Laying a Foundation for Good Manners: Basic Courtesies

I want my children to know the difference between a salad fork and a fish fork.  I want them to know how to introduce their principal to their aunt.  I want my daughters to know they don’t have to sacrifice their intelligence and ambition in order to be feminine.  I want my son to know that there is still a place, in fact a need, for chivalry in our modern world.  However, I also know that you can’t build a house without a foundation. 

When it comes to teaching fine dining, social skills, raising boys to be gentlemen and girls to be ladies – the foundation is basic courtesy.  This is where we start.  Regardless of the age of your child, these are the lessons you can’t skip.  So, what are these, oh-so-important yet basic courtesies?

  1. Magic words.  Even a two-year old can learn “please”, “thank you”, “excuse me”, “Ma’am”, and Sir.”  Why are they magic? Because in just one to two words we tell people that we respect and appreciate them.  (A quick note about “Sir” and “Ma’am” – I know some parents feel these are old-fashioned words.  Personally, they’re like respectful music to my ears.  Even as an adult, I couldn’t imagine, for example, talking to my grandparent’s friends without using these words.  Try them out – there’s no easier way to show respect!)
  2. Magic actions.  Children should be taught to hold doors for people.  Whether a person is young, old, male, or female – a door should never be allowed to close in their face.  Young people should also be taught to stand when meeting an adult.  So simple yet so often forgotten, standing sends a strong message of respect.  (Are you noticing a theme here?)
  3. Basic table manners.  There is almost a never-ending amount of things to learn about table manners, particularly fine dining.  Before you move on to the resting position of silverware, children need to start with the basics!  Ask ten etiquette experts what defines “basic table manners” and you’ll likely get ten different lists.  However, I think if you teach your children to chew with their mouths closed, to eat with utensils, to keep their elbows off the table, and to place their napkins in laps – they will be off to a great start. 
  4. Basic communication skills.  I can sum this up in two words: eye contact.  Teach your children to look someone in the eye when they’re talking.  Everything else (listening skills, conversation skills, proper grammar) comes secondary to looking a person in the eye.  So start here.

 So we know the basics.  Now, how do we teach them to our kids?  First and foremost, your children are watching.  Do you thank a waitress, hold a door for the stranger behind you, and swallow your food before you speak?  If you answered “yes” than you’re already teaching your children.  In other words, brush up on your own basic courtesies if you hope to have courteous children! 

 The next thing you need to do is teach manners with intent.  In the same way we teach reading, math, or practice a sport before the game – we need to teach and discuss manners.  We need to not only model good manners, but tell our children what we expect from them and why we feel it’s important.  Talk about these abstract concepts on your child’s level – being a good friend, being a nice person, making other people happy.  Read children’s books that demonstrate good manners.  Establish these courtesies as habits.  Once you’ve accomplished that, you’ve laid the foundation.  Remember though, sometimes even the best-laid foundations can develop cracks – never let basic courtesies slip!  Now to tackle that fish fork …

5 thoughts on “Laying a Foundation for Good Manners: Basic Courtesies

  1. I am surprised how few people I see who know the basics these days. I have yet to have dinner with someone who “centers” their silverware – now I’m wondering if it’s even considered etiquette anymore. Same with eating dinner rolls/bread plate etiquette, and definitely with the napkin, elbows on table, mouth open while chewing.

    I travel a lot, and can always tell when I’m back in the south – the doors being held open for me! I never had this growing up in the north. Gotta say, a girl can get used to it! Especially when you’re pushing a stroller with a wiggly toddler in it, carrying shopping bags, etc.

    Also, I work with many retired military people – and their strict manners put mine to shame! EVERYTHING is Sir, Ma’am, and they are so respectful. At first I was taken aback, but I have to admit, it’s pretty nice.

    Right now with my 16 month old – I’m happy just practicing, “Please” and “Thank You”. Baby steps!

    1. Thank you so much for your comments. We are in 100% agreement. It’s so interesting that you should mention the military – both my husband and I are former Air Force. I was also raised on Army posts. I miss that culture of respect!

      My youngest is two so we’re at the same stage you are & are teaching kind words. I checked out and love your blog. Looking forward to reading more.


  2. Hi Amy! Great post!

    I don’t have kids yet (but hope to have a family some day), but I’ve done a LOT of babysitting. And I know that most children act up for the babysitter, but sometimes it was a struggle just to get the kids to sit still for even a minute–using utensil and napkins was often out of the question (maybe I was a really bad babysitter).

    Needless to say, this often made me think about my own (future) children and how I’d go about raising thoughtful, respectful, kind individuals. This post made me think about the subject, but in a much more positive, hopeful light.

    I especially love your designation of “magic words” and “magic actions,” as markers of respect and appreciation–but framed in a way that kids can understand.

    Welcome to the blogosphere! I look forward to reading more 🙂

    1. Hi Sara! Thank you! I definitely gave birth to children, not angels. My kids are active and inquisitive which sometimes does not go hand-in-hand with polite. It’s a learning process every day for me just as much as for them! My goal is to have it all figured out by the time I’m a grandmom. 🙂
      I plan to focus on areas of etiquette outside of parenting too although that is where my head is most days! Thank you so much for your support, advice, and the great reading material everytime you post on


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