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Teaching the Kids Holiday Manners

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Follow the Three P’s of Preparation, Practice and Pointing Out Examples

Holidays are a time when children are often expected to have excellent manners, whether they are receiving gifts, greeting an aunt or passing the peas.

Rebekah Meitler, instructor in Kansas State University’s School of Family Studies and Human Services, said teaching manners to young children is all about preparation, practice and pointing out examples. Meitler, who teaches toddlers and preschoolers at the Hoeflin Stone House Early Childhood Education Center, said this three-step process can be applied to any type of holiday manners, from greetings to mealtimes.

Receiving gifts

Graciously receiving gifts requires recognition that what’s most important is the giver, who should receive appreciation for their generosity, Meitler said. To prepare for gift situations, Meitler recommends telling children they may receive a gift, why gifts are shared during holidays and how they ought to respond.

“When children first learn the words ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ they’re abstract concepts, like any other vocabulary word,” Meitler said. “That’s why it’s important before large gatherings to use ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in concrete ways in smaller contexts where children are comfortable practicing those manners.”

To practice, Meitler recommends passing something back and forth while saying “please” and “thank you.” An engaging way to practice is having a pretend meal or tea party prior to attending a gathering, passing dishes back and forth. When parents receive a gift, they can point out afterward, “Did you notice that when Suzie handed me the present, I told her ‘thank you?’ Did you see how it made Suzie feel? She was happy because I said ‘thank you.'”

Hearty hellos

Relatives may hope for joyous greetings with hugs and kisses, but if children haven’t connected lately with them, the kids might not respond as warmly as expected.

Meitler advises parents to prepare children before they go by listing all the people they might see, reminding the child of when they last saw the person and restating how they are related. This is necessary because often, extended families don’t see each other for months, which is a very long time for young children.

“Preparing the children to see ‘cousin this’ or ‘uncle so-and-so’ helps them feel more confident in saying hello and greeting them in ways we might expect,” Meitler said.

Parents can also practice greetings with their children and point out examples of how they greet extended family members by using the person’s name and adding a hug or a phrase like, “It’s good to see you.”

Mealtime manners

Meitler said few things are worse at festive meals than a child reacting to an unfamiliar food by saying, “That looks gross!” She advises parents to describe the appearance, texture and flavor of foods their children may have not seen for 12 months, as well as whether they are to be eaten with the meal or at the end as dessert.

Parents need to clarify beforehand whether the children are required to taste everything or are welcome to say “no thank you” and pass it on to the next person, Meitler said. Parents can also prepare their children by bringing a booster seat or a stool.

“Having something to raise them up closer to others’ eye level can help to set them up for success,” Meitler said. “Also, putting a stool under the children’s feet helps them feel grounded and less inclined to wiggle.”

Any mealtime at home can serve as a practice opportunity. Meitler said parents could capitalize on the moment by pointing out when they use good manners, such as saying, “Did you notice how I passed the corn to Dad?” Meitler said those examples take the concept from “just another thing to learn” to something that is real to them.

When manners are forgotten

Even after preparing, practicing and pointing out examples, children may feel overwhelmed at holiday gatherings and forget their manners, Meitler said. In those cases, it is best to take on a supportive role, which may include:

  • Sitting close with the child and talking to them softly so they feel psychologically safe, even in what may be an unfamiliar type of gathering.
  • Asking the child if they’re feeling nervous about talking in front of everyone and acknowledging that it takes courage to speak up in front of so many faces.
  • Gently reminding them that next time someone gives them a gift or passes them a dish, they can practice saying “thank you” or requesting with the word “please.”

“Those kinds of conversations really support the child and are more helpful than reacting with, ‘Oh, you really should have said ‘thank you’ for that,” Meitler said. “Positive reinforcement is key, so be sure to show the child that you recognize when they do say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.'”

Parents can follow up by explaining the children are working on learning their manners but might not say “thank you” this year, which can help limit unrealistic expectations. Also, parents can point out other ways their children are expressing gratitude, such as by smiling, using the gift they received or eating all the food on their plate.

Meitler said manners are a habit to be taught, discussed and demonstrated all year long — at home, at restaurants and everywhere we go.

“If we model manners for our children in daily routines, then at family gatherings and with friends, it will be second-nature because they’ve already learned that skill,” Meitler said. “Don’t take Christmastime as the only time to teach children to be thankful. Manners are important all year long.”

SOURCE: Kansas State University

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