News | Published September 27, 2013 | Written by Craig Collison, MD

Raising polite preschoolers

Preschool years are the prime time to emphasize etiquette. Three- and four-year-olds have an insatiable desire to learn, master new skills and please those around them. Although children that age may seem too young to follow certain rules, the first steps they take into the world of good manners will eventually translate into their ability to handle social situations with confidence, as well as respecting the needs and feelings of others. Keep in mind that this is a gradual process, and you will have to continually remind and teach this for years to come. Here are eight ways to get started:

Establish basic standards: It is important to set clear limits about considerate behavior just like you do for safety issues. “We knock before entering a room when the door is closed” should be discussed just like “We don’t cross the street without holding hands.” Before children can develop their own conscience, they need to learn how to regulate their behavior on the basis of how you as a parent discipline them.

Talk about values in concrete terms: Use simple language that your child can understand. If you consistently demonstrate the link between respect and behavior, your child will think that’s how he should want to act and be treated. You might say, “It’s good to be quiet when someone else is speaking,” or “It’s wrong to hit anyone, even when you are angry.”

Emphasize empathy: Because children of this age are just starting to be able to identify with other people, preschoolers are not instinctively considerate. To make your child more aware of others’ feelings, point out when people do something helpful or thoughtful, and talk about how their actions make you feel. You can also use books or movies to encourage empathy. When you read about Cinderella, talk about how sad Cinderella is because her step-sisters are mean to her.

Believe in magic words: When it comes to saying “please,” “thank you,” “you’re welcome” and “excuse me,” parents need to be good role models all the time. Tell your child that when she wants something, or when a person is nice and helpful to her, it’s important to be nice in return. If she forgets to use polite phrases, gently remind her.

Set the stage for sharing: Although sharing doesn’t come naturally, most preschoolers start to realize that sharing has its benefits. Taking turns helps them make friends and play happily with others. To promote sharing, encourage empathy but also rely on discipline. If your child grabs a playmate’s toy, tell him that the behavior is unacceptable. (“It’s not okay to take a friend’s toy without asking.”) Help him see the other person’s point of view (“How do you think Tommy felt when you took his toy?”), and then help him make things right (“Please give Tommy the toy, and tell him you are sorry.”). You can also suggest alternative solutions (“Let’s ask if you can have the toy when he’s done.”).

Focus on meeting and greeting: Preschoolers are ready to learn more than “Hi” and “Bye.” Children may be wary of strangers and avert their eyes when introduced to someone new, but you should teach them to look directly at the person and say “Hello.” Encourage them to greet by name those people they already know. Also, remind them that they need to say “Good-bye” and “thank you” before leaving someone’s house. Children can practice shaking hands with relatives or family friends.

Explain why being polite is important: Go for the obvious. Good manners make others feel good. Kids want to be liked, so tell your child that people like people who are polite. Similarly, teach her the meaning of words like “rude” and “impolite” by explaining that doing something rude or thoughtless makes people feel bad. Rather than using real-life examples, make up ones that appeal to your child’s sense of imagination.

Teach about “the big voice” and “the little voice”: Explain to your child that there are places where it’s okay to be loud and places where they must be quiet. It may be helpful to identify certain voices with familiar situations. His “church voice,” for example, may be a whisper, while his “mealtime voice” is moderate in tone. Remember to compliment your child when he uses the right voice at the right time.

Don’t interrupt: It’s particularly hard for preschoolers to wait their turn to talk when they’re wanting to say something. Explain that interrupting makes other people angry or upset. When your child does interrupt you, tell him you will talk to him in a few moments, then return to your conversation. Even if you end your conversation fairly quickly, don’t give your child the impression that you are giving in to his demands.

Four steps to good phone manners: 

            *Greetings: Teach your child that whenever she takes the phone from you, she should begin with a simple, clear greeting: “Hello, this is Justine.” She may forget to do this when she is excited to talk, so emphasize how important it is to say her name, even if it is her grandparents on the other end.

            *Volume: Preschoolers often start off speaking normally but get louder or drop off to a whisper. You might use simple hand signals to indicate when their voice is too strong or too soft.

            *Duration: Once your child gets used to the telephone, she may want to stay on for a long time. Don’t interrupt her mid-thought, but when you hear the conversation winding down or notice that she’s repeating herself, signal or tell him that it is time to say goodbye.

            *Closing: Teach your child never to hang up or give the receiver back to you unless she has said goodbye to the caller, and remind her that saying goodbye is just as important as hello.

Table manners

Since children will learn good table manners from watching you, try to have meals together as a family several times per week, instead of feeding them early. Preschoolers may have fun playing with their food, but it’s important they gradually learn and practice these basics:

*Wash hands: This is a must. At 3, children may need help turning on the faucet, but by age 5 they should be able to wash hands on their own. Inspect their hands before meals and snack time. If it is a poor job, insist that they wash again.

*Stay seated – and no wiggling: Whether your child uses a booster seat or a regular chair, teach him to remain seated while eating, keep all four legs of the chair on the floor and ask to be excused when finished. Use a napkin and demonstrate how to use one with your child.

            *Say “please” when asking for items on the table.

            *Eat with utensils, not fingers.

            *Don’t make bad comments about the food.

At the table and elsewhere, always keep in mind that your actions speak louder than words. When you are courteous, patient, generous and understanding, you’ll set an example for children of how to act and interact. As they get older, they will be exposed to plenty of examples of bad or rude behavior in the media, but you are the most important teacher and role model. Showing children the nice ways to get what they want is a skill they need throughout their life.

About the Author

Craig Collison, MD

Craig H. Collison, MD, is a pediatrician with Mount Nittany Physician Group. He treats patients from the Physician Group's Boalsburg and Bellefonte locations. Read more about pediatric care at www.mountnittany.org/pediatrics.

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