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 CatholicCounselors.com.

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