All about manners

Can you really teach a child courtesy?

My friend Jen likes to tell this story: During her daughter Natalie’s first birthday party, her nephew Ryan was playing with a plastic baseball bat and accidentally bopped Natalie in the head. Jen’s sister — Ryan’s mom — rushed over and said sternly, “What do you say, Ryan?” In a singsong voice, Ryan said, “Thank you!”

The story makes me laugh, but I think I laugh partly out of anxiety, since it reinforces the sense that I’m fighting a losing battle trying to instill a few manners in my kids. When they do exhibit a shred of politeness, it feels at best mechanical, at worst false. I realize they’re only five and three (not counting my infant daughter — we give her a free pass for now), but if they can memorize a dozen Scooby-Doo DVDs, certainly they can remember to say thank you or excuse me once in a while.

Then again, maybe not. Can I really expect people who still put their underwear on backwards to remember the rules of common courtesy? Perhaps good manners just happen to kick in at a certain point, like the ability to throw a ball or the knowledge that your parents are enormously lame.

I decided to launch an investigation. At the very least, I hoped for a magical incantation that would make my toddler stop rooting around in his nostrils or, at best, ironclad reassurance that my offspring will one day morph into model citizens.

Here’s what I learned:

Teaching manners actually does matter

The major question I wanted answered was the one that silently unnerves me: Will my efforts ultimately make a difference? Is there any evidence to suggest that my constant pestering is really going to make my children better-functioning social animals than the kid next door, who likes to melt his action figures?

In a word, yes. Throw a dart at any child psychology journal and there’s a decent chance you’ll find research alluding to the importance of teaching early lessons as a solid underpinning for later behaviour. Research has found that children who are better at regulating their emotions and understanding others’ feelings are rated as more socially competent by teachers, tend to make friends more easily and have better peer relations with classmates.

Numerous other studies have shown comparable results, implying a powerful domino effect: Kids who exercise good manners can navigate the complicated landscape of the social playing field more ably. As a result, they tend to be better liked and make friends more easily. This leads to more successful and varied interactions, which gives them more confidence, which itself confers greater social functioning. And so on.

What do you mean, there’s no manual?

Sometimes I impress myself as a parent, like when I convince the boys to come upstairs for their bath by pretending to be a singing T. Rex. Other times I’m stunned at how fast this talent deteriorates in the face of poor behaviour, at which point I’ll often catch myself saying things like “Who raised you?” or “I just don’t understand why you would bug him on purpose.” In these moments my creativity and patience seem to vanish faster than cheese strings on a field trip.

What I need to remember, say the experts, is to keep it positive while recognizing that repetition is truly the best method. “Lessons about manners are delivered via persistent cuing. It’s that simple,” says Tracy Vaillancourt, Canada research chair in children’s mental health and violence prevention at the University of Ottawa. “With consistent reminders and role modelling, they will eventually catch on.”

But they’re a lot less likely to do so if all I do is make them feel bad, says Roslyn Mendelson, a Calgary psychologist. “The two keys are positive reinforcement and, if you need to correct your child, use humour. Instead of berating your kids for getting up from the table, pretend to glue or staple them to their chairs. The bottom line is to reinforce good behaviour and not reinforce bad. If they say, ‘Dad, get me some milk,’ simply say, ‘I will respond when you ask me nicely.’ When they ask nicely, grant the request. End on the positive without giving a big lecture.”

In the same vein, I should pick my battles rather than expect my kids to master every last obscure point of etiquette — especially since definitions of proper manners aren’t static. “Certain rules remain stable across time,” says Vaillancourt, “while others change with shifting cultural norms.”

Nowadays, for example, it isn’t surprising when your kid’s teacher insists on being called the Gregmeister instead of Mr. Hall, whereas any turn-of-the-20th-century student brash enough to call the headmaster anything other than sir would have earned a ruler across the knuckles. “Some behaviours are acknowledged universally in a society as respectful or disrespectful,” says Michelle Eskritt, a developmental psychologist at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax. “Others are less clearly defined. Teaching the universal ones, like please and thank you, is essential. Beyond that, only you can decide what’s important for your kids.” I guess I’ll stop worrying about when my kindergartner will master the subtleties of email cadence — at least until he can remember to say thanks at the end of a meal.

It takes time

Of course, even if I do teach manners with just the right balance of consistency and cleverness, my positive influence might remain latent for a long while before breaking the surface.

Blame it on children’s still-maturing brains, says Vaillancourt. “Emotional self-regulation and impulse control, what we refer to as executive functioning, are crude in the early years because a child’s prefrontal cortex — the part that tells him to cool his jets — is still under construction. In the first 11 years of life, the PFC is growing rapidly, but it doesn’t stop developing until around the early 20s.”

Boy, kids sure have a lot of excuses.

Berating bad drivers confuses the message

On one crucial point the experts all agree: Far more important than what you say is what you do. “Children model their parents’ behaviour — plain and simple,” says Mendelson.

This doesn’t mean the way you behave just toward your kids; it’s also how you treat everyone, including those annoying drivers.

“Furthermore,” adds Eskritt, “there are a lot of politeness rules you are probably not even aware you’ve learned by watching others. For example, you have an instinctive sense of how close you can stand next to someone in an elevator and that it would be considered both rude and alarming to make sustained eye contact. These are things your children learn largely by observing you.”

Like so many of my parenting questions, then, this one has an answer as perfectly logical as it is quietly intimidating: The journey is a shared one. While the pressure of moulding raw children into civilized grown-ups can be huge, it’s also increasingly gratifying. “Parents just need to keep at it and in time it will come,” Vaillancourt tells me. “Don’t give up.”

As I type these last lines, I’m jolted by the sound of a plate crashing to the kitchen floor. I look up. Oliver, my three-year-old, is staring up at me with a mix of dread and frustration. I lift him away from the broken pieces, tell him it’s OK and give him a hug. After all, he was only bringing his plate to the counter after lunch. Maybe the experts are right. It takes time — but kids do get it eventually.

Great expectations

Teaching your child simple manners early provides the groundwork for them to learn more complex ones later. By starting early, you establish a sense of value and importance, says Roslyn Mendelson, a Calgary psychologist. “As chldren get older, their ability to distinguish and comply with demands becomes more sopisticated.”

So what manners are appropriate at what ages? While there are no hard-and-fast rules, here are some general yardsticks:

• Say please and thank you.
• Learn not to grab.
• Learn not to interrupt.
• Ask to be excused from the table.

Kindergarten & early grades
• Learn simple greetings.
• Maintain proper table manners (sitting properly on chair, not talking with mouth full).
• Learn to “put yourself in the other person’s shoes.”

Middle & later grades
• Learn to use more elaborate greetings (“Hi, how was your day?”).
• Learn other social courtesies (opening doors for others, taking phone messages).
• Exercise tact and sensitivity.

• Exhibit respect toward others (using a proper tone of voice, suppressing behaviours such as eye rolling, sarcasm, playing music loudly or calling friends too late at night).
• Display courtesies expected of adults (though probably less consistently than adults).

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