Helping Children Develop Good Manners
Many parents ask, “How can I teach my child to have better manners?” Manners as social behaviors develop over time. They are shaped by the norms and customs taught by the elders of a cultural group (such as parents, relatives and teachers), and are influenced by a child’s emerging ability to meet the behavioral expectations of their group. This month, we will discuss our understanding of the connection between how a child feels and how a child acts or behaves. Understanding manners as a behavior may be one way to think about the question of how to teach a child good manners.
Manners are a way of behaving. As with all behaviors, how a child feels inside (emotionally) affects what he or she expresses behaviorally. A child’s emotional state, as well as his or her social cognition (or ability to read and adapt to various social cues), play equally important roles in his or her capacity to “have good manners” or behave in a way that is socially acceptable.
The key to understanding why a child behaves or doesn’t behave a certain way is to think of the behaviors as expressions of emotional states. Shyness, for example, is not a stand-alone act, but rather an indication of how a child feels on the inside.
What are Manners?
This may seem like a simple question, but the answer actually varies, depending on whom you ask. On the most basic level, manners are the expression of one’s ability to politely greet others and say “please,” “thank you” and “excuse me.” Beyond that, people’s interpretations and definitions of good, bad, gracious, poor, acceptable or inappropriate manners are as varied as personalities are. What one person may see as an uncomfortable or shy behavior, another may perceive as rude or stubborn.
Appropriate manners are contextual, meaning that what is right for one setting and group of people may not be right for another. An evening at home with family usually allows for more laid-back manners than one might expect at a formal event such as a wedding. Over time, most people develop an ability to read the social cues and setting, and adapt their behavior accordingly. Very young children depend on help and guidance from parents or guardians to learn the contextual influences on what is expected behaviorally.
As we have discussed in previous articles, how a child feels often affects how a child behaves. Children who feel uncomfortable in a certain situation may have a harder time accessing and expressing their otherwise good manners. When parents can see beyond the behavior and understand that there is likely some feeling of discomfort behind their child’s “lack of” manners, a child can be helped in a meaningful way to see that his or her feelings influence his or her behavior. In such cases, an uncomfortable child hasn’t “forgotten” his or her manners but, instead, finds it challenging to behave in a way that meets expectations of that particular environment. Sometimes, a little preparation ahead of time goes a long way. “There are going to be many people at the wedding whom you may not know or remember. I will be there to help you if you feel a little nervous.”
Other times, support in the moment may ease a child’s discomfort. A comment such as, “I know you will say hello when it feels right for you. It’s okay to feel a little nervous,” helps a child understand his or her reluctance, feel respected, and gradually grow into having good and polite manners from a place of mastery.
When to Seek Help
When a child’s difficulties seem to occur across settings and affect his or her ability to participate comfortably in age-appropriate activities, make friends at school and cope with the ups and downs of everyday life, some specialized help in the area of understanding behavior and how it is related to social and emotional development may be beneficial. Take time to consider this option if our other suggestions don’t help.
The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families. Visit lucydanielscenter.org to learn more.