“Good manners will open doors that the best education cannot.” This powerful quote by American lawyer and Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Clarence Thomas exemplifies the critical nature of teaching children good manners from a young age. How soon is too soon to start? Many people make the mistake of waiting until their children are school aged to begin focusing on etiquette and manners, but there is a vast body of research to suggest that the sooner children are exposed to the notion of appropriate behaviors and good manners, the better.
It’s Never Too Early to Start!
It’s common knowledge that the way children are treated when they’re young will reflect in their interactions with others for the rest of their lives; if a child is treated with kindness, love, respect, and empathy, they will interact with others in the same way because socialization is a learned behavior. Even though it seems like an extremely young age to teach children anything, a lot can be learned between birth and twelve months and this will set a solid foundation to build on later.
At this age is possible for your child to learn the vital lesson of cause and effect, and chances are that you’re probably already teaching them this lesson without even knowing it! For example, when your baby cries and you rush to nurse them, this is unconsciously teaching your baby that their action causes a reaction. Babies can also demonstrate and understanding of cause and effect when they turn their head in the direction of a loud noise and kick their legs to make a mobile move. At the six-month mark, your child will become essentially power hungry with the knowledge that they can make things happen! Since they will have learned that their actions cause a reaction, they will want to test this in many different ways. They’ll want to press buttons, drop things, bang things, and scream loudly for attention just to see what happens next because you’ve taught them that something will in fact happen!
Setting limits on your child is generally the second behavioral lesson they will learn in their life; it is an excellent way to help them internalize good behavior, teach self-discipline, keep them safe, and eventually allow them to cope with discomfort in their environment.
At this age, babies want to explore the world around them in every way possible because they know their actions will cause a reaction, but they are also slowly starting to learn that boundaries are present. In fact, you might even notice that your child already knows that certain boundaries exist! For example, before they stick something in their mouth or pull the dog’s tail, they will likely look at you to gauge your reaction.
Trying to tell them ‘no’ or setting out rules will not help at this age because they lack the developmental ability to understand language or right from wrong. At this age, setting limits could mean giving them freedom within a confined space like a playpen, diverting their attention away from a negative behavior towards something more positive, and modeling good behavior.
Many experts claim that babies can start understanding the intention of the word ‘no’ between 12-18 months, while others state it could be as early as 6-8 months. Saying ‘no’ should be used sparingly and with intention at this point because it is a rather abstract concept to them and is in direct opposition to their primal instincts which are telling them to explore the world around them! Can you imagine how confusing it is for a child to be punished for what they are developmentally programmed to do?!
It’s important for adults to recognize that before 3 years of age, your child might ‘know’ what they aren’t supposed to do, they also ‘know’ they’re likely going to get a negative reaction from you, but they cannot understand why. This obviously doesn’t mean that your child should never be told ‘no’ or be allowed to do everything they want but it’s important to understand that their concept of ‘no’ and yours is rather different and you should combine ‘no’ with aversions and redirections.
Crying it out
Crying is an extension of children’s understanding that an action will cause a reaction because they often associate crying with being given attention. So, what happens when all their needs are met, for example, you know they’re not hungry or hurting and they don’t need a diaper change, but they start to cry anyways? Do you let them cry for a few minutes or give them the attention they’re looking for by rushing to their side immediately? As difficult as it is to hear, letting a child cry for a couple of minutes will not hurt them and can actually be very important towards the development of a considerate child whereas rushing to their side immediately can have many adverse effects and will teach them that their demanding cry will result in immediate attention. This mentality has the ability to set the stage for selfishness and self-centeredness in your child later on.
Exposing your child to these basic habits and behaviors will make a world of difference as they get older and start interacting with others on a more regular basis. Although it seems like a very early age to start teaching manners and etiquette, the formative years are extremely important for children to start developing the building blocks they will need for the rest of their life.