Soon after he started kindergarten, my sweet 5-year-old came down with a whopping case of bad attitude. “Please may I have some juice?” became “Where’s my juice?” Words like stupid and lazy started peppering his speech and, most glaring of all, he started issuing ultimatums. When I heard “If you don’t give me that ice cream, I’m going to spit on you,” I felt like shouting — but instead, I forced myself to bite my tongue. After I regained my composure, I said: “That’s not an okay way to talk. It’s hurtful and unkind. I need you to speak to me with respect, please.”
Respect. Thanks to Aretha, we all know how to spell it. But sadly, in today’s world (where rudeness is so pervasive that even our president gets heckled while making a speech), we no longer expect that everyone will show respect for others. The good news is that we can teach our kids this critical value — and in doing so, we’ll end up imparting crucial lessons in kindness, consideration, honesty, open-mindedness, and gratitude as well. The most effective way to teach kids respectful behavior is to model it yourself, says Victoria Kindle Hodson, coauthor of Respectful Parents, Respectful Kids. But beyond walking the walk, there are plenty of simple strategies you can use.
Demand Good Manners
Acting polite isn’t merely a formality, says psychotherapist Ingrid Schweiger, Ph.D., author of Self-Esteem for a Lifetime. “When kids say ‘thanks’ after something is given to them, they acknowledge that there’s a mutual exchange going on, a give-and-take,” she explains. And by going through the motions, they eventually learn not to expect the world on a silver platter.
Even toddlers can learn to say “please” and “thank you,” while preschoolers should be expected to look people in the eye when they greet them and to say “hello” and “goodbye.” Be prepared to give plenty of gentle reminders. “When my boys were younger I was constantly cueing them to say ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘Excuse me.’ Now, as a result, it mostly comes naturally to them,” says Debbie Oser, of North Wales, Pennsylvania. But sometimes a nudge isn’t enough: If you’re taking your kids someplace that requires a specific kind of behavior (say, your office or an upscale store), make sure they understand what’s expected of them. “Before we go out to eat, we review proper manners and warn our kids that if they don’t act appropriately, they’ll be removed from the restaurant. And we make sure we follow through with that — even if we really want to stay,” says Sarah Natividad, a mom of four in Tooele, Utah.
When your kids successfully mind their p’s and q’s, reinforce their behavior by offering praise — and mentioning why those good manners mattered so much, says Dr. Schweiger. “I tell my boys, ‘It was very nice the way you thanked Tommy’s mom for the cookies. I know it made her feel appreciated for all of her hard work,'” says Patricia Rossia, of Tampa Bay, Florida.