Ever have a day when your son seems destined to grow up a boorish cad who chews with his mouth open and burps at the dinner table? Has your son bit the nanny, pushed a baby, barked out food orders, pitched a fit in public, or made friends cry?
You're not alone. Most moms have endured these common, yet horribly cringing moments, despite knowing the importance of raising a respectful, responsible, kind and confident young man.
That's how Stephanie Yoshimoto, a manners-conscious mom of three boys in San Mateo, Calif., felt when her 5-year-old son had a play date with a new friend. "My son preferred to play alone, so when I suggested he involve his friend, he started talking back to me in front of our guests. Then, he wouldn't share his Legos, making the young boy cry. No matter what I said, my son reacted with yelling," says Yoshimoto. "I was terribly embarrassed by my son's behavior, especially because he wouldn't even apologize. I had to end the play date. I apologized profusely to the boy and his mom, but we have not gotten together with them since."
To help all parents of future young men, we talked with four experts about teaching your son manners, kindness, responsibility, and empathy -- all positive traits that lead to gentleman-like behavior and (bonus!) a giant confidence boost in your boy.
Here are their tips and techniques for raising a gentleman:
1. Examine your expectations. "Know what to expect by age and personality," says etiquette expert Cindy Post Senning, Ed.D., the great granddaughter of renowned manners maven Emily Post and director of The Emily Post Institute. At each step of his growing life, your son should learn a little more about manners, such as saying, "please" and "thank you" from ages 1 to 3 and helping to clear the table by age 5.
"Three year olds can't look someone in the eye [see tip #4], but by 6 years old, they should be able to do that," says Senning, whose website, TheGiftofGoodManners.com, provides etiquette guidelines from birth until 18 years old.
You will want to consider your son's personality when setting your goals. Tweak lessons based on whether he is shy, quiet, outgoing, talkative or inquisitive, according to Senning. "Don't pressure kids," says Senning. "Be sensitive to your son's personality at every developmental stage."
2. Encourage empathy. Compassion is an essential trait for building self-respect and respect for others. "Kids who are gentlemen don't bully and are less likely to be bullied," says Senning. "A gentleman is also someone who stands up for his friends."
Work on perspective taking, the skill of considering another's view before your own. First, ask your son how he feels, then ask him what he thinks the other person is feeling. "This is an important stage that is often missed," says Maia Szalavitz, co-author of " Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered." "It's like putting on your own oxygen mask first and then you can help others." Practice by reading together and asking, "What do you think the rabbit in the book is feeling?" Engaging your son in the rabbit's view gets him in the habit of thinking of others.
3. Be all ears. Listening to peers is essential to making and keeping friends - at all ages and stages of life. "Teach boys to make an effort to listen, because other people's thoughts really do matter," says Katy Shamitz, director of Skills for Living, a center in Norwell, Mass., where kids learn about socializing. "For the past 10 years there's been a culture of celebrating yourself. Learning that it's not all about you is a dying art. Kids show caring by lending an ear."
4. Make eye contact and smile! Remind your son to walk into a room, smile and connect with kids with his eyes," says Shamitz. This also allows him to notice how others might be feeling. "If there's a kid sitting by himself, tell your son to go talk to him. Encourage your son to use social thinking skills to figure out how other people are feeling." Explain the value of smiling, especially if he's shy: smiles cheer up a room; smiles make everything easier; and smiles boost moods.
Eye contact expresses sincerity and honesty and fosters bonding between two people. It also helps build self-confidence. However, "it could be really threatening to look someone in the eye," says Senning. "Teach kids to look at the nose. You can't tell and it's not as scary." Most boys giggle when you suggest looking at someone's nose, so it's a great way to break the ice and teach a critical social skill to last a lifetime.
5. Multi-touch messages. "Boys often respond less to words alone than girls," says Michael Gurian, a family therapist and author of " The Wonder of Boys." When teaching gentleman-like behaviors, communicate with three senses (sight, touch, sound) to get your message across. For example, if your son always tosses his shoes into the family room, try this multi-sensory method:
- Get down at his level and look him in the eye.
- Gently hold both shoulders.
- Say, "I want you to place your shoes in the mudroom."
Use this technique anywhere - at a friend's house, restaurant, grocery store - to reinforce and repeat etiquette lessons.
6. Act now. Little kids forget requests to act responsibly within seconds, according to Gurian. "It's important to have them do tasks right away and then reward them with nice words. Plus, the memory center in boys develops later than girls, so your notion of how responsibility is handled should be different," he explains. When you ask your son to move his trucks out of the living room, for example, have him do it right away so the memory of the request matches the action. Or, do it together to model how to take care of your belongings and explain out loud why you put toys away at the end of the day.
7. Practice at home. Practice table manners and chivalry at home, such as complimenting the cook, burping quietly with your mouth closed and writing thank you notes, so your son knows what to do when he is on his own. "Teaching your boy to be a gentleman gives him the skills to build and strengthen relationships with family, teachers and friends, and helps him in day-to-day life," says Senning. "This develops self- confidence because your son will go into all situations, from eating at a friend's house to going on a job interview (later in life), knowing what's expected of him. He won't sit there wondering what to do, which dissolves self-confidence. He'll have an improved image and it will give him an edge."
8. Go natural. Turn everyday situations into learning moments. For example, if someone in the supermarket smashes a cart, say, "I wonder what's going on with them?" If an ambulance roars by say "I hope everyone is okay." This could be more effective with younger children than bringing them to soup kitchen. "Charity work is good, but be sensitive to your child's age. Strangers may produce anxiety," advises Szalavitz.
9. Be a role model. All of the experts agree: both parents should behave how they want to see their son behave. "This is easier said than done, but when kids see you donating to charity, being kind to other people or saying please and thank you, that has a big influence," says Szalavitz. "Children learn how to regulate themselves from their parents and caregivers." Remember to consider role models when selecting a nanny or other child care providers.
10. Work as a team. It's important to create a plan and work together with your caregiver, so you are teaching the same skills. Pick a few lessons at a time and make sure everyone has the same age-appropriate steps in mind for your child. Review the tips above during your regular meetings and adjust them as your son grows.
Once your son gets into the routine of being a young gentleman, he will experience the benefits of being polite and acting kindly towards others. He'll soon see that it actually feels nice to be, well.... nice.
5 Books for Boys on Their Way to Being a Gentleman
- "Emily Post's Table Manners for Kids" by Peggy Post and Cindy Post Senning, Ed.D. Great nuts and bolts lessons on table manners and refresher course for grown-ups.
- "What Do You Say, Dear?" by Sesyle Joslin and Maurice Sendak. Hilarious lessons on proper etiquette.
- "The Berenstain Bears Say Please and Thank You" by Jan and Mike Berenstain. Classic book for understanding basic manners and getting along with others.
- "Not Me!" by Nicola Killen. Adorable and beautifully illustrated story for teaching responsibility.
- "Leonardo, the Terrible Monster," by Mo Willems. Creative, silly picture book about a boy learning empathy.