When to Start Teaching Children Manners and Social Skills

When to Start Teaching Children Manners and Social Skills

Many people have asked me when should they start teaching their children manners or social skills.  My response is usually sooner rather than later.  It’s always better to teach the right way to do something initially, rather than not teaching it and having to go back later and undoing what was taught or allowed, and then having to teach it again, the correct way. That method has never made sense to me.  Plus, you end up frustrating yourself and the child as you try to change a behavior that has already been learned to be permissible.  In addition to a child being frustrated, it’s confusing to them.

When to Start Teaching Children Table Manners

I usually tell this story about my granddaughter, Nicole when the question comes up about when to start teaching table manners.  When she was 4 months old my daughter began feeding her cereal.  She had cereal everywhere; on herself, on her mother, and all over the room.  After a few days of this, my son-in-law asked to try feeding her. He placed her in an infant seat on the kitchen counter. He made two changes; first he held both of her hands in her lap with his left hand, and fed her with his right. Second, he held the spoon front and center and fed her only when she faced forward. When I heard about this, my first thought was, “how cruel!”

When I saw her a few weeks later, I was surprised at how well she ate her cereal.  When placed in her infant seat, bib on, she placed both her hands in her lap, all by herself.  And, when she was ready for a mouthful of food, she moved her head to the center where the spoon was waiting.  After each mouthful, her mouth was cleaned with the spoon. If she spit the food, a finger was gently placed on her lips and she was told ‘no.’  Spitting was no longer a problem. Later, when eating more on her own, if she threw her food, she was again gently, but firmly, told ‘no.’  Amazingly, the throwing stopped.

This child has been taken out to eat from this young age and has always been a delightful dining companion.  Some of you might think this is harsh, but remember that this ‘training’ was done with love, gentle reminders, and lots of praise.

Why Teach Children Manners Rules?

Manners and social skills rules help us get along with one another. They are similar to game rules. Imagine a pro football team playing a game with no rules. There would be chaos on the field. How would you know which horse won the race if there wasn’t a rule that said the winner was the first to cross the finish line? What if your teammate knocked you down on purpose and no-one said anything? This is why it’s so important to know when to start teaching children manners and social skills!

Kids need to understand that we need rules so we can coexist within our families and communities at peace and with a minimal amount of strife.  Try discussing these scenarios with your kids:
1.  What if we wanted to go somewhere in the car and there were no traffic lights or stop signs? Do you think everyone would stop and say, “you go first?”
2.  What if we could drive at any speed we wanted? Would we be safe?
3.  What if someone liked your house better than their own and moved in with you?

Games to Play

Teaching children manners rules can be fun when you offer them some role-play ideas of what can happen when we try to live with one another without rules. Set up the following games with your kids:
1.  No Rules – Everyone get in a straight line. When I say 1, 2, 3, go, begin the game. Ready? 1, 2, 3, GO!  Watch their expressions as they realize they don’t know what to do. Think about – What if a game had no rules? How would you know when you scored a point? How would you know when it was your turn? Or who won?

2.  Different Rules – Set up some games where the rules are different. For example, players who are wearing blue get to take two turns, but players who are wearing red have to skip every other turn. Or, the red team has to get the ball in the hoop to score, but the blue team only has to talk about getting it in the hoop. You will hear plenty of ‘That’s not fair!’ The rules of a game are valuable because they help everyone to have fun and keep people from feeling that they are being treated unfairly. Manners rules serve the same purpose. They help people get along and have fun.

Modeling Good Manners and Social Skills “Do as I Do, Not as I Say!”

You are probably wanting to read that title again, thinking it is backwards, and you are right. We all like to think that our children will do what we tell them to do, or ‘what we say,’ but the reality is that kids will model the behavior they see around them.  So from the earliest ages our kids will copy what they see us, their parents, doing and saying. It’s hard to convince a young child that a double standard can exist in their household. They are very focused on ‘what is fair’ or not.

Kids have a strong sense of wanting to mimic what they see as right or correct behavior coming from those they love, look up to, and respect.  Teaching manners to children who are seeing the opposite behavior every day doesn’t work. What this means is that if we want our kids to learn to be kind, caring, polite, and considerate, then we need to be that kind of role model.  Good manners and social skills for children don’t just happen. They must be taught, modeled, and encouraged daily.

4 Steps to Children’s Social Skills Training

When to teach children manners and social skills, and the best methods for doing so, is not easy and doesn’t happen overnight. Many of us give up before the first skill is learned. Keep in mind that if you allow your child to be unruly and disrespectful, you are leaving yourself open to criticism from friends and family.  And, you are doing the child a great disservice by not equipping them with the social skills that will make their lives more fun and successful. Here are some easy steps to remember.  Kids need and want this training; they want to do the right thing, please us, and not be embarrassed with peers.

The 4 Steps:

1.Training – Training is no more than teaching your child the skill you want them to learn. It might be how to hold a fork, put away their toys, or share a book with a sister. Repeat this as often as necessary until the child learns the new skills.

2. Guidance – Guidance is your helping them master the skill, and modeling it for them. This is where it can sometimes get frustrating. Remember, patience is all important here. Offer praise and encouragement each time the skill is successfully demonstrated.

3. Discipline – Discipline is the hard part. Some kids just don’t want to learn something new and will balk. This is the correction that will be needed throughout the learning process. By discipline, I don’t mean harsh punishment, but gentle, loving reminders.

4. Encouragement – Encouragement and praise go hand in hand to keep the child focused on this new behavior. Remember, learning new social skills is a process. Children, even very young ones, want to please the adults in their lives. The praise and encouragement are the most important components that make the child want to repeat the good behavior that we like so much. These are the skills that will eventually become the good habits that will follow your child throughout life.

It’s interesting that most manners and social skills rules don’t change much, other than the addition of new skills to keep up with the times. You can see this in a
study by Vanderbilt University.  

When to Start Teaching Children Manners and Social Skills is Important and COOL KIND KID CAN HELP!

If you’re not sure when to start teaching children manners and social skills, I’ve written two books that will get you started. Tanner Wants to be COOL! picture book for ages 3-9 and Raising a Cool KInd Kid for ages 4-9.  Both books are available at: https:www.coolkindkid.com/books

© Barbara Gilmour

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