There are two main keys to teaching children manners:
1) start early and
2) set a good example; live what you teach.
When our children were little, around a year or so, I remember how darling it was to hear their tiny voices say “tank ew” and “I huv you.” I knew then that they could learn at a very early age to be polite, so I began attaching “please” to a variety of things.
For example, when they wanted a drink, I would ask them if they wanted “milk, please” or “water, please.” For the longest time, each of my children thought that the name for a glass full of the white stuff was “milk please” and the name for the glass with clear stuff was “water please.” It was so cute!
From that time on, they learned about the “magic” words and how words truly effect behavior, almost as if by “magic.” Our most common magic words were: “please,” “thank you,” “You’re welcome,” “I’m sorry,” “I forgive you,” and “excuse me.”
We taught them how being kind to others helps others be kind to us. All of us used the magic words on each other until the habit became a natural behavior. Even as young adults, they naturally used magic words in all of their communications. It’s been amazing to see how teaching manners early truly brought out good, natural habits later.
I also noted that at a very early age the children wanted to answer the phone. So, I began working with them on a simple, but polite way of answering the phone. In our home, talking on the phone was a privilege. I did not feel obligated to allow my children to answer or talk on the phone whenever they wanted to. It was a privilege that was earned, and a privilege they wanted badly, which made training them properly, easier.
The phrasing for phone calls went something like this:
1. “Hello, Wood’s.”
2. “Yes, one moment please.”
Then they’d call me to the phone. After time we added:
3. “May I tell her who’s calling?”
4. “Thank you.”
As I’d come to the phone, they would tell me who it was and then respond in the phone with:
5. “Here she is,” usually followed by
6. “You’re welcome.”
The children enjoyed watching the surprise and sometimes shock of others, as they grew in politeness. They were complimented left and right on their behavior. (Talk about praise being the great motivator!) Boy, did the praise come in! More often than not, it was from the one on the other end of the conversation. Our children felt so good. They had acted so grownup; now they felt grownup and were pleased to be treated so.
After teaching about polite conversation and “magic” words, we discussed the results. How it felt to treat others respectfully. How others responded. They saw it work. They experienced how good it felt. Respect had been experienced, discussed, and enjoyed. They could see how important it was.
Unbeknownst to me, underneath they were learning another lesson: they were learning to trust us. They were learning that what we discussed with them was true and related to what they had experienced, which could also help us in the future.
This could make everything we taught them effective and invaluable. If we did this right, they would learn that whatever we taught them would be both true and important. This could definitely come in handy down the road.
Because of this, we were very conscientious and careful about what we taught them when they were young. We did not want to betray the trust we were earning with them.
Interestingly, this also taught me that children naturally tend to be good. They want very much to please, but not to be manipulated. They need more guidelines, not restrictions. We chose to have as few family “rules” as possible. Our focus was on two principles: respect and obedience.
We let the children know that being polite and using “magic” words were a form of respect. We taught them about different ways to show respect and why. (Down the road, you’ll see that even chastity falls under respect, respect for each others bodies, as will be discussed in Chapter 6 - Family with a Purpose.)
We discussed the importance of children respecting adults and the response from adults to them; how adults should also feel and show respect to a child. They could see the beauty in this! We talked about friends and peers, and about showing respect to those of our own age and those who were younger. By the time we were through, we could see the beauty of showing respect to everyone. There really were no exceptions. (Or were there?)
We taught respect for years. Then, one day, our un-confrontational 10th grade son had a guy from our ward push him in the hall at school in a very bullying way, and another guy spit on him. This event was so unsettling to me, his mother. How was he to respond? Was he to defend himself? Or would that cause a fight? If he responded by showing respect, would it just make him look like a sissy and set him up for more bullying? Should we talk to the young man and his parents who belonged to our ward?
I was nearly distraught. I wanted to do what was right; what was best. But I did not know what that was. Amazingly, on his own, our son chose to do nothing. He did his best to avoid any confrontations with them, but continued to be respectful to these kids when he had to be around them. Miraculously, things worked themselves out, and in time, this young man became fairly good friends with our son.
Even as young adults, our children still communicate with language including words like “Yes, sir,” or “No, ma’am,” even to their peers, who sometimes give them a hard time. However, now some of their friends are also choosing to talk politely. (Good job, guys!)
We figured if the first law in heaven is obedience it must be a pretty important law. Again, not wanting to betray the trust we were earning in our children, we wanted them to know that when we asked something of them, we expected obedience; for we would not ask anything of them that was not in their best interest or that we were not willing to do ourselves.
When they were little, there was a phase they went through when they said, “No!” When they did, it was fun to smile, take their little hand, walk them over gently, and physically help them complete the task they’d been asked to do. When it was done, they received a big hug and thank you from me. Each time got easier. There really is a phase in life where little children just say, “No!” If we treat them with respect and help them accomplish what’s been asked, things will work out in the end.
As they got older, many of their privileges were based on their level of obedience. It was important that they learned to work and work well. It was vital they learned responsibility. Often, they could not play unless their jobs were done. It would be an easy thing to ask, “Is your room cleaned?” They may respond, “Almost” in which case my answer was, “Well, then you can ‘almost’ play.” They caught the pattern pretty quickly. They soon saw the relationship between their ability to play or get what they wanted, and their finished task and get what they needed and what mom wanted.
If there was a time disobedience became a problem, it was easy to ask, “What are the family rules?” They would know immediately. Their response? “Respect and Obedience,” to which we’d respond, “I’m glad you understand. Thank you for obeying,” and like “magic,” they would proceed to do what was expected.
Once in a while, and for some more than others, a loss of privileges was needed. My eyes were open to the Lord’s example when he explained to Joseph Smith, “And this is the reason that thou has lost thy privileges for a season” (Doc. and Cov. 3:14). We need to make it clear to our children why their privileges are taken away.
If they really disagreed with what was being asked, it usually took a personal discussion, some one-on-one time with that child, to discuss their feelings about what was happening and how those feelings related to what was being asked. If their reasoning was just, we changed our minds. If not, once they felt validated in their feelings, they would usually proceed to do what we had asked. We weren’t perfect, but we really didn’t have a problem with disobedience.
In summary, I personally believe that if we respect our children, and they feel that respect, in turn they will respect us, and if for no other reason, they will obey us out of the respect they feel for us.