When my sisters and I were young, my parents never expected perfection, but boy howdy, they expected politeness. From the time we were old enough to talk, they taught us the importance of minding our p’s and q’s, saying “yes ma’am” and “no sir,” and treating others with kindness and respect. And they’ve expected us to mind our manners ever since. You’re never too young, or too old, to be polite. Here, five etiquette lessons every child should learn.
How to introduce himself or herself
You only get to make one first impression, and how you introduce yourself often determines the kind of impression you make. This lesson is essential as it’s a three-for-one learning opportunity: Showing children how to properly introduce themselves teaches them first, to share their first and last names with their new acquaintances; second, to look that person directly in the eye when speaking to them; and third, how to give a good handshake (a firm, but gentle squeeze is the name of the game).
How to graciously receive gifts
It’s no secret that young children don’t have much of a filter, but it’s important to teach them to accept gifts—even the ones they don’t like—with a “thank you” and a smile. Teach them well, and it’ll save you from serious embarrassment when they unwrap birthday socks from dear Aunt Linda…for the third year in the row. Once your children are old enough to write, buy them some stationery and teach them the art of the handwritten thank you note.
WATCH: The Bush Twins Talk Etiquette, Elbows, and the Perfect Hostess Gift
How to behave at the dinner table
Whether eating at home, a restaurant, or their grandmother’s house, children should know the basics of dining etiquette and table manners. No, they don’t need to know the difference between a dinner fork and a salad fork at the tender age of five, but they should know how to politely ask for someone to fill their plates or share the dinner rolls (after all, while we love To Kill a Mockingbird’s spunky Scout, asking someone to “pass the damn ham, please” just won’t do). Children should also learn to keep their napkins in their laps, their elbows off the table, and their mouths closed while they chew.
How to accept compliments
Here’s a lesson we adults could stand to learn, too. It’s tempting to shrug off a compliment with a self-deprecating joke, a throwaway compliment volleyed in return, or an “oh hush;” but a sincere compliment should always be accepted with a simple, “Thank you. That’s so kind of you to say.” Children who know how to politely accept compliments grow up to be adults who know how to politely accept compliments.
How to show respect to others
Etiquette and good manners are all rooted in the most important lesson children should learn: how to treat people with respect. Everyone, be it the cashier at Piggly Wiggly, the teacher, or the preacher, deserves to be shown kindness and respect, whether that’s through saying “yes sir” and “no ma’am,” offering a smile, or holding the door. Children should be taught to treat their peers with kindness, too: If other kids are eating alone, children should invite them to sit with them; or if they see someone with their hands full, they should offer to help carry the load. They’ll never regret being kind!
Of course, at the end of the day, children will be children, and sometimes, when things go awry, all you can do is show your children—and other parents with misbehaving children—a little grace and a little patience. That’s just good manners.