Teaching kids manners in public

Sep 22, 2010 at 4:00 p.m. ET

Parents make every effort to teach kids manners by example, but sometimes kids are learning from some of the worst possible sources: other kids, and the misbehaving ones at that. It’s up to parents to teach kids manners in public and at home.

Little girl with table manners

Kids learn from other kids. If your child sees another child treating a public space as his own personal playground, don't be surprised if your child tries to do the same. Here's how to curb misbehavior in public before it even crosses your little one's mind.

How to teach and reinforce good manners

"We've all seen children at a mall or restaurant turn into tyrants. They become loud, obnoxious or invade places they're not supposed to be," says Dr Tim Elmore, author of Generation iY, Our Last Chance to Save Their Future. "It's brilliant to capitalize on these incidents and make them teaching moments for our children."

You don't want to embarrass a child or their parent (however oblivious they may be), yet you can use these moments to teach your kids a lesson about inappropriate behavior the moment they see it happening outside your home. "Discuss what's right and wrong conduct [before going out]," Elmore says. "When you see anything to the contrary, grab your child's hand and [gently] squeeze it. This will be your signal reminding them of your conversation." If you find yourself amid an especially unpleasant scenario, or if you just want to ensure that no parties are insulted, pull your child aside in a restroom or nook to talk, Elmore suggests. Assume a 24/7 mentor role for your child; this "trainer mode" can and should be taken into public.

Expert TipsTop three ways to teach kids manners

Elmore offers the following tips to teach manners to kids:

  1. Reward good behavior. What gets rewarded gets repeated. If this fits your parenting philosophy, have goodies handy and when your child interacts well with adults or in a public place, pass that goodie on and smile, thanking her for being a good example
  2. Remember the big "IDEA." Kids need four ingredients to learn something: instruction (talk about it), demonstration (show them), experience (let them do it themselves) and assessment (evaluate when it's over).
  3. Set your child up to interact naturally with adults. I wanted my kids to learn to look an adult in the eye or order off a menu. My wife and I would have them do it, as early as 5 years old. This diminishes their predisposition to create a negative scene. They've learned to behave in a social setting.

Can't kids just be kids?

Some parents chalk up bad behavior to "being a kid," but there are consequences to avoiding discipline and hoping your child merely grows out of a bad "phase." Consistency in words and actions is key, Elmore cautions. "If you say you're going to discipline them when you get home, do it."

No one ever said discipline was the fun part of parenting, but your child needs you to prepare them for the higher expectations they will inevitably meet down the road. "Kids need an environment that is supporting and loving but, at the same time, has standards and boundaries," says Elmore. "Either of these two without the other is incomplete."

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