More than Manners: Why Character is More Important than Etiquette


I don’t believe in teaching manners. Not because I don’t expect my kids to say please and thank you, but because I am more interested in building their character, teaching them empathy and to think critically. We go beyond teaching wrote manner rules and occasionally throw them out the window. Sometimes this means addressing the why behind a mannerism and sometimes it means addressing the character-building skill at the heart. I do not want my children to conform simply for politeness’ sake. I want them to adopt those behaviors that allow them to be considerate of those around them while still understanding that their own needs and comfort matter. Here is my take on some of our most common manner lessons.

“Use your table manners.”

At my house dinner is an exercise in survival, yet my young children are still learning to sit at a table, use utensils, chew with their mouths closed, and take small bites. There is also the polite refusal of all things, “yucky” and participation in the conversation. The difference is why. Yes, I am teaching them to be polite, but I am also teaching them to be socially acceptable in one of the most important settings for human interaction. For most cultures food is social. By teaching my children basic table etiquette I am giving them a social skill that will allow them to be accepted in the most basic of social situations. 

“Cover your cough.”

Yes, I teach my children to cover their sneeze, take a bath, and brush their teeth. The difference is that we emphasize the reasons behind these practices both in scientific and social parameters. The benefit is that we get fewer protests from our kiddos because they can see the why of what I am asking them to do. Good hygiene allows the world to focus on who my children are and what they have to say rather than the smell or fear of illness.  

Need help getting the message across? Try this cute animated video by the Saskatchewan Health Authority on hand washing. Have a kiddo who hates to take a bath? Try this one from Colossal Question called, “What if I Never Took a Shower?”

Life skills are about more than balancing a check book

“Say, thank you.”

We can teach, “say, thank you”, but without an understanding of gratitude, kids are just going through the motions. I don’t want my kids to say thank you, I want them to be thankful. Gratefulness allows them to not take things for granted, to be satisfied, and to be content. Take the time to discuss why your children should feel gratitude for others and you give them so much more than manners. 

There are all sorts of benefits to practicing gratitude: physical, social, and spiritual. It’s something we here at Seacoast Moms talk and think about a lot. If you want to know more check out these past posts. 

“Don’t interrupt!”

This one is more complex. Simply expecting that our children won’t interrupt suggests that they are somehow lower or less. What I mean is, if you were speaking with your spouse and a friend came rushing in and announced there were deer in the yard, would you say, “Can’t you see we’re talking? Don’t interrupt!” Yet, this is exactly how many of us would respond if a child ran in. What we really want from our children is the ability to read a situation and to have self-control. Both skills that they may not be developmentally ready for. So yes, I don’t want my children to interrupt. In the meantime, I am prepared to show them the same level of patience and kindness I would a friend. 

If you want to read more on this interesting topic check out this great blog post by Kate Baltrotsky entitled, Why I Let My Kids Interrupt My Conversations.

this humorous take on the old manners adage about not interrupting

“Don’t point. That’s rude.”

We’ve all been there. You’re in line at the grocery store and your child points and asks loudly, “Why doesn’t he have hair?”. It’s mortifying for everyone except your innocent little who is honestly curious. We can teach our children that it’s rude to comment on others, but teaching children to avoid acknowledging differences is to teach them that difference is wrong.  In her piece for Parent’s magazine, What to Do When Someone is Different, Meg Zucker suggests that rather than cringe you strike up a friendly conversation with the “different” person so that your child can see that it’s okay to embrace difference.

“Be a good sport.”

As a kid, I learned that being a good sport meant hiding disappointment after a loss and being kind when you win. But as an adult, I learned that sportsmanship is not nearly enough. I want my children to have grit. Grit is a person’s ability to persevere in order to reach their goals and according to the 2016 best selling book, Grit by Angela Duckworth it is the truest predictor of success in children. Grit is established by giving your kids a growth mindset. Losing is okay. We shake our opponent’s hand and we work harder next time. Winning is amazing, but we are always looking to improve.

What are the important “why of manners” to you?