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Why it’s vital to teach your kids good manners

In another excerpt from her book "Laying Down the Law," Dr. Ruth Peters explains how sloppy manners can undermine a child.

Today in "Parenting Weekends" we continue a series of excerpts from “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” the most recent book by “Today” show contributor Dr. Ruth Peters.

Law #13:
Insist on Manners
Does it really matter if your child talks back, is a little snippy with you, or is generally obnoxious around adults? You bet it does. A child who never learns how to be polite will become a teenager who has trouble making friends, and an adult who makes a poor impression. It may seem old-fashioned, but there’s no better way to help your child make friends and influence people than to teach him good manners.


Picture this: The family is at Grandma and Grandpa’s house for dinner. You’re helping to set the table, your 14-year-old is yakking to a friend on the telephone, and your 8-year-old is watching television. Not knowing what’s about to happen, Grandma tries to begin a conversation with your son, who’s glued to the tube. At first he seems not to hear Grandma, but after she repeats herself, he tells her, “Hush, I’m watching TV.” Now, some grandmas would clobber the kid, while others would give him a big piece of their mind. But your mom looks stunned, as if the rude remark cut through her like a knife. Embarrassed, and feeling bad for your mother, you reprimand the kid, hoping for a sincere apology. But he adds insult to injury by noting that you tell him to “hush,” “shush,” “be quiet,” or even “shut up” when he’s interrupting you at home. All of which may be true, but you didn’t need Grandma to hear that. Her feelings are hurt, you’re disappointed and angry with your son, and he’s fuming because you’re being hypocritical. Ever been there — in a sticky, humiliating situation where your child has been so rude to another that you want to slide under the rug? We all have.

Ready for some introspection? Think about the way all of your family members treat each other. Consider all the verbalizations, actions, ignoring, and responses that occur daily in your home. Now, how would you feel if your employer, coworkers, neighbors, or friends could see a video of how your family members treat each other? Would it be something that you would be proud of or would it be humiliating and more than a tad embarrassing?

Why is it that we can be so rude, short-tempered and impatient with the folks that we love the most, yet would never consider behaving in this manner with people that we are not related to? The answer lies in the dynamics of family life. We have to put up with one another, no matter what. Most family members admit to loving each other, if not exactly liking the other guy every single moment. In other words, we’re kind of stuck with a grumpy Grandpa, a nagging Mom, an inconsiderate older sister, or a rambunctious little brother. They’re not going anywhere and neither are we. This leads to a tendency to take one another for granted. That’s normal and part of the nature of family life in most homes. We are not on our best behavior because we are so used to each other, assume that members will always be there, and are often so absorbed in our own needs and activities that we cannot see beyond the tips of our collective noses.

That often leads to a distinct family dynamic that is impolite, rude, or even offensive. In other words, we get relationship-lazy, and it’s an insidious process. Not only are the kids culprits, but so are Mom and Dad. Many parents barely get in a few sentences to each other, let alone polite conversation, before dinner has to be made, dishes done, homework supervised, and baths completed. Often children see their folks barking out commands to one another with rarely a civil word spoken. And these are not necessarily folks whose marriages are in trouble — they are just too busy, preoccupied, or stressed out to take the time to see how they are miscommunicating, and are too distant, lazy, or frightened to make some changes.

And then there are the kids. There’s usually a lot of demanding and insisting going on, as well as grabbing and bossing. And that’s just the preschoolers! Older kids can get downright nasty — cursing, name-calling and teasing. And don’t forget that ignoring is one of the most hurtful of behaviors — not being answered suggests that you’re not deserving of a response. Or consider the “grunters” — questions may be answered with incomprehensible mutterings or sounds, basically making effective communication impossible.

Bad Manners Cost Your Kids Big-Time
I’ve found that children who are allowed to grow up engaging in rude, disrespectful, or impolite behavior are generally not well liked by others, as kids and later as adults. Self-esteem problems often result when peers avoid your child, and it’s tough to change others’ perceptions once your kid has been marked as rude or disrespectful. That’s why it’s important to confront the issue now when your child is sarcastic, caustic, or terminally impolite to family members or friends. Trust me, you’re not doing him a favor by looking the other way, as these inappropriate habits are so easily formed yet so difficult to break.

If this sounds a bit like your children, please listen up. It’s probably time to tone down rudeness in your home. Sometimes it may seem easier to ignore inappropriate behavior than to confront it. But in the long run, you usually pay in spades for this laid-back, hope-it-goes-away-on-its-own attitude. So let’s take a look at what you should focus on in order to help change the way that your kids interact with others.

Living the Law
Teach the magic words. “Please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me” are still the basics of a polite vocabulary, but don’t fall into the trap of believing that just because you remind your kids to use these words they'll do so automatically. As with any habit, it takes consistency to instill a new behavior. Expect your children to need consistent reminders until the magic words become second nature. Discuss with your kids what words you’d like them to use to get your attention — instead of interrupting, say “excuse me.” It’s important for parents to regularly use these respectful words and phrases themselves when interacting with their children — modeling goes a long way toward teaching, reinforcing, and maintaining polite verbiage and behavior.

Coach your kids to ask, not demand. Children get into the habit of insisting on privileges or your attention, rather than coming across as requesting it. Although their intentions may be appropriate (they think that they are asking, not demanding), many don’t understand how their verbiage is perceived by others. Teach them that a request is something that usually is in question form (May I please ... ), rather than a statement (Give me the ... ). That’s a safe way of assuring that they’ll be perceived as asking, rather than as demanding. Most folks I know become ornery when kids tell them what’s going to happen (“I’m going to the mall”) rather than asking for permission (“May I please borrow the car?”). It’s really the same process but put differently, and it results in more parental cooperation since the child appears to be more respectful when asking than when demanding.

Focus on tone of voice. Many children have no clue how they are perceived by others. Little ones can appear to be whiney when they believe that they are just expressing their feelings, and teens often seem argumentative when they’re trying to make a point. Teach your kids that they are responsible for both their intent as well as the way they come across to others. Stop it by pointing out the tone and its inappropriateness. Say, “You’re whining. If you’d like me to help you, you must ask politely,” or “I know you’re upset, but we don’t use that tone of voice in our house.” That’s a life lesson that is invaluable — many adults ruin perfectly good relationships by relating in an inappropriate tone of voice, pitch, or volume. Better to learn this skill now as a youngster than to pay the price later as an adult!

Teach the “I message” technique. We all become angry or frustrated by others’ behaviors once in a while, and for some kids, it’s an almost daily occurrence. Instead of allowing them to lash out, teach your children the “I message” technique of describing what is bothering them. The basic structure of this technique is to state “I feel  —  —  —  when you  —  —  — .” For example, calmly stating “I get mad when you come into my room and mess with my stuff without permission” is significantly more palatable (and effective) than hollering “Get out of my room, you moron!” If nothing else, the perpetrator will get the blame from Mom or Dad, and the victim looks like a cool cucumber. And fights occur much less frequently when the annoying party is either ignored or given an “I message,” instead of being verbally attacked, which is bound to provoke retaliation. The “I message” should also include what the child would like the other to do. “Please knock before entering,” or “Ask to play my Game Boy, don’t just take it” are statements that lead to better communication than verbal or physical attacks.

Insist on formal meets and greets. Even though this has become less and less common these days, I suggest to parents that they should assume that a formal introduction is preferable when it comes to meeting new people, especially adults. Mr. or Mrs., Coach or Doctor are all appropriate ways for children to speak to adults who are not family members. If the new friend wishes to be called something less formal, “Miss Sally” may be appropriate for little kids, or perhaps the person’s first name if it is a very close acquaintance.

Dial up manners. Teach your children that if they are to answer the telephone, it must be done politely. “Davis residence” is not only polite but also lets the caller know whether the correct number has been dialed. Ask your child not to give out his first name, as the caller may be a stranger and shouldn’t be given this information. And anyone who answers the telephone (yes, Mom or Dad included) should be expected to write down any messages taken and to give these to the intended person in a timely manner. If there’s no time to write the message, then it should be allowed to go to voice mail or the answering machine. When phoning out, instruct your kids that they should first introduce themselves and then ask for their friend. “Hi, this is Matt. Is Mike home?” presents beautifully and gets the message across clearly. “Yo, big Mike there?” is less than impressive and just may turn Mike’s folks off to the point of thinking twice before letting their kid play with your little heathen.

Use politically correct ways to decline an invitation. Learning to politely say “no” to an invitation is often a challenge, but there are savvy ways to deal with sticky situations. Your child doesn’t want to hurt her friend’s feelings. Teach her how to buy some “thinking time” by saying, “I’ll have to check with my parents first.” Then you can talk about the situation in a calm manner and together determine how it can best be handled without hurting feelings or appearing rude.

NEXT WEEK: Teach kids empathy — through volunteerism

Dr. Peters is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to “Today.” She is also the consultant psychologist for the Family Program at the Pritikin Longevity Center, a nutrition and exercise facility in Aventura, Florida. For more information you can visit her Web site at . Copyright ©2004 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.