing the same will come naturally. These words will then be added to their spontaneous responses, rather than them censoring their genuine appreciation and repeating ‘polite’ but empty words they have learned to say to please us.

Lend a helping hand

Though prompting children to be polite can be counter-productive, we can facilitate them showing appreciation by involving them when we are being polite or friendly to someone. “Lets go and wave goodbye to Granny”, doesn’t put the child on the spot like, “Say goodbye to Granny now”. Instead we can wave and say goodbye, allow Granny to wave and say goodbye, and let the child participate as much as she wishes. If we make it fun, the child will probably enjoy participating. If it doesn’t happen every time it’s not a problem – toddlers have a very short span of concentration, and may have their attention diverted by something else.

But over time they get the hang of it, especially if the adult is interacting warmly with them. In most cultures, a junior person is not expected to initiate a conversation with someone more senior. The senior person speaks first and then the junior person responds, with a word or a gesture. Children feel the same and should not be expected to address adults unless the adult addresses them. For example a toddler is more likely to respond with a wave or smile if Granny speaks directly to her and says, “Bye Jenny, see you soon”, than if we expect the child to initiate the greeting.

Good manners at Christmas

During the holidays, your child may walk into someone’s house where they are greeted by the sight of a table loaded with cakes, cookies, nuts and sweets. Parents who are in touch with their children can use their cues to get them smoothly through the situation, says Abraham. The child will probably approach the parent with a look or word that means, “Can I?” If the child is very young the parent can say, “It seems my children have spotted your cookies. May they have some?” If the child is older and feels comfortable the parent can indicate to the child that it is fine for them to ask themselves. Parents who are good at responding to the non-verbal cues of their children may well do a lot of the above through eye-contact and gestures, he says. The parent can express their appreciation by saying to the hostess, “Jenny really is enjoying the lovely food”.

Saying Thank You

“Whenever children don’t remember to say thank you to someone, we simply thank the person. The person feels appreciated and children see our model of courtesy” ~ Pam Leo

Thank you letters

Child Writing LetterIf thank you letters are important to you, make them fun to do. Abraham tells how he encouraged his children to say thank you after a happy beach-holiday with elderly relatives. Rather than formal words like “Thank you, we had a lovely time”, he encouraged each child to share something they had done with the aunt or uncle at the beach-house, and draw a picture of it to show appreciation of something that was shared and enjoyed. One child chose to draw a picture of her aunt building sand castles with her, another wanted to talk about, “This is you helping me learn to ride my scooter”. With small children, the child draws the picture and the adult explains in writing what it is, and what the child is saying they enjoyed. “I had fun when you played with me at the beach”, creates a shared history together, he says, and is about expressing the value we have for each other.

Averting a Disaster

Recently while waiting at the counter in the Chemist shop, I noticed a pretty little girl of about three standing next to me – her father was standing on the other side of her. Spontaneously she and I looked at each other and I gave her a smile – she gave a shy smile back. She really was enchanting and was communicating her appreciation of me beautifully. So I said “Hello!” and she beamed at me. Her father prompted gently, “What do we say when people greet us?” The little girl hung her head in shame. She had responded spontaneously to me, and now she was being told she hadn’t done it right.

Content Little GirlI felt dreadful and wished I hadn’t said anything. This wasn’t an appropriate time to explain to the father that parents who prompt their children to say things they consider polite, are really feeling anxious. They see their children as an extension of themselves and want their children to act as they would, in case another other adult assumes they are not raising them with good manners. Thinking fast, I looked at the dad, smiled at him, and said, “Don’t worry. Big people find it easy to speak to little people, but little people find it hard to speak to big people”. He looked visibly relieved that I didn’t see him as a bad father.

The little girl glanced up at him to make sure everything was okay, and when he smiled back at her, she was reassured. Tentatively she looked back at me, so I gave her another smile, which she returned, looking much happier. She snuggled up to her dad and he put his arm around her. The last I saw of them was them leaving the shopping centre, with the little girl sitting on her dad’s shoulders, both looking happy. But it drove home to me how easy it is to shame children and leave them feeling confused about their natural responses of appreciation – which had been what she was giving me before she was prompted to do something that would be unnatural for such a small child to do.

Take the test

Teaching children good manners begins with us showing them respect. “Some of the disrespectful ways adults treat children have been said and done to children for so long, we are often unaware they are disrespectful”, says parenting expert, Pam Leo. When you were a child did any adult ever:

  • Prompt you to say please and thank you?
  • Insist you say you were sorry?
  • Force you to share your toys?
  • Prompt you to say hello or goodbye to visitors?
  • Demand that you hug or kiss family members or friends when you didn’t want to?
  • Give orders instead of requests?
  • Talk about you in front of you as if you weren’t there?
  • Can you remember how it felt to be treated that way?

Now go through the list again and see how many of those things you have said to your own children. Like most of us you probably found that you ended up with a high score. This shows how much we are conditioned by our culture to control other people’s behaviour, especially children’s.

We are probably just repeating what our parents did to us and our children will do the same to their children if we don’t break the ‘chain of disrespect’, but the good news is we can! It boils down to respecting people’s feelings, no matter how old they are, and there’s a golden rule… if it’s something that would be disrespectful to say to your best friend, don’t say it to your child. If it’s something you could comfortably say to a visitor in your home or an adult you love, then it is fine to say it to your child, and you will be teaching her respect and good manners, without even trying.

People, of all ages, need to be treated respectfully, and they hurt when they aren’t. Although children are younger than us and in need of guidance, they are more sensitive and more easily hurt than adults. They are also learning from us how to behave, by watching everything we say and do.

In a nutshell

“We teach children to be courteous by modelling good manners. We teach children to apologise by saying, ‘I’m sorry’, to them and to each other. We teach generosity by modelling sharing”. ~ Pam Leo

Written by © 2012

Recommended reading:

  • “Connection Parenting: Parenting through Connection instead of Coercion, through Love instead of Fear”, by Pam Leo (Oregon: Wyatt-McKenzie Publishing, 2007)
  • “Heart to Heart Parenting: Nurturing your Child’s Emotional Intelligence from Conception to School Age”, by Robin Grille (Sydney: ABC Books, 2008)
  • “Raising our Children, Raising Ourselves: Transforming Parent-child Relationships from Reaction and Struggle to Freedom, Power and Joy”, by Naomi Aldort (Washington: Book Publishers Network, 2006)
  • “Playful Parenting”, by Larry Cohen (New York: Ballantine Books, 2001)
  • “Helping Young Children Flourish”, by Aletha Solter (California: Shining Star Press, 1989)

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  • 32 Responses to Raising a Polite Child

    1. Thanks for this article! I’m always looking for ways to be with rather than do to my son.

    2. Hyattasville mom

      What a great article. Definitely good advice.

    3. So totally agree. It’s always a shock to me to discover that there are parents that can behave in a disrespectful way toward their children and without integrity when out and about and have no idea that this is what they are teaching their child! You’re so right; children learn from example more than anything else and it’s up to parents to smarten up their act! We home schooled our kids (you’ll find our stories on my site) and had double the responsibility to set an example of a way to live a life that was respectful of one another, others and the planet and to help them understand that they are not the only ones in the universe!!! Great site. x

    4. even a gma can use a reminder of how i talk to my gkids. i completely agree that the tone and voice you use on kids is what they will give back to you down the road. if you scream and yell to get their attention then thats how they will talk to you when they are older. and they certainly learn by example=good and bad! thanks for the good advice!

    5. I’m glad I had the chance to read this instructive article.
      Thank you for making us aware of all these details which are such a routine for us the grown-ups that we don’t realise the impact it has on our kids.

    6. Great article! I have always believed in modelling behaviour for my girls… If you say you have mumps but you actually have measles, what are they going to catch? Learning to apologise to my girls when I behave inappropriately has been a big lesson for me!

    7. I love the idea that parents must model the behaviors they want their children to imitate. However, children do not learn only through osmosis; they need direct instruction as well. If I was never forced to share my toys as a child, I would have never shared them! Children are not naturally selfless…they are naturally selfish, looking out for their own interests above others’. Parents are given to children to shape their little wills into those of productive, polite, caring individuals, citizens, and stewards of this planet. I wonder if the author of this article is a parent himself or has only observed the nature of children from a distance. A world without parents who are not afraid to “force” their children to share their toys, and “suggest” that they say please and thank you, is a world where chaos reigns…in other words, today’s chaotic world is, I believe, largely a result of child rearing philosophies such as the one described in this very unrealistic article.

    8. Lea, your way is confrontational, stressful and builds resentment in children, and results in children who behave a certain way because they ought to, not because they want to. Children are not born selfish at all, as soon as they are able they start to copy mummy and daddy, hoovering, washing sweeping, my 20 month old loves to help me, this is not the sign of a selfish child. One of his very early words was ‘da gu’ or thank you, not because I told him to say it but because he noticed I always said that when he or someone gave me something or did something nice. I have seen the shame on the faces of children whose well meaning parents are trying to force them to say sorry, or thankyou to another child or adult, they freeze up because they have become the focus of attention in a negative way. Chaos is caused by scared people. Children brought up with respect, and by that I mean parents who have guided their children with respect, are not afraid, they are compassionate, self reliant and independent of thought. This is what our world needs. Next time you need to discipline your child, listen to yourself, your words, your tone, and reflect on what that is teaching your child. Are you respectful, would you speak to an adult this way? It is said you should treat others the way you would like them to treat you, this surely applies to children too.

    9. Thanks a lot.

    10. I think that both the methods mentioned in this article with some judicious use of “force” is the best route. I continually say please & thank you to my children. We also interact non verbally with broad smiles and generous gestures. However Lea does have a point that children are “selfish” at a certain point in their lives. If not given a good example as well as instruction this “selfishness” can become just as much of a habit as the “forced” politeness. I think, just as in all things, the key is moderation in all things. Maintain polite behavior as well as reminders to do so with your children & they will certain grow in politeness as well as obedience.

    11. Pingback: Helping Our Children Be Polite | The Parent Journey

    12. Hi Erika, I have read your post with interest. It’s lovely that there are very positive things between you and your children.

      There are two words there that I’d like to comment on though — “force” and “obedience”. Using force on children is usually not very constructive and is likely only to create resistance. If they give in and do the thing they are forced to do, they may do it, but be left with angry feelings that they will take out on someone else.

      Dr Laura Markham has written a very good article on why we should not aim at having “obedient” children, because it can put them into danger. Children who are taught to always obey what other people tell them to do are more likely to be abused or led astray because they don’t know they have the right to say “no” to people who are older or stronger than they are. Here is a link:

      http://www.ahaparenting.com/BlogRetrieve.aspx?PostID=294011&A=SearchResult&SearchID=5170361&ObjectID=294011&ObjectType=55

      Please feel free to respond if you would like.

    13. P.S. Sorry, I didn’t respond to your comment that children are “selfish”. It’s true that they start off without such concepts as “yours”, “mine”, and “sharing.” As newborns they are not yet aware of themselves as individuals at all and experience themselves as part of the mother-infant dyad. As they reach toddler-hood, they realise that they are separate individuals, have the power to say “no”, and start to become independent. This is an important developmental phase taking them on to the next stage where they will have a healthy sense of self and the ability to say no when it is appropriate. They are not yet always ready to share things, though when they feel good, they may spontaneously hand a toy to another toddler. By letting them live through this phase, and learn what it means to interact with another person, they move on to a phase where they can empathise with others, and are happy to share their things. If we try to force this too early though, they become fixated on the earlier level, because they never completed it, and this can lead to insecurity and inappropriate selfishness later. By letting them be “selfish” while they are finding their sense of self, we are helping them to grow through this phase and move on to the next one which includes kindness and generosity.

    14. Great article. I’m working on teaching my 4 year old how to be polite and use good manners. I feel like hubby and I are setting a good example for the most part but we are human and we get off track at times (yelling, losing our cool, patience). I was in the car today and she was yelling loud. Then I scream very loudly “Stop screaming!” Here I was telling her to stop screaming when I was screaming myself!

    15. Hi Brittany, I love it that you are so onto yourself! I think it’s true for most of us — the things that upset us most in others are the things we do ourselves… It’s so funny when we catch ourselves at it, like the person who yells at their spouse, “You don’t have to shout, I’m not deaf”. There’s a whole parenting language out there with people writing articles and books on “Toddler Taming” and avoiding “Meltdowns.” I bet if toddlers could write they would write books about “How to Tame your Parents” and “How to Handle Mommy Meltdowns”, not to mention “Should you Give your Dad a Time-Out?” and “How to Punish a Parent who Hits.”

    16. Brittany, I have a 4 year old too, as well as an 8 month old. Thank goodness someone else feels like I do! Yes! I make mistakes! I’m human. I felt terrible after first reading this article; so much of this is brand new information. But to know that another person is “just learning” and is in a process of becoming more self-aware makes me feel a lot less ashamed. I just need to remind myself, “When we know better, we do better.”

    17. Hi Melissa, We’re all “just learning”. Parents are thrown into parenting with little or no training, and most of us who work with children started off with nothing to go on when it came to handling them, other than how we were treated by our own parents. Some of us have had to do a lot of personal healing around those issues before we were able to understand how children think and feel. I love it that you say, “When we know better, we do better”. Your little ones are fortunate indeed…

    18. Very interesting post and a motivator for me to be more aware.

      • Hello Heather, I am happy to know that you found the article helpful. I have also checked out your site and am happy to endorse it, since the awareness I find there is sorely needed in South Africa. I will be in touch.

    19. Thank you, this has really made me think. My daughter is only 4 months old, but when people say hello to her I automatically say to her “Ooh, are you going to say hello?” while hoping for a smile. I’ve realised this is down to my own self-consciousness and will stop doing so. Thank you for helping me to be aware of the effect this would have on my daughter if I were to continue.

      • Thank you so much for sharing this Amelia. I know the huge pressure that parents feel under to show that they have a “polite” or “appreciative” child. Wonderful that you understand these issues so well, and I am sure that your little one will grow up under your care, having learned to be spontaneous in her appreciation when she is big enough. It is so heartwarming to meet someone like you who “gets it”!

    20. Wow, this was a great article and I totally remember feeling shamed or humiliated by my parents because I didn’t use my manners in a way they thought was “correct”. I have a question though. My usually very polite and quiet mannered toddler was given a chocolate bar from our neighbourhood bread man today (who she knows and is quite familiar with). He did not hand her the chocolate bar, instead he handed it to me, saying, “if it’s alright with mommy, I’d like to give you this.” I said thank you, but she yelled, “NO! I DON’T WANT IT!” I know she usually loves this particular treat, and she’s never expressed a distaste for it before, so I was extremely taken aback by her behavior. What should I have done in this situation? Lol any help would be appreciated!

      • Wow… This is a tough one. Of course you have no idea why she did it, as we never know what makes toddlers say what they do. She might just have wanted him to give it to her not you, or a hundred other things, like she might not have been the the mood for it at that very moment (toddlers have not yet learned to be dishonest, so she was just saying what she felt at the time).

        I think the best thing is to smile warmly at the person who gave it, and say something like, “I’m sure she is going to love it when she feels hungry — this is her very, very favourite treat!” Later if you meet the neighbour, it might be a good idea to tell him how much your little one enjoyed his kind gift. This makes the giver feel good, and models polite behaviour for the child, without pressurising her. Thanks for sharing!

        • Thank you for your reply. I think it’s a great idea to tell the bread man that my daughter enjoyed the chocolate after dinner! I guess I felt a little embarrassed more than anything, and that’s not fair since she is only 3. I hear a lot of, “oh she’s so well mannered/behaved!” I guess it was about time I was reminded that she is only a toddler. Again, thanks for your input, I really appreciate it.

    21. This is a great article and I’m glad I read it now when my daughter is only 22 months old. Too often, I’ve asked her to say “bye” or “hi” or other things to friends or family. I don’t pressure her and only say it once, and when she doesn’t say anything, I tell her, “That’s okay.” But I still wonder whether just asking her to do it is too much. I was very shy and I know my parents only made me feel more social anxiety by trying to push me to talk. I’m still a little uncomfortable in many social settings, so I don’t want that to happen to my daughter!

    22. Couldn’t be more true! As the saying goes, “children see, children do.” They simply don’t do what we tell them to do. They do what they see us doing. Thank you for this reminder!

    23. I’m reading all this information because I wanna practice it with my little cousin, she’s 2 years old. I’m only 17 years old, but learning all this will make a difference, I’m sure :)

    24. Hi I’m a mother of an almost 6 yo girl and a 2.5 yo boy. I was VERY proud of how my husband and I have raised our little girl probably up to a year ago. Unfortunately many of the good behaviors are diminishing instead of developing as she gets older which puts more pressure on us as the little brother copies her almost always! I don’t like to scream but I find myself screaming way more than anyone should in a lifetime lately bc it’s the only way she hears me! I can ask her politely and nicely to do something 8 times and the wall may move and do it, but she won’t !!!! I hate the new mom I’ve become but unless I threaten to take away something or scream off the top of my lungs, she won’t listen to me. She’s become very rude to her father too and they had an extremely good and close relationship. I’m at a loss and in need of guidance for proper ways to discipline at her age bc apparently all the love I’ve given is not working. By the way, with teachers at school, she is extremely polite. The comments I get from neighbors or school about her might as well be about another child bc she is not polite like that at all with us at home!!! Thanks for ur help:(

      • Hi Sher, I hear you that this is becoming a big problem for you. When children behave badly, are angry or defiant, it is usually because they are upset about something or are trying to discharge the stresses and frustrations that have built up over the day/s. They probably know inside that they need to have a big cry to feel better, so they will push the boundaries, unconsciously wanting you to set a limit so that they can get it all out. The won’t do it with strangers, because that doesn’t feel safe, so they hold it in all day till they are with you and have your attention to help them.

        Setting a limit might be firmly and gently saying, “I can’t let you do that”, or “You must be feelings upset to say something like you just did.” That will usually get the child into a tantrum, which is the way “icky” feelings come out and get resolved. Just stay nearby and let them know you understand that they are upset and are creating a safe space for them to get the upset out. Sometimes you have to physically restrain them, though often they just want to know you are nearby and that you understand they are upset.

        Once they have done enough crying, they will be calm, peaceful and well behaved. If you haven’t done this before it sometimes takes several tries for you and your child to work out how best to do this so that you can both win. So wishing you luck and let us know how it goes.

    25. What a great article, my thoughts exactly.

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