Q. I heard you in a recent radio interview talk about the importance of teaching children manners, but they didn't give you time to be very specific. What are the first manners a child should learn and by what age should he have learned them?
A. In "Toward a Meaningful Life: The Wisdom of the Rebbe" (William Morrow & Company, $20, adapted by Simon Jacobson), the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson states unequivocally that a child's character education should take priority over his academic education.
The esteemed Rebbe (pronounced REB-be) -- former leader of the Lubavitcher movement of Hasidic Judaism -- says all other educational efforts are basically meaningless unless built on the solid foundation of good character.
In the movie "Blast From the Past," one of the characters discovers, as he puts it, "Good manners are a way of showing respect for others" and not, as he'd previously thought, a means of calling attention to oneself. He also discovers that the most important of all manners is doing all you can to help people around you feel comfortable.
Character and manners are inseparable. Good manners are symptomatic of good character, and the linchpin of good character is respect for others, as reflected by good manners. That one scene in "Blast From the Past" caused me to wonder if perhaps the screenwriter had read the rebbe's teachings.
Today's parents would certainly say they want their children to possess good character, but how many take the time to teach good manners? Modeling the proper behavior is not enough. Teaching manners requires instruction, and instruction -- whether reminding, explaining, correcting or rehearsing -- takes time. The world would definitely be a better place if parents would take even half the time they spent driving their children to various extracurricular pursuits and used it to teach manners instead.
Teaching manners to preschool children -- the earlier the better -- pays off in numerous ways. I have nothing but personal experience to support what I'm about to say, but I'll bet my stock portfolio that the well-mannered child is going to be more obedient, do better in school and get along far better with siblings and friends.
Not to mention that the child's parents will receive lots of positive feedback from other parents, teachers and neighbors.
And for all those reasons, the child will be much happier than he or she otherwise would have been.
So to answer your question, the first manners a child should learn, by his or her fourth birthday, are (in no particular order):
Saying "please," "thank you" and "you're welcome" when appropriate.
Saying "I'm sorry" when he's hurt someone either physically or emotionally.
Saying "excuse me" when appropriate (but see below for when it's not appropriate).
Sharing toys and other possessions freely.
Saying "Yes ma'am/sir" and "No ma'am/sir" when appropriate (I'm betraying my Southern roots here).
Not interrupting adult conversations, even with "excuse me."
In a future column, I'll talk about that last good manner and share some comments recently related to me by a gentleman from South Africa, where parents still understand the far-reaching importance of teaching children to be patient and respect adult "boundaries." Stay tuned!
John Rosemond is a family psychologist in North Carolina. Questions of general interest may be sent to John Rosemond at P.O. Box 4124, Gastonia, N.C. 28054 and at http://www.rosemond.com/parenting on the World Wide Web.
If you or someone you know has parenting problems, call the Parents Anonymous 24-hour confidential Help-Line at 892-2172.