Politeness matters. Knowing when to say “please,” “thank you,” “excuse me” and when not to chew with their mouth open or grab at toys. Such niceties are often overlooked, but they express empathy, understanding, and basic decency. Now, of course, no parent wants to raise a kid so polite and demure that they become a brown noser or pushover. Parents, then, must walk that thin line and raise kids who are kind and socially aware, yes, but who also have a sense of self guided by integrity. That’s no small order, says Dr. Jack Maypole, a pediatric doctor who specializes in developmental and behavioral pediatrics and who is an Educational Board Advisory Member for The Goddard School. But, with awareness, it can be done. Here’s what to know.
Why Politeness Matters
Teaching kids how to act with basic decency and discretion will help them go far. “We all want to live in a civil society,” says Dr. Maypole. “For the greater good of everybody, we want to live in a world where people are kind to each other, and pass on respect. One of our jobs as parents is to raise the next generation to be good to each other.”
Maypole adds that everyone’s idea of politeness varies as it’s influenced by culture, upbringing, experience, and parental point of view and philosophy. Nevertheless, basic decency should shine through.
When to Teach Politeness
Like most traits, parents can start modeling being polite from birth. While it’s a trait that kids won’t truly start exhibiting themselves until they’ve got some motor and speech skills tamped down, kids are always watching parents and how they interact with others.
“Modeling politeness flows from being good to our kids, and modeling behavior that we would like our kids to demonstrate as they get older. That can include how we respond to them when they’ve done something wrong, and when they’ve done something right, like when we catch them in an act of kindness.” Parents should react positively to those moments, like if a kid shares their after-school snack with a friend without being asked. Praising the moments will help kids get that it’s a good thing to do.
How to Model PolitenessWalk The Walk
Like trying to model any positive behavior, parents won’t get very far if all they do is admonish their kids into engaging in polite behaviors without exhibiting those behaviors themselves. So in other words, parents can’t tell their kids not to burp at the table and then burp at the table or order them to say please and thank you to people who work in food service and then not do the same, Maypole stresses. Unless parents constantly exhibit behaviors that model politeness, their kids can think they can get away with being rude, too.
Engage in Relentless Repetition and Coaching
“Teaching politeness will benefit more from relentless repetition and coaching than anything else,” says Maypole. Being consistent in reminding kids to engage in polite behaviors (like answering the house phone the way you want or by putting their table napkin on their lap before they eat or putting their phone away when they are being talked to) will help kids internalize that these behaviors are not just recommended, but a way of being. Doing these things consistently will help polite behaviors become part of an unconscious process — as simple as breathing.
Intercept Bad Behaviors and Help Them Engage in Positive Ones
Parents should avoid scolding their kid when they are impolite, and instead, try to positively redirect a kid from doing a gross thing with questions and prompts that could help them change their behavior. If a kid is about to pick their nose (or is mid-pick) offer them a tissue and explain to them how much more sanitary and clean that is. If they’re reaching across someone at the table ask them if they would like the salt and give it to them and tell them to ask next time, Maypole stresses. It’s not about punishing kids for being impolite; it’s about helping them realize they can be polite if they do certain things a certain way.
Take The Long View
“We don’t teach our dogs to pee outside on a Wednesday. We don’t teach our kids to use the right fork all of the sudden. It’s something that happens over months and years. But it’s best done early, initially visually, and then when they are toddlers, you can start to coach them through what you prefer them to do,” says Maypole. No four-year-old is going to have it all down and be able to tie a Windsor knot. But they might be able to know how to say please. So take it easy!
Don’t Limit Politeness To Table Manners. Make It About Kindness.
Not every kid needs to go to an etiquette school to be a good person who thinks about others and tries to engage with the world in a kind, generous way. Parents should make sure that when they are talking about being polite people to their kids, they’re modeling it in terms of being kind more than anything else. That looks different for everyone, says Dr. Maypole. “Some people might use a spiritual frame: we’re supposed to be good unto others. Other people may be more secular in their approach, but the vibe is the same: the Golden Rule. Our job here on the planet is to be good to each other, and that starts at home, and that starts every day here in the family. Politeness is a form of kindness and respect so let’s pay that forward to each other,” he says.
An example: say your kid has a really bad habit of cutting the playground line to get on the fun slide. This is probably not malicious; you just need to talk to your kid and make sure that they are aware of their surroundings before they go on the slide again. Tell them that there’s a line and that other people have been waiting their turn. Wait with them in line if you have to. Praise them when they are patient.
What To Do If You Expect Your Kid Is A Brown-Noser
There is a difference between being a kind person and being so kind that you might be dishonest or lack integrity, Dr. Maypole warns. we want to raise our kids to be independent, good people of integrity. You don’t want a kid who won’t stand up to a manager when they got older who has a bad idea or fears telling the truth because they don’t want to be considered impolite.
“We want to raise our kids to be independent, good people of integrity,” says Maypole. Politeness is one lesson — but that should go hand in hand with teaching kids to be genuine, authentic, and most importantly, sincere. If parents suspect their kids are being a bit of a brown-noser, they should first look at themselves: Do they lie a lot in front of their kids to smooth over other people’s feelings? Do they suck up to peers? And then they should talk to their kids.
“It’s incumbent upon ourselves, as the grown ups, to be self-honest. To examine what we regard as important. Life is improv, but it’s good to have some things thought through as you march through that journey with your kids in parenthood.”