3 Reasons to start manners early

I vaguely remember a time before I joined the legion of parents out there, looking at other people’s children and thinking smugly to myself… “I would never let my child get away with that…” or “I can’t believe how badly behaved that child is, my child will never do that…”

Then… I had my own children! And now it’s a whole new ball game. I can now understand just how difficult it is to shape my children’s behaviour in a positive way, and just how much time and effort it really takes. It’s not easy, by any stretch of the imagination, I am sure you will agree? But still, I hope and pray that my children will one day be abundantly blessed with that magic social gift call ‘manners’.

So how is it done – how do I bestow upon my little charges the very important gift of manners? What can be expected at their various ages and stages of development? When do I start? How do I start?

These are all questions that I think most parents ask, because we’re all secretly hoping that on the other side of the ‘tantrum curtain’ is the little angel that we know exists in there… somewhere…

Common Questions

Many parents wonder why they should teach their children ‘respectful’ behaviour before the age of 7-8, which is when they really only start to understand the concept of ‘respect’.

For example, why force a two-year-old, who is at a very difficult stage socially, to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ when they don’t understand the words? Is that not being unreasonable? Surely, children who grow up in an environment where other people are being considerate to them will eventually choose to turn into considerate human beings – when they are good and ready to do so?

It’s a case of which came first, the chicken or the egg? In other words, does a child have to understand respect in order to behave respectfully?

Well, in our research we have found three important reasons to strive to teach our children to be as well-mannered as reasonably possible from early on – firstly, acting respectfully leads to being respectful; secondly, good manners help pave the way to a higher EQ; and thirdly, manners teaches self-control which leads to success.

Acting respectfully leads to being respectful

Parents who put manners on the back-burner until their child is old enough to develop his own convictions about the matter, usually find themselves in a rather precarious situation. The reality of the situation is that it becomes difficult for the parents and others in their child’s life to act as if their child is a blessing and a joy to be around if he’s running around like a self-centered mini-dictator… no matter how understanding they try to be.

The development of this child’s self-concept is not put on the back-burner along with the manners – no matter how young he is, the way in which those around him react to him continually shapes the way in which he perceives himself and the world around him. If people are constantly irritated and annoyed in this child’s company, he will come to view himself as ‘irritating’ and learn that the world is cold and unwelcoming to someone who is as ‘unlikeable’ as he is.

On the other hand, approving smiles, appreciative looks, and positive comments from parents and other people can have an almost miraculously positive impact on a child’s developing self-concept. It therefore makes sense to teach a child to be pleasant and courteous to people, even if he doesn’t really yet understand the concept underlying this behaviour.

Then, by the time a child is old enough to truly understand what respect means, he will have three good reasons to continue being respectful. 1) He has been treated with respect within his own family and social circle many times before and knows that it feels good. 2) He has treated others with respect many times before and knows it makes them feel good. 3) He is used to thinking of himself as a ‘nice boy’ and acting in a way that is contrary to this is unthinkable to him. Being ‘respectful’ is just a more grown-up way of looking at it!

Good manners help pave the way to a higher EQ

Just like a child can be born with an amazing aptitude of music or sport, which may never be realised due to lack of opportunities, a child can also be born with the potential to develop a high emotional intelligence (EQ) and never reach this potential due to lack of guidance.

One of the most important components of EQ is a person’s ability to effectively ‘read’ what other people are feeling and respond accordingly. Since having good manners is in essence about being sensitive to the needs and feelings of other people, teaching manners is a wonderfully practical way to help your child develop his emotional intelligence.

For example, when your child wipes his mouth on the tablecloth, you can remind him to use his napkin and make sure to bring other people’s feelings into the picture by adding, “The reason why we wipe our mouths on napkins is because we want to keep the table looking nice and clean for all the other people who are also eating.”

Another example is when your child interrupts you while you’re on the phone. You can say, “You’re interrupting. It’s Granny on the phone. Mommy loves Granny. I need to speak to her. You’ll have to wait for a while.” Then hold your child’s hand if need be so that he knows that you know that he’s waiting. Continue talking for a few minutes, unless your child is in physical distress or danger.

No child can develop exceptional social skills without learning somewhere along the line that his feelings and needs are very important, but no more important than the feelings and needs of the other people in his world.

Manners teaches self control which leads to success

Dr Walter Mischel, psychologist specialising in personality theory and social psychology at the University of Columbia, studied hundreds of four-year-olds. In his study, each child was left alone in a room with a one-way-mirror for 15-20 minutes with a marshmallow on a plate in front of them. Before leaving the room ‘to run an errand’, the doctor explained that the child was allowed to eat the marshmallow, but if they could wait for him to return, they would get two marshmallows to eat!

Only one-third of the children were able to wait for his return and the reward of an extra marshmallow.

Follow-up studies of the children who were able to wait revealed that when these children were old to enough to graduate from high school, they scored higher on achievement tests. They also dealt with stress better and were more popular with their peers.

Researchers now know that there is an area in the brain called the ‘dorsal frontomedian cortex’, which is situated just above the eyes. This area is responsible for a person’s ability to exercise self-control. Interestingly – and importantly – although it is one of the last areas of the brain to mature, its wiring starts at a very young age.

The more your child uses this area in his brain, even when he’s only a toddler, the more densely it is wired. In other words, the more your child gets the opportunity to practice his ability to exert self-control, the easier it becomes (this is where all grandparents spontaneously applaud)!

Luckily we are not suggesting boot camps for toddlers! Dr Daniel Goleman, hugely successful psychologist and author of Emotional Intelligence (which was on the New York best-sellers list for 18 months and has sold five million copies worldwide in 30 different languages), says that parents can help a child develop self-control by doing nothing more than being good parents.

Instead of leaving it up to the child to figure out for themselves how they should behave, parents should be present to direct and influence their child’s behaviour. Dr Goleman describes that this can be achieved by consistently saying ‘no’ to your child when he does something undesirable, encourage him to try again when he is frustrated by a challenging task and remind him to mind his manners in various situations.

The reason why parents’ reminders eventually become internalised is because they are literally wired into their child’s brain over time. “Habits shape character and character determines destiny.”

So, when you’re frustrated and feeling as though your efforts are simply falling into a bottomless black pit (also known as the ‘terrible twos’)… remember, you are making a difference to your child’s development which will set the course of his life. Just like a river starts with a small trickle of water and grows bigger and wider and stronger as it gets closer to the ocean, so too will your efforts eventually accumulate to create a ‘tide of manners’.

Words: Loren Stow
when we know better… we do better

Comments? Please email lizette@practicaprogramme.co.za

Practica Parents: We specifically develop emotional intelligence with games from 0-7 years, but ALL the Practica games actually develop EQ! Why? Because EQ has to do with how well a person can read and react to his own and other people’s emotions and control his own attitude and behaviour, and every Practica activity is an ideal opportunity to model and teach these skills in the right way at every age. Now that is Parent Power!

If you would like to be notified of all new posts via email, please send an email to lizette@practicaprogramme.co.za

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