There’s this familiar quote attributed to children’s rights activist Marian Wright Edelman that goes, “Being considerate of others will take your children further in life than any college degree,” that resonates deeply when we consider the little moments that shape our children’s character. These moments often occur unexpectedly, catching us off guard. It’s during these times that we, as parents and caregivers, have the remarkable opportunity to teach our children good manners and proper behavior.

Whether it’s holding a door open, saying “please” and “thank you,” or sharing a toy, these seemingly small acts of politeness lay the foundation for our children’s social competence. When we model good behavior for our children, the impact on their social development and character is significant, profound, and lasting for life.

Teach and Encourage

Our children mirror us because they adore us. And they’re natural imitators. They observe us closely and want to emulate our actions. This desire to be just like us is a powerful tool for instilling manners. From a young age, children yearn to understand what is right and wrong, and they look to us as their guides in this journey. It’s our actions, more than our words, that shape their understanding of manners and social norms.

As children grow beyond the toddler stage, usually around 3 or 4 years old, they enter a phase of development where they are primed for learning social skills. Their improved physical abilities and language development enable them to engage meaningfully with the world. They begin to ask, “What am I supposed to do here?” It’s at this crucial juncture that we must be ready to provide guidance and model the behaviors we wish to instill. They naturally want to know the right thing to do so they’re not only open but ready for this phase in their growth and development.

Modeling Versus Correcting

Modeling good behavior, however, is different from correcting. Children are sensitive to criticism and easily feel ashamed. Instead of pointing out their mistakes in a judgmental way, we can show them the right way to behave. For instance, if a child rushes past someone without holding the door and we say, “Watch out, you’re in that person’s way,” this may lead to feelings of judgment. Instead, we can anticipate the opportunity and calmly demonstrate holding the door and saying, “Let’s hold the door open for this person”—in effect turning the situation into a positive learning experience.

To be effective models, we must be consistent and positive. Children thrive on routine and clear expectations. If we consistently exhibit good manners and treat others with kindness, they will follow suit and slowly internalize the lessons. Positive reinforcement, such as praise when they display good manners, also goes a long way in reinforcing these behaviors.

Lessons in Grace and Courtesy

As Maria Montessori emphasized, social life involves solving social problems, behaving properly, and pursuing aims acceptable to all. In Montessori education, these principles are integrated into the curriculum to help children develop not only academic skills but also strong moral and social foundations. Montessori classrooms provide a nurturing environment, as well as opportunities, where children learn not just from adults but also from their peers, reinforcing the importance of good manners and respectful behavior.

For example, we teach lessons of Grace and Courtesy as part of the broader Practical Life curriculum. Among other things, children learn how to carry a chair and put it down quietly, how to walk and talk without disturbing others, how to wait for help without interrupting, how to clean after themselves, how to greet a visitor, etc.  Each morning when they arrive, the Montessori guide welcomes and greets each child individually and tries to personalize their goodbyes at the end of each day. While doing their work, children learn to take turns, and to listen actively when others are speaking. These seemingly small acts of courtesy are pivotal in establishing a respectful and harmonious classroom environment. Beyond the classroom, they are fundamental life skills that children carry with them into adulthood.

What Can You Do at Home?

Parents are the primary educators of their children and play a pivotal role in teaching these vital life skills. Everyone has busy schedules and multiple priorities these days, however, that we sometimes forget even the simplest of courtesies. Below are a few ideas that you can easily incorporate into your home routine:

  • Greet each other individually with “Good morning!” while making good eye contact and giving each other a pat or a hug. Making this connection helps the day start better for everyone.
  • When you part ways, make your “Goodbyes” specific and personal. Similarly, when you meet up later in the day, or when you speak by phone, greet your child directly and ask them how their day went.
  • Use phrases like “please,” “thank you,” and “you’re welcome” consistently in your interactions with your child.
  • Teach proper table manners and give your child opportunities to practice respect. For example:
    • Wait for everyone to be seated before starting to eat;
    • Use utensils appropriately;
    • Ask for something to be passed;
    • Chew with your mouth closed;
    • Wait for your turn to speak;
    • Do not talk with food in your mouth;
    • Use a napkin to wipe your mouth;
    • Ask to be excused before leaving the table.
  • Observe and practice family rules that promote peace and avoid conflict such as:
    • Respect the personal space and boundaries of others;
    • Knock before entering your child’s room and encourage them to do the same;
    • Do not interrupt someone who is busy.

Resolving Conflict

Montessori education places a strong emphasis on teaching children how to resolve conflicts and hurt feelings. Children learn to express their feelings, listen actively to others, and resolve disagreements. At home, you can teach your children to be verbal rather than physical. For example, “Did your brother knock your toys down? Look him in the eyes and tell him how you feel.”

Your children can learn to resolve conflicts between them without you. In some schools and households, the aggrieved child starts by giving the other child a “peace rose,” indicating the need to resolve injured feelings. Then they each take turns to express what happened and how they feel. The goal is to reestablish understanding and friendliness. You might keep a special token in your home for this reason, such as an artificial flower or heart paperweight.

When disagreements develop, ask your children to “work it out among yourselves.” Set proper limits rather than taking sides if they are unable to do so. For example, you could briefly separate the children from each other and store the toys for the remainder of the day.

Spreading Good Feelings

Everyone benefits from learning basic polite behavior. Good manners make everyday tasks more enjoyable. People who grow up in a loving and respectful environment are more likely to be kind, generous, and compassionate. It really is that simple: When children are treated with respect, they learn to respect others.

The primary message of Dr. Montessori to both teachers and parents was to “respect the child.” This seemingly simple guideline, when adopted into our homes and schools, helps foster peace and congeniality not only at home but also in the greater community and, ultimately, the world.

Teaching children good manners is not about lectures or reprimands; it’s about the million moments we spend with them. Children learn best by observing and imitating us, their role models. By consistently modeling good behavior and being positive in our interactions, while providing children opportunities to practice them, we can instill in them the essential life skills of consideration and respect that will serve them well throughout their lives.

“Children in Montessori schools are usually exceptionally well-behaved (though under no coercion to be so), as countless visitors have testified. Their hospitality is so charming just because it is so spontaneous. But without the lessons of grace and courtesy given previously, and without the freedom to express themselves spontaneously, most of these little flowers of courtesy would never have blossomed at all.”
—E.M. Standing, Maria Montessori, Her Life and Work

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