Can a 3-year-old learn social etiquette?

When our family went for a walk along the beach last night, an elderly gentleman sitting in a lawn chair addressed my three-year-old son with a big smile: “Hi there, young man. How are you doing?” My son ignored him and walked right past. Horrified, I yanked him back and told him that the man had just asked him a question. He pulled away, refusing to look the man in the eye. I tried again to get an answer out of him, but no luck. I apologized to the man, had a few minutes’ obligatory conversation in order to make up for my son’s rudeness, and left with a renewed conviction to train my child with better manners.

Photo: AK Rockefeller/Creative Commons

Kids are complicated little beings. They’re struggling to understand the world and all its strange rules that don’t always make sense. Parents can be confusing, too, by sending mixed messages and not being able to explain in child-terms why kids need to act a certain way. Of course, teaching by example is crucial, but I’m coming to think that much of social education is a cycle of Expectation, Instruction, Discipline, and Repetition.

Expectation: It’s not too much to expect kids as young as three to know basic courtesies, like saying hello, shaking hands, saying thank you, answering basic questions, making eye contact. Think of everything else they’re able to learn at that age; why not start etiquette training? Shyness, in my opinion, doesn’t enter into the equation because using the “He/she’s just shy” excuse won’t get them anywhere in life. Kids respond to their parents’ expectations very positively, if realistic.

Instruction: Kids need to be reminded constantly of what they need to do in social settings. Take your child with you to witness adult exchanges. Tell them they must answer questions and rehearse the usual responses. Insist that they use proper etiquette at home – for example, saying “No, thank you” and “Yes, please,” even when speaking to Mom and Dad.

Discipline: I think that kids need to feel uncomfortable for not complying. If my son doesn’t answer someone’s greeting, I don’t want to make an excuse, laugh nervously, and leave. Instead, we remain there for a couple more seconds, I repeat the question, and usually it works. If nothing’s happening, I try to leave as graciously as possible, only to sit him down and have a serious face-to-face chat immediately after. He realizes he’s done something socially inappropriate and we talk about what he’ll do next time round.

Repetition: Kids, I’ve learned, have selectively short-term memories! This sort of lesson takes a lot of repeating before it becomes second nature. I think of it like potty training – something that may be incredibly frustrating for me as a parent, but an absolute necessity for my child’s success in life.

Here at my house, besides the above-mentioned basics, we are eternally working on waiting to eat dinner till everyone is seated and always asking to be excused after eating. My son sits with me while I write thank you notes for gifts he’s received, which he signs (sort of) and decorates. He is expected to talk on the phone whenever his grandma calls. Some days it feels like a total failure, a hopeless quest for non-existent manners, but then he’ll dazzle someone with his politeness and I feel so fiercely proud of him that it renews my determination to train him.

Maybe I’m a bit of a stickler for old-fashioned etiquette, but there are few things more lovely in the world than meeting a child who has the self-confidence and poise to look me in the eye, answer my questions, and even ask me a few of their own. Those are the kids that I want to interact with, the ones I’ll remember, and the ones I expect to do best in the world. The least I can do as a mother is furnish my children with the tools to speak respectfully to others.

First impressions are always first impressions, no matter how old a person is.

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