Editorials for Clinical Practice


CHADIS Co-Director and President, Dr. Barbara Howard is a regular contributor to the Behavioral Consult column of Pediatric News and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.


Dr. Howard is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician trained by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton at Harvard University. She is a national speaker on child behavior problems and is a past president of the Society for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. She was a contributing author for Bright Futures™, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Primary Care (DSM-PC) and Bright Futures in Practice: Mental Health and has served on national committees of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Manners matter

Barbara Howard, MD

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. The 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 to 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.

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 differently 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.

Manners are a group asset

Beyond personal benefits, manners are the basis of civil society. Manners contribute to mutual respect, effective communication, and team collaboration. Cultural norm manners are particular to groups, helping members feel affiliated, as well as identifying those with different manners as “other.”

Teens are particularly likely to use a different code of behavior to fit in with a subgroup. This may be acceptable if restricted to within their group (such as swear words) or within certain agreed-upon limits with family members. But teens need to understand the value of learning, practicing, and using manners for their own, as well as their group’s and nation’s, well-being.

As a developmental-behavioral pediatrician, I have cared for many children with intellectual disabilities and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Deficits in social interaction skills are a basic criterion for the diagnosis of ASD. Overtraining is especially needed for children with ASD whose mirror movements, social attention, and imitation are weak. For children with these conditions, making manners a strong habit takes more effort but is even more vital than for neurotypical children. Temple Grandin, a famous adult with ASD, has described how her mother taught her manners as a survival skill. She reports incorporating manners very consciously and methodically because they did not come naturally. Children with even rote social skills are liked better by peers and teachers, their atypical behaviors is better tolerated, and they get more positive feedback that encourages integration inside and outside the classroom. Manners may make the difference between being allowed in or expelled from classrooms, libraries, clubs, teams, or religious institutions. When it is time to get a job, social skills are the key factor for employment for these individuals and significant help for neurotypical individuals as well. Failure to signal socially appropriate behavior can make a person appear threatening and has had the rare but tragic result of rough or fatal handling by police.

Has the teaching of manners waned? Perhaps, because, for some families, the child is being socialized mostly by non-family caregivers who have low use of manners. Some parents have made teaching manners a low priority or even resisted using manners themselves as inauthentic. This may reflect prioritizing a “laid-back” lifestyle and speaking crudely as a sign of independence, perhaps in reaction to lack of autonomy at work. Mastering the careful interactions developed over time to avoid invoking an aggressive response depend on direct feedback from the reactions of the recipient. With so much of our communication done electronically, asynchronously, even anonymously, the usual feedback has been reduced. Practicing curses, insults, and put-downs online easily extends to in-person interactions without the perpetrator even noticing and are generally reinforced and repeated without parental supervision. Disrespectful behavior from community leaders also reduces the threshold for society.

When people are ignorant of or choose not to use manners they may be perceived as “other” and hostile. This may lead to distrust, dislike, and lowered ability to find the common ground needed for making decisions that benefit the greater society. Oliver Wendell Holmes said “Under bad manners ... lies very commonly an overestimate of our special individuality, as distinguished from our generic humanity (“The Professor at the Breakfast Table,” 1858). Working for major goals that benefit all of humanity is essential to survival in our highly interconnected world. Considering all of humanity is a difficult concept for children, and even for many adults, but it starts with using civil behavior at home, in school, and in one’s community.

Dr. Howard is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and creator of CHADIS (www.CHADIS.com). She has no other relevant disclosures. Dr. Howard’s contribution to this publication is as a paid expert to MDedge News. Email her at pdnews@mdedge.com.