Have you ever wondered what it must be like to be a child in today’s busy grown-up world?
What with the information age and the incessant noise, it is hard enough for grownups to be heard. Can you imagine how much harder it must be for kids?
As an anthropologist, I will tell you this – good manners make it a lot easier to cut through the noise and be heard. Manners are the social glue that allows disparate members of society to come together. Adults need to teach children this language, which is essentially what social etiquette is, so they can communicate with peers and adults in order to give them the most advantages in life.
I have worked the last seven years in Children’s Ministry and Early Childhood Education and I have observed that adult responses, both positive and negative, are based on basic manners.
I have noticed that even children with conditions or special needs that require extra patience and love from caregivers can elicit consistently positive adult responses and increased patience simply by following basic etiquette rules. My middle child falls into this category, and we have maximized her teachers’ patience by insisting on her use of the communicative language that is etiquette.
All children deserve the very best start in life, and a positive interaction with the adults in their lives helps children develop a healthy self-esteem. This in turn begets more positive interactions, and so on and so forth.
And of course, the opposite is true of negative interactions.
Because of this, giving kids a common language and a set of guidelines to navigate interactions is really giving them the tools to make themselves be heard, nurture faith in their own capabilities and set them up for future success.
So, here is a list of 32 etiquette rules that all parents should teach their children –
Greetings and Farewells
These are the etiquette rules that even adults could use a refresher course on. Being consistent and practicing potential social situations will result in basic positive conversation that becomes second nature:
1. Greet someone by their name if you know it and ask them if you don’t: Greeting someone by name is a sign of respect. It also indicates that the person is valued. Because of this, teach children to always greet an adult by the requested name or ask if they don’t know it. (As an aside, very few adults still insist that you call them by Miss, Mrs. or Mr. and then their last name. But, if you aren’t sure it is always a good idea to ask.)
2. Don’t ever be afraid to ask again if you have forgotten: People understand that sometimes you forget names. Everyone does. It is always ok to say, “I am so sorry, I can’t remember you name, could you please remind me.”
3. Always look them in the eye: Looking someone in the eye when you are talking with that person is a good rule for everyone, not just children. Additionally, teach your kids to best avoid distraction; it signals to the person to whom they are speaking that he or she is not important. Looking someone in the eye is a simple but effective way to help your children win over the hearts of every adult they meet.
4. “It’s nice to see you.”: Adding positive comments to the beginning of a conversation is important. Examples of such comments are, “It’s nice to see you,” or “What a pleasure to run in to you.” Going beyond the standard greeting shows that your child values the person they are speaking with.
5. “Thanks for having me:” Whether at parties, playdates, Vacation Bible School, child care or Grandma’s house, you should teach your child to thank the person for inviting them, having them over, or taking care of them; they will be going two steps beyond a simple thank-you as a result. It shows gratitude, which is a value frequently agonized over as lacking in today’s youth. It is a definite winner with the adults in your child’s life.
6. “How are you…” and wait for the answer: We all use the automatic “Hey, how are you?,” but what we often forget is to stop and wait for the answer. Teaching your children to ask, and then listen, is the first step to the next etiquette rule.
7. Remembering details and active listening: This is one etiquette rule that is simple to do, but has a meaningful impact on people’s perceptions. Taking the time to remember names and specific details (such as an illness or the recent return from a vacation) implies care and respect.
Additionally, if you have a child who is super shy and hides behind your legs every time you meet someone, it is ok to respect that… to a point. In reality, those are the kids that need these “scripts” or language of social interaction the most.
My suggestion would be to pick just one to start with, such as looking someone in the eye and saying hello, even from behind your legs if necessary, and work upwards from there. Start slowly.
What is never necessary is forcing the child to hug and kiss or otherwise physically engage with family member or a friend. It is perfectly socially acceptable to smooth over an offended relative’s feelings by saying, “I am sure he will warm up to you in a bit. Let’s not force the issue at this time.”
Children are very physical beings. They love to run, jump, tumble and play. Add in the fact that they have limited impulse control and are quick on their feet and you have a recipe for disaster when it comes to interacting with adults, especially adults who are not used to or simply don’t like being around kids. By teaching your child the following physical etiquette rules, you can assure your child can achieve success and impress even the least forgiving adults:
8. Be aware- Stop and Look: Children are often blissfully unaware of their surroundings. They tend to jump from one impulse to the next. For example, I took my kids to the zoo once and while we were at one exhibit visiting the elephants, they suddenly saw something interesting across the way. Without a thought to their surroundings they dashed across the path, nearly causing an accident with an older gentleman in a wheel chair; he came very close to running over my two year old, barely stopping in time. The gentleman was extremely shaken and understandably angry. I apologized as best I could, but from that point on I vowed to remind my children constantly to stop and look both ways before moving, not just across the street, but everywhere.
9. Red Light, Yellow Light, Green Light: You may have noticed that teachers, swim instructors, soccer coaches and many other adults in your children’s lives use this valuable tool. Using the green light as “go,” yellow light to indicate “slow down” and red light for “stop,” you can control your children’s movements without yelling. Start out as early as you can and sell it as a game. Soon, after enough practice, it will become second nature and they will learn where it is okay to “go,” where it is necessary to “slow down” and where they must “stop.”
10. Hands off the glass: This one always seemed like a silly etiquette rule to me. I heard about adults complaining when children put their hands on glass surfaces and how irritating it was, and I thought it was just an example of people being overly particular. I thought this right up to the point when I was required to keep the front window clean at a job I held. It got to the point where I would cringe every time I saw a baby toddle up to the window with fingers wet from teething or eating something, resisting the urge to dramatically jump the counter and stop the child. Teach your kids not to put their hands on glass and your local banker, dance teacher, store owner, librarian, doctor’s receptionist etc. will thank you.
11. Don’t grab: I have very vivid memories of my Mom gently taking things back that she had just handed me and starting over… again and again. I have seen her do it with my children. I understood its importance as an etiquette rule, but I never really understood the safety aspect until my friend’s son, not quite 2, grabbed a knife out of her hand. After that, I realized that not grabbing is not just an etiquette issue, it is a safety issue. If your child is a grabber, take back what he or she grabbed but do so gently, then nicely hand it to them again. Do this until your child knows that it is never acceptable to grab from anyone.
Eating (At the Table!)
Eating is actually a landmine area for etiquette. It is one of the most critically important, as well as the one area where specifics can change depending on culture and company. As children grow, they eat quite frequently with other people. They attend birthday parties, spend time with relatives, have holiday dinners, and go over to friends’ homes for playdates and sleepovers. Eating is the one etiquette area that can be started as soon as a baby is born.
Things like lunging at the breast in anticipation of nursing, or grabbing the bottle from Mom’s hands is the perfect place to start; pull baby back, gently explain patience and start again. Babies that young won’t understand your words, but eventually they learn that if they grab the bottle before it is offered or shove a hand under your shirt trying to nurse, that they aren’t going to get what they want.
Toddlers can be taught not to throw their food, how to use silverware and not to shove giant wads of food in their mouths. Preschoolers can be taught to set the table, to eat with proper manners and, when given the right tools, how to serve themselves.
Eating etiquette is critically important from the first playdate snack to your child’s first dinner with his or her boss. Social eating can be the place where your child’s success can be made or broken. The tips I have provided should arm your child with the most up-to-date tips on social eating:
12. Eating off of someone else’s plate – even Mom’s – isn’t a good idea: We have relatives who play a game in which they steal food off of each other’s plates. They all think it is hysterically funny and take pride in sneaking up and poaching food items from one another. That game might be fine at home when the whole family is in on it, but it is not so funny when it is done to someone who is not in on the joke. It is never okay to eat off someone else’s plate. It is just as easy to politely ask for more, even if that “more” ends up coming from Mom or Dad’s plate.
13. Don’t forget house rules: In our household you may ask to be excused from the table as soon as you are done eating. However, when we were visiting some friends on the West Coast, we quickly discovered that in their house the rule was that everyone had to sit at the table until the last person was finished. After that, my husband and I decided that we would teach our children to always ask about and follow any house rules when it comes to table etiquette.
14. The No-Thank-You Bite: We all have food we don’t care for. Thankfully the days are gone when we are expected to clean our plates regardless of what is in front of us. Instead, teach your kids to take a no-thank-you-bite of something to be respectful. Let them know that afterward it is okay to politely say, “I am sorry, I don’t really care for….,” or “…is not my favorite.” Make sure you let them know that is never okay to tell the person feeding them that they think something looks disgusting, gross or that they hate it (that includes Mom’s cooking).
15. “Can I help you with something?”: Not just for mealtime, this is a great all-around skill. It is especially polite, before or after being fed, to offer to help set or clear the table or dry the dishes.
16. Napkin in your lap/elbows off the table… usually: These are “old fashioned”’ etiquette rules that many people are more lax about these days. However, since children don’t always know what the house rules will be, teaching them to do these things will ensure they always err on the side of caution.
17. Don’t reach. An oldie but a goodie. Reaching across people to retrieve something out of reach is not just about etiquette. Every parent knows the frustration of a glass getting knocked over and spilling across the dinner table. Politely asking for something to be passed can avoid hot coffee in someone’s lap, and that makes everyone happy.
18. Excuse me from the table: This is a biggie! We make the children in our three year old preschool class do this. As soon as your child can speak, you should begin introducing him or her to the concept of excusing oneself from the table. This is not just for the end of the meal either; it applies every time your child needs to leave the table.
Hooray, Presents! (And Other Party/Guest Etiquette Rules)
Parties are another time when your children have contact with others, often without parents. Because of this, hosting and attending parties are important moments to consider etiquette:
19. Invitations: Children’s birthday parties can be expensive. Because of this it is not always possible to invite everyone you would like. Teach your children to be discreet in passing out invitations and not to talk about the party in social settings unless everyone is invited.
20. RSVP: Just do it. I am guilty of this as well, but nothing is more frustrating than wondering if you have the correct amount of party supplies, including too little or way too much food. Text, email or call, it doesn’t matter how, just say if you can attend.
21. Being a good guest or a good host: It is never too early to teach kids to ask what their guests want to do, or to help pick up after a party. Teaching kids to make their guests welcome and comfortable will lay the groundwork for navigating future social situations in adulthood. Making sure your children understand how to be good guests will pave the way to future invitations.
22. I already have this, I didn’t want this…. just say thank you: This one is self-explanatory. Teach your children to be polite, hide their disappointment and be grateful for the thought.
23. Find one nice thing to say about the gift: Taking the time to look someone in the eye and say thank you is a great rule, but if you are looking to maximize social impact, find one nice thing to say about the gift, even if it is only, “I can’t wait to use this.”
24. Thank you for coming/ Thank you for having me: Standard fare, but critically important.
25. Thank-you Notes: There are many creative ways to do this, but the simplest is to teach your children is to send hand written notes to anyone who was not present at the time the gift was opened, anyone who has gone “above and beyond”, and any child who has taken the time to attend a birthday party for your child. They can be as simple as, “Thank you for [the gift], [one nice thing about the gift].” Preschoolers can “sign” their name, elementary school aged kids can copy or write their own notes.
Interacting with Adults
While there is no arguing that children are more insulated now than in years past, all children will eventually have to interact with adults that are not parents. The following skills can help ease those interactions and make sure your children are always welcome:
26. Wait to be spoken to with elders: This is a very old-fashioned rule, and one that has fallen out of favor in recent decades. I posit, however, that in today’s technological world where it is hard to tell when an adult is busy (awkward Bluetooth moment anyone?) this is actually an important tool to ensure that children are not interrupting.
27. Teaching kids to identify the break in the conversation: Almost everyone knows to teach their children to say excuse me, but the 21st century moves fast, so you need to go one step further and teach your children to identify a lull in the conversation; it is then acceptable to interrupt.
28. Is it interruption worthy: So your children know how to interrupt politely, now it is time to teach them to identify if it is even interruption worthy. Is it a kid-sized problem or an adult-sized problem?
Phone/Technology Etiquette Rules
In today’s fast paced, instant-access society it is absolutely crucial to mind your words, especially in print. In the age of screen-shots, message forwarding, group messaging and accidental recipient foul-ups, it is important that words or pictures reach the person for whom they were intended.
It is especially important to start teaching technology etiquette rules at a young age these days because so many elementary and middle school kids have access to or own their own cell phones. Internet capable devices in the hands of younger children necessitate more diligence in determining what they are doing on them, and taking appropriate action if necessary. Here a few simple etiquette guidelines to consider:
29. Mind your words: Bullying used to be something that only happened in person. Most parents teach their children that is important to be kind in person, that it is important not to bully eye-to-eye (which is why it didn’t get its own section). However, making unkind comments and calling people names has now gone cyber, and often—if not usually—flies under the adult radar. Make sure your children understand that words can hurt.
30. Only send things that you wouldn’t mind becoming very public: We have all heard the stories of pictures or text messages being unintentionally sent to the wrong person, or sent to the right person but still ending up in the wrong hands. Technology can be dangerous and it is crucial that we teach kids to handle it with utmost caution. Pictures, texts and IM messages can take a dark turn and the Internet can be forever. Kids don’t always see the danger of damaging their reputation until it is too late.
31. Put your phone away in social situations: Seriously. I know it is hard. I am guilty of the same thing, but we need to teach children to be present in the moment. If we don’t teach them to focus on one task at a time now, they won’t have a chance when they get older. Teach them to focus rather than multi-task. Now, take the advice one step further and put your own phone down so that you can be present with your children. Turn off the ringer if you have to, but take the time to show them that you value them by modeling best practices.
32. Hand signals can avoid phone interruptions, among other things: Teach hand signals to avoid phone interruptions. Now that personal devices have infiltrated the business world it is not uncommon for employees to be able to work from home, the park or the soccer field. To continue this trend, which is beneficial for all parents, it is important to teach ground rules to our children so that telephone conversations can be completed without unnecessary interruptions.
A great way to accomplish this is to teach kids hand signals. The signals can be specific to your family and your specific needs; you are only limited by your imagination. Hand signals are also great beyond phone conversations. Silent “no” or “stop” signals can curb behavior without having to shout across a room.
Thank goodness the days of not wearing white after Labor Day, or standing every time a non-parental adult entered the room are long gone.
That said, in today’s new world, etiquette rules are more streamlined, but even more indispensable. The fantastic thing is, if you give your child these simple tools you will be amazed at the positive difference it makes in their ease of navigating the world around them.
Positive interactions beget a confident kid, and a confident kid is a happy kid who will grow up into a happy adult.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Take a quick minute to picture your child in a social situation. Do they exhibit some, or all of these etiquette guidelines? If not, it’s ok, kids are a work in progress. Pick one– just one– of the etiquette rules off the list and then start practicing. Practice makes perfect after all. As your child masters one, you can then add more in as you feel ready.
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Children grow and change, so it is important to do a periodic check-in with how well your child is “speaking” the language that is social etiquette. Depending on the need, this could be yearly, monthly, weekly and in some cases, daily. Children experiment with different behaviors over time, so don’t worry if you need to step back and get back to basics; it is all about the journey anyway.