I remember a conversation I had with several other moms who were from different regions of the country. We were discussing “common courtesy,” and many of us had different ideas of what constituted courteous actions.
Some insisted on their children’s using “ma’am” and “sir”; others didn’t care about that wording. Some felt insulted when a child left the table before all the other family members were done eating; others had never thought about that practice.
In many ways we were diverse in our definitions of courtesy, but on one thing we all agreed: we could tell very easily when someone was being discourteous or disrespectful. Specific actions might vary, but the underlying attitude could be clearly seen.
Over the years I have seen some parents work hard at teaching their children etiquette, but those same children do not exhibit courtesy. What’s the difference? Etiquette is a way of acting; true courtesy is a heart attitude.
Courtesy is being concerned with the other person’s comfort. It may take different forms in different situations, but the underlying attitude remains.
I’m a firm believer in the principle that common courtesy begins at home. There is no better place to help your children develop the habit of being courteous. Make up your mind now to be consistent: if you wouldn’t allow your child to treat a guest that way, don’t allow him to treat a sibling that way. Concern for the other person’s comfort is the key.
Here, again, the motto of “Respect the older; protect the younger” applies.
Some Personal Specifics
Do you want some specific suggestions? Okay. Here are some of the practices that I have tried to instill in my children as habits of courtesy. Please don’t limit yourself to these, but this list might at least give you a starting place.
- Please and thank you
From the time they were babies, I have required that my children say “please” and “thank you.” When they were too young to say the words, I taught them the two sign-language signs to communicate those courteous thoughts. And I reinforced the habit by natural consequences. If they didn’t say “please,” I looked at them expectantly and waited until they remembered. When I handed them what they had asked for, I didn’t let go until they said “thank you.” And, of course, I tried to model courtesy by using “please” when I told them to do something: “Please go tell Daddy that it’s time for supper.”
- Returning a greeting
Even shy children can be encouraged to smile and say “hello” in response to a greeting (before darting behind Mom’s leg). Especially when an older person greets a child, common courtesy dictates that the child respond in kind. We’ve worked hard on this skill with my youngest daughter who has autism. It takes some reminding and some practicing, but it can be done.
- Looking in the eyes
Try to encourage your children to look the other person in the eye when engaged in a conversation. Looking down or letting your eyes wander around the room can be perceived as rude. One thing that can help with this practice is to make sure you look your child in the eyes when you are communicating with him. And please try to remember to make him look you in the eye when you are praising him, just as much as making him look you in the eye when you are correcting him. It’s easy to do the “Look at me when I’m talking to you” reminder for criticism but not for praise. But eye contact during praise can pave the way for confident eye contact in other conversations too.
- Thank You notes
We all know how nice it is to receive a thank you note from someone. So let’s teach our children the fine art of encouraging one another by writing thank you notes. Start when they are young and provide personally-preferred notecards as they grow older to help make this practice a habit.
- Telephone manners
Take some time to help your children practice good telephone courtesy. Role play how you want them to answer the phone, how to lay it down carefully and come get you (rather than drop the receiver and yell across the house), and how to deliver a message accurately. When they get older, work with them to practice writing down a message, getting all the necessary information, and placing the note somewhere prominent to make sure you see it.
I’m sure you can think of other good manners that you want to instill in your children. Maybe your list would include such courtesies as
- Boys holding the door open for ladies
- Giving up your seat for an older person
- Dinner table etiquette
- Saying “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir”
Specific manners may vary from home to home, but the guiding principles of kindness and respect remain constant. Teach your children those character traits—starting with family members—and common (or perhaps, rare) courtesy will follow more easily.