life skills

Yeah, You’ve Gotta Teach Your Kids Manners

They're not optional.

by Julia Williamson
mom and daughter having breakfast on the terrace
StockPlanets/E+/Getty Images

I grew up in a somewhat formal home. We asked to be excused from the dinner table, where we’d put our cloth napkins on our laps at the start of the meal. We gave up our seats to anyone who seemed less able to stand. We didn’t talk back to adults.

You might expect me to tell you that I rebelled against that the minute I left home, or that I tried a different approach with my kids. Nope! I tried to instill similar habits in my children, though we're a little less formal in our house. And I’m glad I did… and so are my kids.

Many of my etiquette rules had to do with mealtimes: don’t eat until everyone is served, clear your own dishes, ask to be excused if you can’t make it to the end of the meal, no eating anywhere other than at the table. Most of these were pretty easy to instill; they come up multiple times per day, after all. The hardest rule did not revolve around meals, but around interrupting. The kids were not supposed to talk to me while I was on the phone, unless someone was bleeding or unconscious. But kids being kids, they were generally convinced that their request, idea, or random thought needed to be expressed immediately. I mostly responded with a lot of hand-waving and going into my room and closing the door. And they mostly got the idea, even if they also forgot it regularly.

I understand that the battles in the moment are not fun. I certainly didn’t enjoy them. I always reminded myself in those moments that adults who aren’t polite are annoying to adults who are. And one day, kids are gonna be adults.

And while it sometimes seems like everything you say to a 7-year-old is in one ear and out the other, now that my kids are grown and in their 20s, they’re thankful that I made the effort. They’ve served them well, in both their personal and their professional lives. And they understand that manners are essentially codified kindness and respect for the people around you.

Some people assume that kids will follow whatever behavior their parents model, and thus they don’t need to be taught manners as long as Mommy and Daddy are saying please and thank you. But if kids didn’t have to be reminded to do the things their parents do, we’d never have to watch to see that they’re brushing their teeth. Teenagers would have universally tidy rooms. Thank you notes would be flying out the door. Believe me, while dinner time manners are important to me and I modeled them constantly, I also did my fair share of prompting, urging, reminding, and downright nagging to make sure my kids kept up their ends of the bargain.

Kids have to be taught to read, to use the toilet, to properly wield a knife and fork. And they need to be taught to treat others with kindness and respect. Sure, some kids come out of the womb empathetic and caring, but it’s also a learned behavior. Parenthood is 90% repetition as far as I can see, so why not harp on manners as much as hanging up their jackets? You’re not making them into robots, you’re helping them grow into people who will be treated with kindness and respect in turn. So do your part, people.

Julia Williamson is mother to two very nearly adult daughters. She’s a freelance writer, a decluttering wizard, and an inveterate optimist, regardless of reality. Visit her at