Please pass the fruit snacks, darling.

Children's Social Etiquette

by Kathryn Walsh

If you've ever clenched your jaw upon finding a co-worker's dirty dishes in the break room sink, you know that many adults haven't mastered social etiquette. Expecting a toddler or preschooler to learn etiquette isn't so outrageous, though: even a little one can understand that pinching is not nice. Instill in her some basic manners at a young age and she'll grow up to be someone who washes her own coffee mug with a smile.

1. Use Kind Words

Screeching "miiiiilllk!" used to get your kiddo what she needed: a bottle of milk delivered right to her high chair or crib. Once she's learned more than a few words, it's time she learn to use them politely both at home and outside. Teach your toddler or preschooler to say "please" when asking for something, "thank you" after she gets it and to use the name of the person she's addressing. Even the most etiquette-conscious adult might blurt out "Pass the salt" at dinner, but modeling these words in a slow and deliberate manner should get your little one in the practice of using them. Giving her quiet prompts when she's with others will help drive the point home: When faced with a bowl of your sister-in-law's "famous" lumpy pea soup, nudge your child and prompt her to say "No thank you Aunt Jane" instead of running away screaming.

2. Take Turns

Your eyes zero in on a designer bag marked 75 percent off, the voice in your head says "MINE" and you make a beeline for it -- just as another shopper snaps it up. These are the moments you're preparing your little one for when you teach her about taking turns. Though getting comfortable with turn-taking might take her years, teaching her why it's important will help convince her it's worth the effort. When you're playing a game together, say "How would you feel if I spun the wheel over and over again and it never got to be your turn? Would you want to keep playing with me?" Explain that taking turns with others shows them that you're a fun and fair playmate, and that doing it shows others that you care about their feelings too. Even if, in the case of the deal-snatching shopper, you really don't.

3. Show Respect

Respect is one of those concepts, like gravity and the importance of vegetables, that your little one isn't really going to grasp for a long time. For now, she can learn to show respect even if she doesn't completely know what it means. Teach her that, to show nice manners to others, she needs to keep her hands off of other people's bodies, out of their space and off of their things. Give her specifics by saying, "Hitting, biting, kicking and pinching other bodies is never OK, even when you feel angry or sad. Hugging is kind and wonderful, but sometimes when someone else is grumpy he won't want your hugs, and that's OK, too." When she grabs something from your hands or takes something of yours without asking, gently say, "It's not OK to take my things with asking. Hand it back, then trying asking permission."

4. Be Inclusive

She hasn't learned when to deploy the fake smile used for small talk with bitter enemies, and hopefully she never will. Your little one's lack of filter can lead to hurt feelings in social interactions; to preserve her reputation in the preschool classroom -- and to teach her about kindness -- coach your kiddo on how to treat everyone equally. Teach her that, when a child she doesn't like asks to be her line buddy or sits next to her at snack table, it's polite to say "OK." If a child comes up to join her group of kiddos playing together, making room for the newcomer and handing him a few blocks to add to the castle is the sweetest gesture. Healthy limits are important for her to learn. Stress that that she doesn't have to interact with people who are mean or hurtful to her, but she should understand why it's not kind to leave any classmates off her birthday party invite list.

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