By Dana B. Patterson
When I was in college, I waited tables at a cafeteria-style restaurant. Our usual customers were older couples and groups who loved inquiring about our collegiate pursuits, and the other servers and I loved indulging them. But we cringed when one particular family with two children came in almost every Sunday.
The children, although cute, behaved horribly. They ran around the dining room, yelled at each other, dropped food everywhere and usually spilled a drink. The parents did nothing to corral the kids, made no apologies for them and didn’t even leave a tip. No one wanted to wait on them, so we all decided that when we had children of our own, we would raise them better than that.
Fast forward 11 years when my first little bundle of joy came into the world. My husband and I had grand dreams of polite, respectful children but no clear plan. I think we might have done something well because our children have been complimented on their manners a few times. I am relieved that they save most of their courteousness for public, but our children aren’t perfect by any means, and they do have moments that make us want to cringe.
That being said, here are a few tips that have helped us along the way:
1. Children learn more from what you do than what you say. Speak to your spouse and all others in the manner you want your child to speak. Use “please” and “thank you” often. Hold doors for strangers. Clean up after yourself. Don’t curse, insult or talk badly about people in front of your kids. If something bad happens, don’t make a bigger deal out of it than necessary. Focus on the solution, not the problem. Think, “Would I want my child to behave this way?”
2. Teach your child manners early using sign language. Before children can verbalize their desires, they CAN communicate. Think about how they tell you they need a new diaper or are hungry or tired. They use non-verbal cues. You can teach your child some very basic sign language which is helpful to both of you.
We taught our kids six basic signs: thank you, please, sorry, more, all done and help. I often thought they were so relieved they could convey their needs effectively to us, but more than that, we set the ground rules early about when to use those important words or signs. Babysignlanguage.com has a great video dictionary of many baby signs.
3. Children will need a lot of practice. My kids are now 6 and 4 years old. I sometimes still have to say, “Yes, ma’am,” after one of them responds with just a “yes.” We practice good manners when we play kitchen, dolls or Legos. When we are at a restaurant, we taught the kids exactly what to say to the server when it’s time to order. They are not allowed to get up from the table to run around nor are they allowed to kick, turn around or bounce in the booth. These are non-negotiables. They also must look at a person when talking to them. We believe it encourages the kids to really think about what they are saying and to listen more acutely.
4. Teach your child to lay a hand on your arm if you are talking to someone else and he/she wants to tell you something. Then lay a hand on theirs to acknowledge their request and let them know that you will be with them shortly. At a break in the conversation, thank them for their patience and let them have their turn. I can’t take credit for this one, as I saw it online somewhere, but it has been amazing.
5. Children can be curious about people who are different without being rude. My 4-year-old daughter and I recently encountered a man with a prosthetic leg. She leaned over to me and whispered, “Mommy, look.” I was proud that she didn’t stare, point or say something about his unusual (to her) leg.
My husband and I have taught our kids that everyone is different, and if you are curious, it is better to politely ask than to stare. (Our son had a hemangioma-a raised red cluster of blood vessels on his head — and we tired of kids and adults pointing and staring.) So, I told my daughter to say to the man, “Sir, can you please tell me about your leg?” He was impressed with her manners and was glad to tell her about it and his situation. She not only had an opportunity to practice manners, but she learned all about prostheses.
This list is by no means all-encompassing. My kids are still learning how to navigate respectfully in this world. They have been rude and disrespectful too (but I think I have blocked those memories).
My husband and I are here to model, teach and encourage them. I would be proud to take our kids back to that restaurant from my college days. Though I hope my kids would be on their best behavior, I would still leave a big tip.