How to Motivate Kids to Be Polite


What This Is Like from a Parent’s Perspective


Whether it’s true or not, it seems to us like our children’s behavior is a reflection of how well we’re parenting.

So when our children aren’t polite…

When they receive a present and moan that it wasn’t what they wanted…

Or when they tell someone how disgusting their food is…

Or when they have a friend over and they become bossy and rude… 

It can be mortifying. We try to tell them how important it is to have good manners, but they don’t seem to remember (or care) in the moment.


What This Is Like From a Child’s Perspective


Children may be told (over and over) that they’re supposed to be polite, but often being polite uses some of the skills that they’re still trying to master.

Often they don’t have impulse control to do what’s polite instead of saying what’s on their minds. 

And they’re still learning how to handle their Yuck in a mature way.

The fact that they are kids (with immature brains) makes it hard for them to always do the right thing. It takes a while for them to learn new things, and getting in trouble for doing something “wrong” doesn’t necessarily help them do better in the future. 



How It Usually Goes When

Kids Aren’t Polite



Jonah’s dad is dropping him off at camp for the first time. When Jonah walks into the room, his counselor greets him warmly. Jonah doesn’t say a word and just walks away from the counselor.

Dad: Jonah? Did you hear your counselor? He said hi to you!

Jonah (doesn’t say anything).

Dad: Jonah! Say hi back!

Jonah (doesn’t say anything).

Dad: I cannot believe you are being so rude.

Jonah (gives his dad a dirty look).

Dad: We don’t act like that. What is going ON with you?

Jonah (doesn’t say anything).

Dad: Jonah! Don’t ignore me…

Jonah (bursts out): Dad! Leave me alone!

(Jonah walks to the other side of the room and sits alone, head in his hands. He won’t talk to his dad anymore, so his dad leaves, feeling awful about how Jonah has to start his day at camp.)


How It Could Go Instead When

Kids Aren’t Polite


Jonah’s dad is dropping him off at camp for the first time. When Jonah walks into the room, his counselor greets him warmly. Jonah doesn’t say a word and just walks away from the counselor.


Dad: Jonah?

Jonah (doesn’t say anything).

Dad (gently): Jonah, did you hear your counselor?

[expand title=”CALM”]

Jonah’s dad wants Jonah to be polite and answer his counselor. He also knows that if he insists that Jonah say hi when he’s nervous, that will only make Jonah feel more unsafe and he will clam up more. 

So he stays calm to help Jonah feel safe. [/expand]


Jonah (nods).

Dad: Are you going to say hi?

Jonah (shakes his head).

Dad (bends down to Jonah’s level). Are you nervous?

Jonah (nods).

Dad: You don’t know many people here, do you?

Jonah (quietly): No.

Dad: So this is hard, huh?


[expand title=”CONNECT”]

Jonah’s dad knows that in order to prioritize “politeness” (a quality that might not be that important to him yet), Jonah has to feel like his dad is on his side. 

So Jonah’s dad tries to see Jonah’s point of view so that he can eventually see his dad’s. [/expand]


Jonah: Yeah.

Dad: Is that why you didn’t want to say hi?

Jonah: I guess so. I don’t know. 

Dad: Well I know it’s hard to have good manners when your brain is focused on other things. (Pauses.) We still do need to have good manners. It’s super-important. 

Jonah (doesn’t say anything).

Dad: I’ll tell you what. I’ll walk around the room with you to help you get more used to this place. But the first stop needs to be a try-again with the counselor. Do you want to say hi by yourself or with me?


[expand title=”CORRECT”]

While Jonah’s dad respects that Jonah’s nerves may prevent him from being polite, he knows that he must also set a boundary.

​He focuses on being firm while teaching Jonah tools to feel more comfortable so he can meet that boundary.  [/expand]


Jonah: With you.

Dad: OK, let’s to go the first stop. Because the next stop needs to be that cool thing over there…

(Jonah and his dad walk over to the counselor, and Jonah says hi before moving onto the “cool thing.”)



The Foundation That Is Required for This to Work


Though Jonah’s dad used the Calm, Connect, Correct strategy, proactive deposits will make all of the difference in how this situation plays out in the moment.

If you want to give your child tools to be successful (so they can do what you ask), remember: 


[expand title=”Depositing into CALM”]

You will only be able to stay calm when

a.) your own biological or emotional “needs accounts” are met (otherwise you won’t have a reserve to draw from and you’ll immediately go into Yuck)

b.) you don’t have the expectation that your children will have the same priorities that you do

When you make sure your own needs are met and you set realistic expectations PROACTIVELY, you are more likely to be able to stay calm. [/expand]


[expand title=”Depositing into CONNECT”]

You will be able to connect if

a.) you respect that ALL behavior has a reason and

b.) you understand those reasons (in a case like this, that when a child isn’t being polite, they need help, not criticism)

When you become comfortable with the reasons behind behavior PROACTIVELY, you will be able to connect more effectively. [/expand]


[expand title=”Depositing into CORRECT”]

You will be able to correct behavior by offering a tool if

a.) You have demonstrated consistently in the past that you mean what you say when you set a boundary like “You need to have good manners.”

b.) You have made enough deposits into your kids’ emotional needs that setting a boundary doesn’t put them immediately into Yuck.

When you demonstrate that you mean what you say and when you make deposits into your kids’ emotional needs PROACTIVELY, you  will be able to correct behavior more effectively. [/expand]