In past generations, teaching a child manners was an important part of early training. Today, manners still matter. They represent our values and social styles. They signal our respect for other people.
But children today may be cheated of the opportunities to think generously about others. We are all in a hurry, and most families are stressed. Manners may be left out or forgotten.
This is unfortunate. I always urge parents to start in early childhood to teach manners and model demonstrations of respect for others.
Every time a diaper is changed on a squirmy baby with any success and cooperation, a parent can say, "Thank you." Every time parents offer a cookie, they prompt a "please."
By the age of 3 or 4, with a child's increased awareness of how her behavior affects others, a new opportunity arises. When she says, "Thank you" or "Please," she receives a reward from those around her: Adults react with admiration.
Your teaching has paid off. You have introduced behavior that she may have appeared to resist at first, but she has taken it in and has even absorbed its purpose. She is now even able to anticipate that this behavior will bring a reward.
Parents can balance the instructions with opportunities for independence.
For example, if a child has a favorite uncle, don't practice a greeting ahead of time. Instead, see whether she tries out these manners on her own.
A parent can prepare a child for an opportunity like this: "Today we are going to lunch at Grandma's. There will be people there who haven't met you yet. Even Grandma doesn't know how big you've gotten. She will be so surprised to see you put out your hand and say, 'Hi, I'm glad to see you!' "
Make it sound like fun. Then let the child handle it. You've planted the seed. If she can live up to it, it will be a real achievement. If not, you may have to wait for the next occasion.
If it does work, don't overwhelm her with praise. When you do, you are taking away her own role in the achievement. Let her experience the reward herself.
Your goal is to give her opportunities to affect the world around her, to realize that what she does impacts others. At 4 or 5, a child is intellectually and developmentally ready for this. She is beginning to develop a public conscience.
Manners matter in friendships, too. Young children often struggle with sharing and taking turns with peers. A child who is left alone because she fails to share may need help making the connection between her behavior and the other children's responses.
A child who tries hard to master his urge to keep his toy to himself, or to take all the turns, takes pride in his own generosity when he wins out against these urges and shares.