Kids are awesome. Pretty much across the board, they’re funny, creative, and full of love. Most of them can tell you pretty good knock-knock jokes, entertain younger siblings with puppet shows, and remind you just how much fun a swing is.
What a lot of us parents might not realize about our kids, though, is that they are capable of amazing things that we don’t expect. But given a little encouragement (ok, maybe a lot of encouragement for a really long time), most kids will thoroughly impress you with good manners, kind gestures, and a clean bedroom.
Once your kids have mastered these, you can tackle bigger projects like initiating world peace and ending global warming. Trust me, they can do it.
By the time kids are about 18 months they can be encouraged to use the words “please” and “thank you,” although it may be more of an emerging habit at that point than true understanding of the concepts. However, a short six months later, kids more or less understand when and why they should use those polite phrases.
Of course being polite goes beyond “please” and “thank you.” As young as two years old, kids can grasp the concept that serves as the Emily Post Institute’s definition of etiquette: “treating people with consideration, respect, and honesty, and being aware of how our actions affect those around us.” Although at such a young age you can’t expect kids to always behave with such grace, you can begin encouraging it.
What You Can Do
Beyond infancy, you can start encouraging polite behavior in your kids at any age. Decide what your goals are (there are a lot of great suggestions in the book, 365 Manners Your Kids Should Know) and then demonstrate them yourself while consistently encouraging them in your kids. It may be a long process but the first time you’re complimented in a restaurant because your kids are so delightful, you’ll know it’s worth it.
Parents of toddlers will no doubt shake their heads at this one, but it’s true. By the time kids are in preschool they’re primed for empathy, the basis of sharing.
What You Can Do
First, let’s back up and define sharing as to willingly offer or distribute something. Forcing a child to give up a toy because another child wants it isn’t the same as sharing and is more likely to instill resentment than encourage empathy. Instead set up a standard of taking turns, reward your child with a kind word when they offer toys to siblings and friends and always keep the whole experience upbeat with positive reinforcement.
Harvey Karp, MD, author of The Happiest Toddler on the Block, also suggests letting your child choose a few special things to set aside before play dates, giving them some control over what they share and what they don’t.
Demonstrate sharing yourself and point it out when you see other people sharing. Talking about it positively, even when your child isn’t actively sharing, will help your child see it as an activity that he can enjoy.
How many times have you stopped talking to someone mid-sentence or abandoned what you were doing mid-movement to address a child’s need (or want)? I doubt I could even count the number of times I’ve done it. That is until I read the book, Bébé Day by Day by Pamela Drukerman and learned that isn’t how things are for French parents. If in France, why not in my house too?
What You Can Do
Basically, you have to make them wait—often. It’s that simple. Start by slowing down your responses and finishing whatever it is you’re doing before addressing their needs (unless they’re truly urgent, of course). Explain that you’ll look at the artwork, read the book, answer the question (whatever it may be) in a minute or two.
Treat your kids like they are capable of waiting. When they don’t wait patiently for you (and they surely won’t the first million or so times), calmly remind them to wait and explain why. Make it clear that you expect them to show patience and eventually—if you’re patient—they will.
You’ll drive yourself crazy if you try to do everything for everyone until the kids go to college; and you may be sending some irresponsible young adults off to that ivy league school, on top of it. Helping out around the house instills responsibility in kids and actually increases their sense of self-worth because they know that they’re an important part of a team.
What You Can Do
Match the chores to your child’s age—it shouldn’t be too difficult or too easy for them. You know your child best, but here’s a pretty good guide to give you some ideas. You can also make it a family event: have your kids do their chores while you’re doing (some of) yours. It feels less like a chore when the whole family pitches in (and you put on some fun music). You’ll be amazed at how fast a job can get done when it happens before something everyone is looking forward to: “we can’t go to the pool until the playroom is nice and neat.”
Be Friends with Siblings
It may seem like kids come wired to fight with their siblings but in fact getting them to interact peacefully is easier than you might think.
What You Can Do
Be fair. Kids as young as 18 months have a sense of fairness and will protest (often loudly) when something seems unjust—particularly if a sibling is involved. Your actions don’t have to be exactly the same for each child all the time, they only have to be perceived as fair by your kids. Christine Carter at the Greater Good Science Center offers suggestions for determining what’s probably fair in the eyes of kids in this article.
Talk about your kids as best friends—all the time. Kids believe what we tell them and if we encourage their friendship (when they’re getting along and when they aren’t) they’ll absorb it and act accordingly.
Encourage them to comfort each other. While most parents fly into action when a head gets bumped or a Lego structure is smashed to bits accidentally, you can do a lot to build a strong friendship between siblings by quietly encouraging the sibling to step up with the hug, kiss or helpful Lego-building hands.
Folding these good habits into your family life will benefit everyone: your kids will elicit praise from teachers, family members and restaurant patrons everywhere and you’ll no doubt discover that managing your brood is easier and more enjoyable.