By Joseph Sacks, LCSW
Do you feel frustrated at having to constantly remind your child to be polite, shake hands, or say hello? Are you afraid that he or she is becoming unfriendly and is not learning social skills? Many parents are experiencing challenges figuring out manners for kids and consequently express concern. However, remembering a few key points can be very helpful.
We all need to teach our children to be polite, but the question is how? Famed psychologist Haim Ginott explains that politeness needs to be taught politely in order for the lesson to be effective. Yet, pointing out in front of other people that a child did not say ‘hello’ is rude and embarrassing! How is that expected to teach politeness? In addition to being embarrassing, this practice feels like criticism or a minor scolding and generates shame in the child. He or she may often feel that he is “bad” for not saying hello. We shouldn’t want this to happen.
Teach politeness in private
Rather, the time to teach children about social graces, politeness and making friends is not in front of other people. Instead, bring up the topic in private and extol the propriety of saying ‘hello, goodbye, please, thank you and excuse me’, as well as the practice of shaking hands and kissing and hugging where appropriate. However don’t expect the child to get it immediately! It is developmentally normal and appropriate for it to take quite a while for a child to learn the rules and conventions of adult society. Rather than teaching them to be polite, we need to guide them along the path of eventually becoming polite and remaining so as a lifelong habit. But insisting on polite behavior too early can cause resistance, resentment and even rebellion against adult values. It can often backfire and create in the child a distaste for behaving politely, causing stress, conflict and unhealthy emotional states.
Guide by example
Moreover, behaving politely is something best taught by example. Your children will see your exemplary politeness and you can be sure they will eventually follow. Children are often intimidated, scared, or uncomfortable around adults and even other children, and forcing them to engage socially worsens the situation, and is often traumatic for the child. It is the job of adults to engage the child and make her feel comfortable. It is not the job of the child to be responsible for engaging the adult. A child should not be asked to hug or kiss a relative if he or she doesn't want to. That would be using the child to fill the needs of an adult when the reverse is true, as it is the adult’s job to fulfill the child’s need. Adults should only kiss children when the child likes and appreciates it. Kids should have the right to say ‘no’ to being kissed or touched if they don't want to. This teaches healthy self-respect and gives them the ability to protect themselves from ever being touched in a way that may be harmful. In interactions between children and adults it's the child's needs that come first. To find out more about putting the child's needs first, click here.
Respecting the child teaches respect for others
Social graces need to be learned gradually, spontaneously and by osmosis. Don't fear that your child is not learning manners. I promise that he will learn manners in good time. Manners are about respect and can be only taught by first respecting the child's feelings, wants and needs. If he feels uncomfortable saying hello we must respect that and give him time. This will ultimately teach the child to be respectful and polite to others. Just because a child doesn't answer ‘hello’ back it doesn't mean she didn't hear accept and appreciate the hello — you can be sure that she's processing it quietly.
The experience of greeting visitors can be overwhelming to children. Much more important than teaching manners in those moments is teaching the child the valuable lesson that he and his feelings are important, and that his parents are going to work hard to make sure that he is comfortable.
Kids often do not like to talk on the phone. If a relative wants to talk on the phone you can ask the child to talk but if he doesn't want to talk, don't press the demand. Respect his desires.
Don't say in front of the child and other people, “She’s shy.” This labels and criticizes the child. Never accuse a child of being rude.
If you see that a child is struggling with discomfort in greeting people, it can be helpful to reflect to the child quietly, “It can be hard saying hello and talking to people sometimes.” This shows respect for his struggle and provides much needed empathy and understanding. Some adult friends or relatives may truly feel that the child is being rude by not saying hello, hugging or kissing, so we need to explain respectfully to them the principles set forth here about the child’s needs being paramount, not pressuring him, and giving him time to learn politeness. Never sacrifice your child's emotional needs to satisfy the whims of an adult.
Heather Schumaker in her wonderful book, “It’s OK to go up the slide” says that if other parents are pressuring their children to say hello and to be polite to you, you can respond by saying, “That's OK, I see she greeted me in her own way.”
If you want to develop a good relationship between your child and relatives such as grandparents, aunts or uncles, have the relative always greet the child with a small gift or treat. Don't fear you're spoiling the child. The pleasure from the gift will create in the child a positive association with the relative. The child will then become very comfortable with relatives and learn to love them. You can even provide the gift yourself and give it to grandma to give the child. Have her play board games or do other activities such as reading stories with the child. Ask your child, “Do you like grandpa?” “Are you comfortable when you see them?” Listen to and respect their feelings.
Please be advised that the above represents a parenting ideal, and no one should expect to fulfill it perfectly. So have patience with yourself and try to implement new ideas gradually.
Feel free to peruse the rest of my interesting blog, the specialties on my website, or download one of my informative free reports. If you would like to learn more about manners for kids and other issues, and would like guidance or treatment from a child psychotherapist in lower Manhattan, you may call me at 646-681-1707 for a free 15-minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!