Whether it’s shaking hands, kissing on the cheek, bowing, saying please, or speaking respectfully to your elders, manners are a mainstay in every culture. Yet in articles, classrooms, and kitchens around the world, conversations are buzzing about politeness heading downhill while rudeness climbs to take its place.
In light of this perception of vanishing politeness, it’s more important than ever to introduce your little one to manners. But why? And how do you do it during the baby and toddler years?
Why Manners Matter
We tend to think of manners as behavior: Saying please, thank you, excuse me, or I’m sorry. Holding a door open for someone with their hands full. Helping clear the table after a meal.
But manners are more than words or actions; they’re a deliberate way to show respect, care appreciation, and remorse. In short, they’re integral to social skills, without which we can’t form or maintain relationships, collaborate with others, or behave in civil ways.
Let’s take a closer look at the roles manners play in everyday life:
They contribute to civil behavior.
In this article, Pier Forni, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who has written books about manners says: “The rules of good manners are the traffic lights of human interaction. They make it so that we don’t crash into one another in everyday behavior.”
They support relationships.
Research shows that from making a friend at the playground to keeping a marriage strong, manners as simple as saying thank you leave an impression of warmth, and help people begin, strengthen and maintain social bonds.
They encourage gratitude.
Studies on gratitude keep churning out the same conclusion: Gratitude is good for you. Among other things it boosts your health, happiness, and relationships.
They help you land jobs.
Experts from staffing agencies to CEOs say that manners (beyond being likable and knowledgeable) are essential when it comes to hiring. They engender confidence that you’ll be an effective collaborator, a good networker, and an ethical employee.
They encourage us to disconnect from technology and connect to people.
Deliberately putting away your phone to be polite in certain situations (like mealtimes) preserves the valuable social connections that happen during rituals of togetherness.
They increase personal happiness.
Research shows that manners involving small acts of kindness or service to others make you feel happy.
How Can You Teach Manners to A Baby or Toddler?
Okay, so manners pack a punch in daily life, but can you really teach them starting in babyhood?
The short answer is yes, which we’ll get to below. The long answer is that true manners emerge down the road because they go hand-in-hand with hefty concepts like perspective taking and empathy — concepts your little one won’t fully grasp until sometime in elementary school. But, like so many areas of development, the seeds of manners are planted long before they sprout.
Here are simple, expert tips for introducing your baby or toddler to manners:
Treat your child with kindness and respect from the get-go.
This is a key to building a foundation for manners. And don’t worry, you won’t spoil your child; this parenting style teaches you how to pair emotional connection with high expectations.
Play games involving manners.
Our BabySparks program has fun ideas for this, which you can find in the “social- emotional” section.
Use manners when you talk, play or go through daily routines with your child, and allow her to see you using them with others.
Read books about manners.
This is a popular one.
Teach the why of manners:
Go beyond simply teaching your child how to be polite and teach her why to do it, too:
“Let’s say sorry to your friend. It hurt when you hit him and he feels sad.”
“Let’s say thank you to Grandma. She made these cookies for you!”
“Thank you for bringing me your cup. That helps me a lot!”
Again, your little one won’t fully understand these explanations at first, but doing this over time teaches her that manners involve caring about others.
When it comes to childhood manners, one of the trickiest to teach is sharing. You can read all about why it’s so hard for toddlers to share here, how to teach the building blocks of sharing here, and how to manage sharing squabbles here.