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Give Your Child a Manners Makeover

by Cindy Post Senning

Cindy Post Senning

Cindy Post Senning, Ed.D. is Emily Post’s great-granddaughter, and educator and author of numerous books on children and manners. Read more »

Sorry, Cindy Post Senning is no longer taking questions.

The holidays are coming. Decorations are popping up everywhere. Holiday music is playing in stores. People are planning turkey dinners. Families will be traveling to visit families. Parents may be stressing. And kids are beside themselves with excitement!

Parents ask me, "What can we do? The kids are wild, and we've left table manners by the wayside. Is it too late?" No, it's not too late to spruce up the manners you want your children to know before the craziness sets in. You can help them by practicing a few days before Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Make time to talk with your kids about manners too. Ask them why manners are important and which ones they think make the most sense. Help them understand this isn't about "rules," it's really about how we get along with each other. The goal is to make this a positive experience and then to enjoy the holidays. Let's get started!

Table Manners
Practice setting a simple table setting with your child: fork on the left, knife and spoon on the right (knife next to the plate), glass on the right above the knife and spoon. (Ask your kids for suggestions for table decorations.)

Explain the basics:

  • Wash up.
  • Put your napkin in your lap.
  • Wait until all are served or the hostess begins to eat, before starting to eat.
  • Say, "Please" and "Thank you."
  • Hold utensils properly.
  • Chew with your mouth closed.
  • Offer to help clear.
  • Thank the cook!

Table Conversation

  • Children should talk to people beside and across from them.
  • Volume: Not too loud; not too soft.
  • Don't talk with your mouth full! (Try putting a mirror in front of your child during a meal, so she can see how it looks.)
  • The art of small talk: For older kids, suggest topics like the weather, sports, local events, school and then practice with them. Use questions that begin with who, what, where, when and how.
  • Talking about personal family issues is a no-no!

Greetings and Handshakes
Kids can practice with siblings, neighbors, dolls and stuffed animals!

Greetings - The most important thing for them to do is to look the person in the eye and SMILE! They should also:

  • Speak clearly.
  • Say the person's name.
  • Add a "Glad to see you" or "How's it going?" If it's a relative or close friend, add a hug.

Handshakes - In the olden days, knights extended a hand to show it did not hold a weapon. The other person responded showing he didn't have a weapon either. Today, kids should simply remember:

  • Right hand to right hand
  • Firm grip - not too tight; not too limp
  • Two to three pumps

Gifts You Don't Wrap

Some of the best things we can give at the holidays can't be wrapped. By talking with your children about this concept, you'll raise their consciousness about these special gifts: kindness, consideration and helping out.

Giving and Receiving Gifts
Help your kids learn the gracious art of gift giving and receiving.

Gift Giving - In order to help your kids learn the joy of giving, involve them in gift shopping or making the gifts they'll give. Then practice these interactions:

  • Look at the person and smile.
  • Hand them the gift and say clearly, "This is for you. I hope you like it." Or "Here, I made this especially for you."
  • Watch the person open their gift and feel the delight that comes with giving.
Gift Receiving - Remind kids that time and thought went into picking out their gift. It's important to be polite by opening the gift with a sense of joy and then expressing thanks. Have your child:
  • Look at the person giving the gift and smile.
  • Focus on the person and the gift - not something that was opened just before.
  • Say a big, "Thank you!" You can't stress this enough with your children! If they can't thank the giver in person, send a note right away!

If they don't like the gift, teach them to find something positive to say, to say it, and then to say "Thank you." For example, "This shirt is the best color blue. Thank you so much."

I hope these tips will help you and your child. And remember, good manners are a gift that will last a lifetime!

Sorry, Cindy Post Senning is no longer taking questions. Feel free to comment on the article and let us know what you think about the topic.


Mary writes...

Cindy, how young can you start teaching children the basics of table manners that you have outlined? And on the topic of gifts, what is the proper etiquette regarding opening gifts at the birthday party of a very young child -- say, under the age of 3? Is it better to wait to open the gifts until the guests go home to avoid a potential inappropriate comment such as the child saying he doesn't like the gift because he is too young to control what he says?

Cindy? writes...

Mary, You can start teaching the basics when your children are very young. For example, even when they are babies you can wipe their hands and face with a warm washcloth before meals. That will start the habit of coming to the table with clean hands and face early. I consider bibs to be early napkins. Consider how old your child is and go for age appropriate expectations. A two to three year old can sit at the table with you for dinner for about 20 minutes, but by the time he is 6 or 7 he can manage a whole meal with some table talk when you are done eating - 30 to 40 minutes depending on the topic of the table conversation.
About opening presents at a very young child's birthday party. It's fine to wait. Just put the wrapped presents up and out of reach (and even out of sight). By waiting until later you not only avoid the potential of negative comments, you also avoid the chance of battles over who gets to play with the new toys the moment they are opened. You also will be better able to keep the focus of these very young ones on the party activities. If you do wait, thank you notes are essential as you will not have had the opportunity to thank the giver in person!

nicole writes...

This is great, Cindy. I was brought up saying "please" and "thank you." Even when my 2 and 4 year old are acting like savages, I still manage to say those magic words when trying to get them in line.

Thanks for reminding us how important it is to use those basic words.

Cindy? writes...

Hello Nicole - It's great you are teaching your young ones the importance of "please" and "thank you". It will serve them well their whole lives through. Take a look at our web site and link to the Emily's Magic Words book for toddlers page. We have directions for saying the magic words in American Sign Language. Very young children can learn them. It's a fun activity to do with your kids.
The Emily Post Institute

Gabrielle writes...

Cindy, my kids seem to think that chewing with their mouths open and playing with their food is appropriate behaviour. (Big surprise. :)) Any tips on getting them to embrace good table manners that don't include me bribing them? Thanks.

Cindy? writes...

Gabrielle - Start by helping them see how gross they look chewing with their mouths open by placing a small mirror in front of them at dinner. We've heard from parents that as soon as the kids see themselves, they understand why it's gross to chew with mouths open and you don't have to keep telling them. As for playing with their food. Once they start playing with their food it's a reasonable assumption they are no longer hungry and are done eating. So call it as it is, "I can see you're not hungry anymore. Food is for eating, not playing so why don't you clear your place. Dinner is over." Then you really need to follow through - not hungry and done eating means just that - no snacks later! Good luck!

Cari writes...

Cindy, my children have a hard time staying seated at meal time. They always want to kneel on their chairs, stand up or even walk around. I am constantly reminding them to, "Please have a seat while you eat!" I've even tried pretending to paint glue on their bums, sitting them in their chairs, and then pressing down on their shoulders to make sure the glue "sticks." They laugh, but the glue doesn't seem to stick for long. I've also tried threats, like, "No dessert if you stand up again!" That works better than the glue, but I still feel like a nag. Any ideas???

Cindy? writes...

Hello Cari, You didn't mention your kid's ages. If they are quite young, 2 or 3, they will not have the attention span to sit for long. Keep meal times short. Try to focus their attention on eating and when they've reached their limit, end meal time. If they are older, 4 or 5, they should be able to sit for 25-30 minutes, eat, and even be a part of table conversation. Think ahead and be prepared with some small talk that will be of interest to them so they stay engaged. If they continue to jump up, let them know that's it. Your " no dessert" approach is one I recommend (but do follow through, even if you feel like a meanie.) You are not a nag... just helping them practice an important social skill. If you were their soccer coach and practicing kicking the ball, they wouldn't think of you as a nag. Skills - social or otherwise - take practice and it sounds like you're being a good coach. By the way, I love the glue thing and wish you could report that it works!

Lora writes...


I have a very picky eater who is 3, how can i get her to sit still at the table and eat. If she is not interested in eating she is trying to get out of her chair which means I am trying to keep her in the chair and by the time i get to eat everything is cold. Not so bad for me but I don't want her to draw attention away from the other family members.

Cindy? writes...

Lora, A 3 year old picky eater is not unusual. Try to include foods she does like in each meal along with whatever you are preparing for yourself and the rest of the family. It doesn't have to be fancy. Once she starts squirming and trying to get out of her chair, remind her that once she gets up, she is done eating (that includes dessert). Provide a place near the table where she can play and then enjoy your dinner while it's still hot and you can pay attention to other family members. As she gets older she will increase the foods she will eat and the time she sits with you and you won't find yourself in a battle every evening.

Mari writes...

Hello Cindy,
I was so pleased and thankful for this brief article. I asked my son to read it to reinforce what I have been training him to do since he was very young. Of course, he has always obliged but was never happy to have to mind his manners. This past year I have had him attend cotillion training and now he is seeing that other children his own age are practicing the same behaviors...he's not the only one. To my great surprize he is enjoying the events, even the dancing. Sometimes it can be an uphill battle, but the rewards do show eventually.

GeethaBalakumar writes...

Useful information. Thank you.

Edited for clarification by Tracey at PBS Parents.

Ron writes...


Every holiday, my cousin makes it very uncomfortable for the rest of us by insisting that her 8-year-old strictly follow her expectations for manners (no elbows on the table, hold your fork this way, once you are dismissed from the table you cannot talk with anyone any longer). While I appreciate her effort to instill good manners, I feel bad for the kid and the berating she receives in front of everyone at the table. I wouldn't want to interfere with her style of parenting, but at the same time, she is just a kid. Any suggestions, or should I continue biting my lip?

Cindy? writes...

Hello Ron,

I'm afraid you just have to keep biting your lip - at least at the holiday meal. You don't want to wind up in an argument about how to raise children with your cousin at that special time. If you are close with your cousin, you may want to call her at another time, offer to share a cup of coffee or tea, and talk about how tricky it is to raise kids. You can tell her the things you find difficult and what works. She may share her thoughts on raising kids and you could wind up with a good conversation. However, you need to be clear with yourself that it might make no difference and has the potential of creating a tension between the two of you. It is always difficult to tell another parent how they should raise their kids and can even be considered rude by them, so tread lightly. Your concern for her daughter is admirable, but there may really be nothing you can do.

Charley writes...

How about wearing a baseball cap when eating? Many times when I'm in a restaurant I'd just like to go up to these idiots and take off their hat and stomp on it.

Cindy? writes...

Charley - You are not alone! I hear from so many people their irritation about people not taking their baseball caps off while eating. It really is good manners to remove your hat when you are at the table eating. There's not much more I can say about it except that I would advise you to resist your great temptation to stomp on someone else's hat and also don't let their bad manners ruin your meal!

Judith Rycar writes...

How do you deal with older children who have a lack of manners? I am a teacher of 9th graders who have no conception of manners and would like to know how to start teaching interpersonal manners to this group. Thanks.

Cindy? writes...

Hi Judith -
I commend your interest in teaching interpersonal skills to 9th grader. Your best bet is to engage them in a conversation about three basic principles: respect, consideration, and honesty. Manners are the tools we use to articulate these principles in all the relationships that are important to us: friends, family, teachers, co-workers, and bosses. For example, it is both respectful and considerate to express appreciation (say thanks) when someone does something nice for you. Ask them to consider this - they spend an afternoon helping a friend out with a problem. The friend doesn't even say thanks or express appreciation for the effort. How do they feel? They will say that they feel sad or bad or some negative like that. And then they help again and no appreciation and then again and still no thanks. How many times before they stop helping? That's what happens when we don't say thanks - people stop doing nice things, or giving gifts, or helping out. Ask how it feels when someone does say thanks. How different is that? And how about please? Please turns a demand into a request. Would they rather have their friends ask for something or just take it? Once you've had this discussion suggest that you all agree to request things from each other (say please) and show appreciation (say thanks) for two weeks. Ask them all to observe how in what ways that changes the climate in the room. The point is to get them talking about it. This isn't about giving them some rules of interaction - it's about building and sustaining good relationships. That is the hook that gets them interested and talking. It's really a complex task, but I hope this helps you get started.

Missy writes...

I think it is so important to teach kids manners from an early age, especially with the world we are living in now. People seem to have lost the meaning of manners and being polite. If we raise our children to be respectful and have good manners than they will hopefully be more productive in society when they get older.

I started teaching my 3 year old son manners very young. He now knows to say "Please" when he wants something and "Thank You" when he gets something he asked for and "Your Welcome" when you have thanked him for something, and all without me having to prompt him to do so. He also says "Bless You" when you sneeze. He knows these things because right from the start I would say "Please" when I wanted him to do or give me something and "Thank You" when he did what I asked. Basically you have to treat your kids the way you expect them to treat others. If you say "Please" and "Thank You" to your children they will learn to do the same. They always learn by example. So make sure you set the best example possible for your children.

Diane writes...

My 2.5 yr old is going through a streak of refusing the 'please, t-you' even, especially when I remind her to say it. With family gatherings coming up I don't know how far I should go if she refuses to say 'thank-you' for gifts, etc...I don't want to encourage a tantrum or put her in a time-out during a big gift exchange, or do I? I keep reminding her Santa is watching to make sure she is a polite girl, but I feel the more I push it, the more she's pushing back the opposite way. We are so consistent with manners ourselves in the home and she used to follow suit beautifully. Maybe like us adults she is going through holiday stress and I should cut her some slack?

Cindy? writes...

Hello Diane, Your 2.5 year old is trying out refusals. As you know, it's called by some "the terrible twos". But you still can do some things to help manage this time. Make sure she's had plenty of rest before any family gatherings. Also be sure she is not hungry at gift exchange time. Bring a piece of fruit or a sandwich and give her a snack if the gift exchange is before dinner. Then, sit with her as she opens her presents. As soon as you sense her "no" coming up, be prepared to say "thank you" for her. "Oh this it just the toy she was hoping for! Thank you!" Then turn to her and suggest she say thanks. If she refuses, simply tell the giver that you're working on thank you and you and your daughter both appreciate their thoughtfulness. Keep reminding your daughter to say thank you, give lots of praise when she does it right, and, at home, when it's not a special occassion set some 2.5 year old consequences if she doesn't say thanks. You may be expecting more than she can handle. Go back to expecting please, help her say thanks, give her a few months and she'll be saying thanks herself and you'll know it's a reasonable expectation.

Mary Beth writes...

I have a 16-year-old daughter who I have to nag and nag to write a thank-you note. Being a full-time working parent, when she was younger I had to pick my battles. Looking back, I now feel I should have been stricter about getting her to write thank-you's. Unfortunately I can't turn back time. Is it too late to get her into the habit of writing thank-you notes? Do you have any suggestions for older kids?

Cindy? writes...

Hi Mary Beth,

It's never too late! Begin by talking to your daughter about thank yous. Not when you are needing to nag because she has to write one but some other time. Ask her how she would feel if she made the effort to find a special gift for someone, used some of her own money to buy it, spent the time to send it, and then never heard from them. She will tell you she would feel bad. It's a natural reaction when you do something for someone or give someone something and they do not show any appreciation. Then ask her how good it feels when they do say thanks - especially with a personal hand written note. You can guess her answer.
Next go together to a stationery or gift store, let her pick out some note cards that she really likes, buy them for her, stop at the post office and do the same with stamps.
Finally, remind her it's easy. All she has to do is write three sentences - maybe four. A greeting, a thank you mentioning the specific gift or action your are giving thanks for, a personal statement like "I can't wait to see you next summer!" or whatever, and a closing. That's all it takes.
By engaging her in both the dialogue about why it's important to show appreciation and then setting her up so it's easy to do, you will be helping her to develop a great habit that will serve her well now and in the future.

Arlinda writes...

Iam a foster parent for a two year old girl. I have noticed she will not say, please or thank you. I was taught to use my manners at an early and my 21 year old daughter, always used those the magic words. How do you help a child when her world is already turned around?

Tina writes...

I must tell you I hear all the time how society does teach manners, people have forgotten how to be polite and I disagree!

In general I find people helpful, pleasant, funny and polite. Yes, sometimes people do not display these behaviors but sometimes I don't.

Who knows what is going in someones life?
I take the approach with my children that even if someone does not show good manners they should. This way they learn manners and compassion.

BTW my boys are only 3 and 5 and they do get it..

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