Behavioral Consult

Manners matter


Have you been surprised and impressed by a child who says after a visit, “Thank you, Doctor [Howard]”? While it may seem antiquated to teach such manners to children these days, there are several important benefits to this education.


Manners serve important functions in benefiting a person’s group with cohesiveness and the individuals themselves with acceptance in the group. Use of manners instantly suggests a more trustworthy person.

There are three main categories of manners: hygiene, courtesy, and cultural norm manners.

Hygiene manners, from using the toilet to refraining from picking one’s nose, have obvious health benefits of not spreading disease. Hygiene manners take time to teach, but parents are motivated and helped by natural reactions of disgust that even infants recognize.

Courtesy manners, on the other hand, are habits of self-control and good-faith behaviors that signal that one is putting the interests of others ahead of one’s own for the moment. Taking another’s comfort into account, basic to kindness and respect, does not require agreeing with or submitting to the other. Courtesy manners require a developing self-awareness (I can choose to act this way) and awareness of social status (I am not more important than everyone else) that begins in toddlerhood. Modeling manners around the child is the most important way to teach courtesy. Parents usually start actively teaching the child to say “please” and “thank you,” and show pride in this apparent “demonstration of appreciation” even when it is simply reinforced behavior at first. The delight of grandparents reinforces both the parents and children, and reflects manners as building tribe cohesiveness.

Good manners become a habit

Manners such as warm greetings, a firm handshake (before COVID-19), and prompt thanks are most believable when occurring promptly when appropriate – when they come from habit. This immediate reaction, a result of so-called “fast thinking,” develops when behaviors learned from “slow thinking” are instilled early and often until they are automatic. The other benefit of this overlearning is that the behavior then looks unambivalent; a lag of too many milliseconds makes the recipient doubt genuineness.

Parents often ask us how to handle their child‘s rude or disrespectful behavior. Praise for manners is a simple start. Toddlers and preschoolers are taught manners best by adult modeling, but also by reinforcement and praise for the basics: to say “Hello,” ask “Please,” and say “Thank you,” “Excuse me,” “You’re welcome,” or “Would you help me, please?” The behaviors also include avoiding raising one’s voice, suppressing interrupting, and apologizing when appropriate. Even shy children can learn eye contact by making a game of figuring out the other’s eye color. Shaming, yelling, and punishing for poor manners usually backfires because it shows disrespect of the child who will likely give this back.

Older children can be taught to offer other people the opportunity to go through a door first, to be first to select a seat, speak first and without interruption, or order first. There are daily opportunities for these manners of showing respect. Opening doors for others, or standing when a guest enters the room are more formal but still appreciated. Parents who use and expect courtesy manners with everyone – irrespective of gender, race, ethnicity, or role as a server versus professional – show that they value others and build antiracism.

Dr. Barbara J. Howard, assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and creator of CHADIS (

Dr. Barbara J. Howard

School age is a time to learn to wait before speaking to consider whether what they say could be experienced as hurtful to the other person. This requires taking someone else’s point of view, an ability that emerges around age 6 years and can be promoted when parents review with their child “How would you feel if it were you?” Role playing common scenarios of how to behave and speak when seeing a person who looks or acts different is also effective. Avoiding interrupting may be more difficult for very talkative or impulsive children, especially those with ADHD. Practicing waiting for permission to speak by being handed a “talking stick” at the dinner table can be good practice for everyone.


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