Manners children!

A portly gentleman with slightly shabby attire and an eyepatch gets on the bus. “Oh look Mummy,” pipes up your three-year-old son at ear-splitting volume, “a fat pirate!”

A portly gentleman with slightly shabby attire and an eyepatch gets on the bus. “Oh look Mummy,” pipes up your three-year-old son at ear-splitting volume, “a fat pirate!” STACIA BRIGGS finds out how to raise polite children in impolite times (without using a gag).

WHEN they were babies, you dreamt of Von Trapp-style polite children charming your family and friends with their perfect manners.

The reality is often somewhat different.

If the children mishear you they scream “what?” instead of “pardon?”, they need a parental death glare to remember to say please and thank you in polite company and think nothing of holding hugely inappropriate conversations on their mobile phones in the middle of department stores.

Where once they would have doffed their cap, opened doors for ladies and left their fork prong-down on the table they're now assuming anyone who greets them in the street intends to mug them and condemning anyone who sits at the table and waits for their parents to finish eating as “sad”.

Times have chanced. Two decades ago we would scoff at children who were the product of “experimental” nurseries and schools (or, indeed, experimental parenting) who had no rules, no homework, no regimented meals, no set bedtime, no chores, no pleases and no thank-yous.

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These children used to be in the minority - now they're everywhere. There may well be one hiding in your house right now flicking you the finger.

Last year, the most complained about television advertisement was for KFC. It showed a group of women singing with their mouths full of chicken and was roundly condemned by parents trying to teach their children table manners.

And some of the best-selling books of the year were Lynne Truss's Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of Everyday Life, Simone Fanshawe's The Done Thing: Negotiating The Minefield of Modern Manners and Manners from Heaven: The Easier Way to Better Behaviour For All the Family.

Even Tony Blair has talked about reintroducing “respect” to the country through manners.

So how can we steer our children towards becoming thoughtful, polite individuals?

Politeness through the ages:

Age one to two:

It's never too early to teach your child to be polite. Introduce manners into your conversations (with a regular pattern of “please”, “thank you”, “sorry”, “excuse me” and “pardon”) and let your child know that thinking about other people's feelings is at the root of polite behaviour.

Point out kind behaviour in others and talk to them about caring for other people.

Set out rules but enforce them gently. Children at this age aren't sufficiently developed to have good table manners, but they can understand simple rules such as “when you're eating, you sit down” and “keep your feet off the table”. Repeat often.

Age two to three:

Children this age are still operating with limited self-control, but as they head towards three years of age, their memory, language and impulse control improve meaning they can grasp the concept of manners.

You need to help your child to be polite. Continue to be polite with them and encourage them to be polite with others. Reward their politeness with praise and the odd treat.

It may help to remind your child of an imaginary character who is naughty and unpleasant (such as Veruca Salt in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), pointing out that no one wants other people to think of them as a “Veruca”.

Patience and persistence are key. If your children say please and thank you, they can be rewarded with what they've asked for (as long as the request is reasonable!).

Don't be unrealistic about your child. No two-year-old is going to sit quietly while you have a long telephone conversation or wait patiently at the dinner table as you entertain friends. Keep a basket with crayons, paper and stickers by the telephone for those moments that you really can't postpone a call.

Age three to five:

Preschoolers are mastering their environment and can understand more difficult concepts - their continual questioning should give you ample opportunity to explain why it's so important to be polite.

You have to take responsibility for your child's manners. If you are in a public place, make sure your child behaves. Too many mothers are content to sit back while their child creates havoc - if your offspring is swinging on the furniture, screaming or making a nuisance of themselves, be firm with them and make them stop.

Continue to praise good and polite behaviour and tell your children if others praise them. Remember that some children's temperaments make it difficult for them to say effusive thank yous to other people, but encourage them to say thank you quietly if they are shy.

Age five to seven:

School should help children develop their manners (hopefully…). They will be expected to be quiet, take turns, raise their hands and treat other children and adults with respect. Teachers will help stress the importance of being polite and children will reap the results if they behave.

Talk to your child about what they think good manners are all about. Children are far more likely to follow rules they think they've made up themselves - for example they may police each other at the dinner table far more effectively than you ever could. This is one of the only joys of peer pressure.

Realise what your child finds difficult to do and adapt. If they don't want to linger at the dinner table, accept that as long as they are polite as they eat then you can compromise about when they leave the table.

While it's tempting to tell your child that it hurt when she said you looked horrible in your new dress, don't confuse the issue by introducing your emotional life. Stick to what is and isn't acceptable. It's better to say “It's not OK to talk to me that way.” Children need guidance.

Age seven and upwards:

This is when peer pressure turns around and starts to bite you in the backside. Persevere with the praise and remember that unruly, rude children usually have parents who are tired, who have given up or who don't think rudeness is a big deal.

Rudeness is a big deal. Accept that raising your children to be polite is going to be hard work, but that it'll pay off the day your child doesn't say “what?” but instead says “pardon?”.

Five steps to politeness:

Communicate with your children. In a world where Dick and Dom encourage your kids to go into public places and shout “bogeys!” at the top of their voices, it's important to talk to your kids and tell them what is, and isn't, appropriate.

Eat together. A traditional family meal held as often as possible helps to teach children about communicating and sharing with others, taking turns, cooperating and the importance of the family.

Set a good example. Be seen to be polite and help your children to practice common courtesy by writing thank-you letters for gifts, sending cards to friends and relatives, remembering birthdays, holidays and people who are feeling ill.

Praise your child for being polite. Positive reinforcement will help your child learn the behaviour you value.

Set boundaries. Correct the behaviour and not the child - instead of saying “you have such a foul mouth - stop using those words”, say “we don't use language like that in this house”.

I don't think there are any remedies for children's rudeness. Partly because they're impossible to predict.. The children don't mean to be rude - they are just being candid. Politeness can be a kind of hypocrisy. Most children learn it soon enough.

If you tell children in private what is expected of them enough times and use please and thank you at all times yourself, it does sink in. Children learn from repetition and example. Explaining to them the importance of kindness, that it's unkind to point, stare and make remarks about people who look different, helps.

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