Teaching Social Etiquette To a Three-Year-old Is Hard

Family Matters on 10.17.12
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Photo: Aidan Jones / Creative Commons

At the library last week, my three-year-old son Alex refused to say "thank you" for the airplane he pulled from the treasure chest - a reward for every five visits. So he lost the airplane. We walked out amid cries of protest. Finally he announced he was ready to go back and thank the librarian and the airplane was returned to him.

It was a challenging situation for me. At times it would be so much easier just to let him get away with sub-standard manners, but then I remind myself of the importance of social etiquette. What I really appreciated was that the librarian did not say what is so common: "Oh, don't worry about it! It's OK, he can have it." She continued to go about her day, patiently waiting for him to say his words, rather than sabotaging my moment of tough parenting.

Kids are complicated little beings. They struggle to understand the world and its many confusing rules. Parents aren't always able to explain why kids need to act in a certain way. Being a good example is crucial, but I'm coming to think that social etiquette training is a cycle of Expectation, Instruction, Discipline, and Repetition.

Expectation: Kids as young as three can easily know basic courtesies, like saying hello, shaking hands, saying thank you, answering basic questions, making eye contact. Kids respond to parents' expectations very positively, if realistic, which these courtesies are.

Instruction: Kids must be reminded constantly of what they need to do in social settings. Alex and I often talk in advance about how he'll need to behave, and I insist that he always use proper etiquette at home.

Discipline: There are consequences for failing to be courteous. Case in point: Alex lost his airplane till he agreed to say thank you. Engaging in a full-out battle of wills in public is a bad idea, but neither can a kid be let off the hook. When Alex refuses to say thank you, I give him a few more chances, then leave and find a place to sit down and talk about it. Even if he still refuses, chances are he'll think twice about it next time.

Repetition: Kids, I've learned, have selectively short-term memories. Teaching etiquette takes a lot of repeating before it becomes second nature. I think of it like potty training - something that may be incredibly frustrating for me as a parent, but it's an absolute necessity for my child's success in life.

Maybe I'm an old-fashioned stickler for etiquette, but there are few things more lovely in the world than meeting a child who has the self-confidence to look me in the eye, answer my questions, and carry on a conversation. Those are the kids that I want to interact with, the ones I'll remember, and the ones I expect will do best in the world. The least I can do as a mother is furnish my children with the tools to speak respectfully to others.

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