How to Teach Kids Manners

Young child cutting their food with silverware

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Instilling etiquette in your children is a challenging but worthwhile effort. You might think well-mannered kids are born rather than raised or that your kids will naturally pick up on the way to act from watching those around them. However, while some kids do take to manners more naturally, it's vital to teach and reinforce these important skills to your children.

A well-mannered child will stand out for all the right reasons. Saying "please" and "thank you," being respectful and courteous, and using good table manners will get your child noticed by teachers and other parents—and build their self-confidence, independence, and self-esteem.

Teaching good manners can be a little tricky, however. It can be hard to convince a child to follow basic etiquette when their peers at school or online might not be doing so. The ideal approach combines direct instruction, modeling the behaviors you want to see, and reinforcing your expectations with praise and consequences, as needed, says Siggie Cohen, PhD, a child and family therapist in Los Angeles, Calif. Learn more about how to help your child master basic manners.

What Manners Should I Teach My Child?

In order to teach your child manners, you need to settle on which ones you want to teach. Every family will come up with their own specific standards for the manners they expect of their children, says Dr. Cohen. However, there are some manners that most everyone agrees upon. These include showing common courtesy and respect.

These key manners include teaching children to say "please," "thank you," "I'm sorry," and "you're welcome," greeting people with a hello, using polite table manners, asking before touching other people or things that aren't yours, keeping their belongings tidy, being patient and waiting your turn, owning your mistakes, and being inclusive and empathetic. Using inside voices, keeping your calm when upset, and negotiating conflicts fairly are other components of polite behavior.

Some families want their children to address adults using their full names and/or shake hands in greeting. Looking people in the eyes while talking is another common expectation.

In other homes, taking off your shoes upon entering the house and hanging up your coat is also important. Being a considerate host is also a key part of having good manners. This may include teaching your child to notice if their friend is having fun on a playdate. You may expect them to share their toys, let their friend pick the game they play, and offer refreshments to their guests.

Tips for Teaching Kids Manners

Once you've come up with the list of manners you want to instill, you can start teaching them to your child. The key is to understand that manners are simply the behaviors you want to see in your child. As their parents, your job is to set up behavioral expectations for your kids by teaching them what to do and not to do, says Arthur Lavin, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician at Akron Children's Hospital in Beachwood, Ohio, and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

Provide Explicit Instruction

It might seem obvious to adults that we should look people in the eye and give them our full attention when we talk to them. We likely know that chewing with our mouths open or putting our feet up on the dinner table is just plain gross. But kids may not know or understand this without being explicitly told. "No need to shame or embarrass them, simply let them know exactly what your expectations are," says Dr. Cohen.

It also helps to provide brief explanations of why certain manners matter. You don't need to go into lengthy diatribes or debate the fine points of manners. And your child doesn't need to agree or be happy about your expectations, says Dr. Cohen. But if they understand your reasoning, they will be more likely to follow through.

For example, we don't chew with our mouths open because it's yucky for others to look at. We take off our shoes when we enter the house so we don't track dirt all over the floor. We make polite conversation with our guests because it's a friendly way to be that helps build connections with others. We include our friends in our games because it lets everyone feel welcomed and important. We say, "thank you" to show appreciation and "I'm sorry" to make amends.

Keep Expectations Age-Appropriate

Tailor your expectations to your child’s age and developmental level. Toddlers can start with the basics of saying “please,” “thank you,” and “I'm sorry.” You can also work on their patience, but while they might be able to sit politely for just a few minutes at a time, an older child can be expected to wait their turn for much longer.

Elementary-age kids can be expected to introduce themselves and be considerate guests. By the time your child is a tween or teenager, you can focus on even more advanced manners like phone etiquette and more complex communication skills. However, your child will make manners mistakes. Aim to look at missteps as opportunities for learning.

Sometimes, it’s helpful to work on one area at a time—like basic table manners—before moving on to other skills like the etiquette required for dining out. If you give your child too much to master at once, they may become overwhelmed, says Dr. Cohen. It’s helpful, too, to periodically evaluate previous skills to make sure your child is remembering to use them and to introduce more advanced manners they may be ready to learn.

Be a Role Model

The good news is that you've probably already set the groundwork for polite behavior simply by the way you act. In fact, according to the AAP, the best way to shape and manage your child's behavior and teach them new skills is to be a role model by practicing the behaviors you are teaching them yourself. When your child sees you speaking politely to others, being considerate, following rules, and using other manners, they will follow your lead.

If you expect your child to send thank you notes, ask for things with a "please," and show appreciation when people are kind, make a point to do these things in their presence, too. Whether you're in line at the grocery store, talking to a friend, or calling your doctor's office, your kids are paying attention to your behavior. You can also use these instances as learning opportunities for your child, says Dr. Lavin, say, by having them help you decide what to write on that thank you note.

Additionally, remember that good manners extend to when we're upset, too. So, be careful about how you handle situations when you're stressed, frustrated, or mad. Avoid raising your voice or speaking in an unkind way. Of course, sometimes, losing your temper happens. It's not the end of the world, though. If it happens, simply give yourself space to cool down, then apologize. In this way, you're modeling another important lesson—how to use manners to make amends.

Use Praise

Your child wants to please you. The more positive attention they get for using their manners, the more likely they will become ingrained. So, praise your child when you catch them doing the behaviors you want, says Dr. Lavin. For young kids, this may mean saying, "Great job remembering to say 'thank you.'" Praise older kids for putting their phones away at the dinner table, for introducing you to their new friend without prompting, or for politely greeting a new person.

You can offer positive reinforcement right away or wait for a private moment. Note that some kids, especially teens and those with social anxiety, may feel embarrassed and prefer to get praise without a lot of fanfare. You can also praise them for effort even if they didn't get it exactly right. It can take a while to master these skills and for them to become habitual. Simply noticing that they are trying can help nudge them along.

Kids want to do well but they also are primed to test limits, says Dr. Lavin. "After around 18 months, you see kids playing with parental expectations, and they have to decide how much to comply or resist. This isn't good or bad, it's human nature." Praising them for the polite behavior you want helps them make the better choice.

Practice New Situations

The best way to help instill good manners is to give your child plenty of opportunities to practice these social skills, says Dr. Cohen. Role-playing gives kids a chance to try out these behaviors in a safe environment. You and your child can create different scenarios and switch off on the roles you each play. It can be a helpful strategy when you're entering into a new situation, such as if your child is starting school and will be meeting a lot of new people.

Additionally, for example, in anticipation of your child's birthday party, you could role-play how to use manners while opening presents. Remind them to thank each child and to show enthusiasm and appreciation for each gift, even if it's one they don't really love. Also, practice how to check in with each guest and make sure everyone is feeling included.

You can also play the “What would you do if…” game to practice other situations. For example, what will they do if two kids give them the same gift or if one child is feeling left out? Then, provide feedback and help your child explore how to behave politely and respectfully in these various scenarios.

What to Do When Your Child Doesn't Use Their Manners

Remember that just like learning any other skill, manners take time to master. So, expect slip-ups—and even resistance. By their nature, kids will test your boundaries to see if they really need to follow the guidelines you set, says Dr. Lavin. Consistency and consequences (as needed) will show them that you are serious. And it simply may take lots of practice and reminders for proper etiquette to become part of who they are.

Offer Prompts

If your child forgets their manners, avoid lecturing or reprimands. Instead, simply state the reason why a specific behavior may not be appreciated and what they should do instead. If your child forgot to greet their grandparent or ask for permission before grabbing an extra cookie, simply offer a reminder. This prompting allows them a chance to rectify the situation—and gives them an opportunity for real-world practice

The truth is that they just may have forgotten their manners and need more support before they become proficient at using them. If you make a too big deal about mistakes or give an immediate consequence, you may inadvertently discourage the behavior you want. But if they shift their behavior to follow your expectations, then offering praise will encourage them to put more effort into showing their manners.

Use Consequences

If your child still doesn't comply when you remind them of your expectations, it's time to use consequences, says Dr. Lavin. Ideally, the consequence should be linked to the behavior in question. So, if they're being rude to a friend, then the playdate needs to end. If your teen keeps looking at their phone during dinner, the phone can be taken away. If they are leaving their toys everywhere and not picking them up, the items can be stored away for a set amount of time.

Be sure your child knows what the consequences for not using their manners will be. Then, follow through consistently to provide the message that ignoring good etiquette is not acceptable. Your child may test your resolve, says Dr. Lavin, but eventually, practicing these skills and using consequences can help their manners to become habits.

A Word From Verywell

Teaching kids manners is an important part of parenting. That said, it can be tricky to help your child master all that proper etiquette entails. By using consistent messaging, clear explanations, reminders, and consequences (as needed), you'll instill good manners that will make you—and your child—proud.

7 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Academy of Pediatrics. How to shape and manage your young child's behavior.

  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. Components of good communication.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Milestone moments.

  4. American Academy of Pediatrics. Independence, one step at a time.

  5. American Academy of Pediatrics. Everybody gets mad: helping your child cope with conflict.

  6. American Academy of Pediatrics. Positive reinforcement through rewards.

  7. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Anxiety and children.

By Sarah Vanbuskirk
Sarah Vanbuskirk is a writer and editor with 20 years of experience covering parenting, health, wellness, lifestyle, and family-related topics. Her work has been published in numerous magazines, newspapers, and websites, including Activity Connection, Glamour, PDX Parent, Self, TripSavvy, Marie Claire, and TimeOut NY.

Originally written by
Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin

Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, international bestselling author and host of the The Verywell Mind Podcast.

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