Over the years, the ideas of “let the child become ready,” together with “allow the child discover things by himself” dominated the parenting approaches in this country. A side effect of this focus has been that teaching manners has fallen by the wayside.
When is it too early to expect a child to say “please” and “thank you”? When is it too early to instruct a child to make eye contact when he or she speaks, to have a firm handshake, to say “excuse me” when he or she wants a parent’s attention, and then wait to be acknowledged?
Teaching manners is an example of how parents need to be the ones who initiate the learning, modeling it, and expecting the correct behavior. Many parents shy away from this teaching so they can be “the nice person” and not impose something the child is not interested in. Why take on more responsibilities? Let it happen “naturally” and “when the child is ready.”
The child is never going to be ready. It is us, the adults, who need to bring manners up, model the behaviors, and expect them from the child. It can work like coaching: Coach-parent and child have a conversation to lay the groundwork for the expected behavior, and as the child practices that behavior, the parent provides feedback, correction, and support.
When to start? As soon as possible. We all know how happily a baby learns to say, “bye-bye.” The baby smiles, waves his or her hand, starts to vocalize. The more he or she practices, the better he or she gets. Why not do the same with saying “hello”? With asking a new friend, “What’s your name?” With saying “please” and “thank you” and excuse me.” A baby who is immersed from day one in such behaviors, who coached to perform them, and who is expected to do them, will reward us by learning highly important social skills.