You Don’t Need Magic to Teach Good Manners

Have you ever witnessed a young child being carried out of church while having a meltdown and yelling, “No thank you! No thank you!” Or, on a more positive note, maybe you’ve been impressed by the polite behavior of the same young children during coffee and donut hospitality after Mass.

How did their parents get such polite children?

It’s not magic, Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak said on a recent CatholicHOM podcast.

The key is to recognize that manners are not essentially about social niceties or impressing other people; instead, they are grounded in the recognition that other people are children of God and deserve to be treated with kindness and respect.

“To use good manners simply means: Are we making them feel comfortable? Are we making them feel cared for and lifted up? That is the foundation of good manners,” Lisa Popcak said.

Manners, then, are an integral part of the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life.

To Get Well-Mannered Kids, Model Good Manners

The first step in teaching good manners is for parents to model them. Young children learn by observing the behavior of adults, especially their parents. So, if you want polite children, show what that looks like—starting with your own kids.

“We have a tendency to think that, well, because we’re parents and they’re kids, we don’t have to be polite to them,” Greg Popcak said. “We just tell them what to do and they should do it.”

But if we want our children to say please and thank you, for example, “they’re only going to learn it if we’re saying it to them,” Lisa Popcak said. “So, if you’re saying, ‘Get me a diaper for your baby brother’—no, we should be saying, ‘Please get me a diaper for your baby brother.’ And then when the child comes back with the diaper, ‘Thank you so much, I really appreciate that!’”

Similarly, instead of simply telling a toddler no (“No, don’t touch that”), you might say, “No, thank you!” Before long, your toddler will be using the same language when he wants to refuse something.

Lisa Popcak was initially skeptical of this approach when she saw a friend using it with her child. “Nobody talks that way to their children,” she recalled thinking. “You just tell them, no, they can’t do that.”

But as she watched her friend’s son for a while, she noticed he was able to communicate politely even during emotionally intense situations. Inspired by this, Lisa and Greg adopted the practice with their own kids, with “beautiful” results.

Habitually using polite language with children is especially helpful during periods of high emotional temperatures, because the language is a reminder that both parent and child have dignity that we want to uphold. “That brings down the emotional temperature and keeps our thinking brain engaged,” Lisa Popcak said.

The Magic of the Do-Over Technique

Another effective way to teach kids polite language is to use the “do-over” technique, Greg Popcak said.

When a child demands something rudely, parents can calmly say, “I understand you want this. Let’s try asking for it politely. Can you say, ‘May I please have…?’” It’s critical not to use an angry or scolding tone; instead, adopt a helpful tone—it’s more effective than an angry tone, and again, it models the type of behavior you want your child to use with others as he grows up.

It’s important to note that using the do-over technique doesn’t mean giving children everything they ask for, even if they ask politely.

For example, if a child says, “Give me the chainsaw!” you can guide them to rephrase it as, “May I please have the chainsaw?” Once they ask politely, you can respond with, “Thank you for being so respectful and kind in the way you asked for that, sweetheart. But no, you may not have the chainsaw; it’s not safe for you.”

The child may not get exactly what she wants, but your praise and approval is a powerful reward in itself.

Modeling Helpfulness

Finally, Greg and Lisa Popcak recommend modeling and teaching helpfulness. So, for example, if someone in the family is going to the kitchen for something, model (and teach) the practice of asking others whether they would like anything as well.

Similarly, when you’re doing chores around the house or helping someone out, when the task is completed, make it a habit to always ask, “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

Don’t, however, take advantage of this considerate question by continually adding more chores to the list, the Popcaks warn. While you might occasionally ask for more help (like when you’re preparing to have guests over), It’s only considerate to show appreciation and let the child do something else.

Again, it’s important to remember that, in a Christian household, the whole point of manners is not to follow an empty social convention.

“When we use good manners in our home…we are taking little steps to remind (one another) of their dignity and worth as children of God,” Greg Popcak said.

To hear the whole podcast and get personalized parenting help, sign up for the CatholicHOM app and look for CatholicHOM podcast episode 41, “Mind Your Manners!” You can also find Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak’s Parenting with Grace books at

Dealing with Disrespect

When we are disrespected by others, it’s easy to take that disrespect personally and to feel powerless in knowing how to cultivate a respectful relationship dynamic. 

The Theology of The Body reminds us that, because we are created in the image and likeness of God, we have a right to expect to be loved and respected. In his book, Love and Responsibility, St John Paul put forth what he called “the personalistic norm.” The personalistic norm means that every human being has a right be treated like a person, not a thing. Each person has a God-given right to be loved and respected–no matter what. The reason we feel shocked when we are treated poorly is that God built into each person a sense of this divinely given right to be treated as his sons and daughters. We don’t claim that dignity on our own. God gave it to us as his gift.

Likewise, when we’re treated in a manner that offends our dignity as persons, we have a similarly God-given right to address that offense–as long as we remember that the person who offended us has the right to be treated like a person too. To do this effectively, we need to understand the difference between setting boundaries and being defensive.When we’re defensive, we forget that the offender is a person. We get our back up and we lash out, “How dare you do that to me you jerk!” It’s an understandable–but still inappropriate– reaction. Setting a graceful boundary in the face of disrespect means not tolerating the disrespect while also not taking it personally. Instead of lashing out, we can say something like, “I can tell your frustrated, but please don’t treat me like your enemy. How can we deal with this together?”

Let’s take a look at some practical steps for dealing with disrespect:

1. Pause and Pray–When you are offended or hurt by someone, resist the temptation to react.  Take a moment to pause and pray. Ask yourself, “What are you upset about, specifically?” In other words, rather than reacting to what the other person says or does, ask yourself what it means to you that they treated you that way. For instance, instead of saying, “How dare you talk to me that way!” Say, “When you talk to me that way, it feels really disrespectful. Could you say that again?” Pausing and praying allows you to identify and address the actual offense, instead of adding more fuel to the fire.

2. Stop “Shoulding” on Yourself–Too many people buy into the lie that they “shouldn’t have” to tell other people that they are feeling were hurt because they “should just know.” People are not mind-readers. If someone has hurt you, tell them, clearly and directly what the problem is, and what you need them to do to correct it. For instance, if someone ignores a request you’ve made in the hopes you’ll just forget about it, you might say, “I was really hurt that you chose to ignore me and not do the thing I asked. I need you to tell me, specifically, when and how you’re going to follow through.” Don’t accept vague, non-answers. It’s ok to press for a specific how and when. Holding someone accountable for fulfilling their promises is not being a “pest” or a “nag,” it is simply respecting Jesus’ admonition that yes should mean yes and no should mean no. Don’t say you “shouldn’t” have to hold others accountable. Pray for the grace and courage you need to teach others to treat you with the dignity worthy of a son or daughter of God.

3. Follow Words with Actions–Sometimes people aren’t willing to respond to your concerns no matter how clear you are about your needs. If your attempts to speak up have failed, more words will not help. You’ll need to have a back-up plan to address the problem unilaterally. In this case, setting boundaries means finding ways to scale back the relationship because the person is demonstrating that they can’t be trusted with the level of intimacy that you have attempted to allow them to have. This means asking yourself, “In what contexts or interactions is this person able to treat me appropriately?” and then limiting your relationship to those types of interactions. If and when the other person complains about the actions you’ve taken, say, “I’d love to get back to normal, but first, we really need to work through X first.” As long as your intention is to work for the good of the relationship, you have every right to scale the relationship back to the point that it is healthy and build out from there.

If you would like more direct support for dealing with disrespect, reach out to us at 


Quick Links:

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Got Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts!

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“Quit Being A Nag!” –Are You Harping? Or Just Seeking Respect.


How do you know when it’s OK to keep bringing something up?

As a marriage and family therapist, hardly a day goes by when I don’t hear a wife ask if she is  “being a nag” or hear a husband accuse a wife of the same.  (Curiously, I rarely hear husbands worry about this or hear wives accuse husbands of this “crime.”)

Nagging Defined.

To be fair, there are times when a person can be a nag.  For instance, if you have articulated a concern or need to your spouse and they are actively working on addressing that concern but you are criticizing their sincere effort, micromanaging their otherwise perfectly legitimate approach, and trying to rush their otherwise reasonable time table, well then, you may, indeed,  be guilty as charged.

Nagging? Or Asking for Respect?

BUT that’s not usually when I hear the accusation of “nagging” being leveled.  More likely, I hear wives questioning their own behavior or a husband accuse a wife of “nagging” when the wife has raised a concern the husband doesn’t want to address. He shines her on, ignores her, says “I’ll get to it” (but never does anything), agrees with her just to shut her up, or completely stonewalls her.  Of course, that puts her in the position of needing to bring that issue up again (and again, and again) just to get some simple feedback on whether the concern was heard and how it might be effectively addressed.

In this scenario, the offense isn’t nagging.  It is a lack of respect on the husband’s part (of course, the situation could be reversed, but we’ll use the husband for purposes of illustration).  Each of us has a basic human right to be heard, to have our needs acknowledged and addressed.  When we are in a loving relationship, it is legitimate to assume that the people who say they love us actually want to work for our good.  When they refuse to do this (either directly or passively) it’s confusing.  We feel like we’re in an episode of The Twilight Zone where things are not what they seem, but we can’t put a finger on it. This other person is supposed to love me…so why are they behaving so unlovingly?  We often think it must be something we’ve done wrong (Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear?  Perhaps the other person is upset with me about something?)  The confusion we feel in this situation makes us want to seek clarity, which requires us to raise the issue again.  If we get an effective, honest, respectful, response then, most likely, we can let it go.  But when our attempts to get clarity simply lead to more confusion, uncertainty, or frustration we tend to get caught up in an obsessive cycle of questioning that leads to constantly diminishing returns on our emotional investment.

If you find yourself in this position, stop blaming yourself.  YOU ARE NOT NAGGING NOR ARE YOU A NAG.  You are expressing a basic human right to have your needs heard and responded to.

So what do you do when they aren’t responded to?  You increase accountability.  Don’t leave a conversation until the other person gives you a specific plan and timetable for meeting the need.  Don’t let them distract you from your need or shame you into silence.  Respectfully, but firmly INSIST that you are not asking permission to have this need.  Rather, you are asking your partner to help you meet your need.  If your spouse still refuses to engage, then you will need to do two things.

1.  Make a Plan

First, you will need to go ahead–as best you can–with your own plan for meeting the need.  It’s OK if your spouse objects or disapproves of your plan.  That doesn’t mean you intend to spite them but it does mean that by opting out of your request for help, they lose their vote.  You’re an adult.  Adults meet their needs.  Doing so in this context sends a strong message, namely, “I will not be ignored.  If you want to have a say in how my needs get met, then be a partner when I come to you.  If you don’t, then you lose the right to complain after-the-fact.   I’m very interested in your help and partnership. I have no interest in playing games.”

Chances are you will feel guilty about this.  Assuming that you are simply making a plan to meet your need, you have nothing to feel guilty about.  Work to get past this.  Even if your spouse acts offended, their offense is unjust.  They simply don’t want you to get that particular need met and they are outraged that you insisted on being treated as a person who has rights.  That is unacceptable.  You must refuse to take responsibility for their misplaced offense-taking.  Hopefully, next time, they will work with you now that they realize you will not be ignored.

2.  Get Help.

Regardless, having to engage in such a power move to get your needs met speaks to a potentially deep level of disrespect in your marriage that will only continue to undermine the relationship.  Rather than letting things deteriorate, it will be important to seek professional help early so that you can address this lack of respect that makes you feel like a beggar in your marriage.  Don’t ask your spouse’s permission.  Counseling is just one more thing they will drag their feet on.  Again, you are an adult.  If YOU feel there is a problem, there is a problem.  Chances are, the only reason your spouse would resist counseling in this dynamic is that the marriage actually works for him and he’d rather not change.  You’re going to have to force the issue of you want to see any difference in the future.  Make an appointment with a trained marital therapist (not just some individual therapist who happens to also see couples sometimes) and go.  Even if your spouse won’t join you, a trained marital therapist can do a lot to change the marriage even if they are only working with one spouse.  Most couples wait 4-6 years from the onset of a problem to the time they seek professional assistance.  The sooner you seek help, the quicker the problem will be solved.

We do a great deal of this kind of work through the Pastoral Solutions Institute’s  Telephone Counseling practice. You can learn more about our services here or call 740-266-6461 to make an appointment to speak with a counselor.

Keep in Mind

Regardless, the most important thing to remember is that asking your spouse to help you meet your needs or address your concerns–especially with a spouse who is disrespectfully stonewalling–is NEVER nagging.  You have a basic human right to be heard and if that God-given right is being consistently denied, then get the help you need to learn to affect the respectful change that needs to occur.