You Say, “Bad Manners.” I Say, “How Can You Tell?”

51Um-MlyV7L._SL500_AA240_Over the years, a lot of parents have told me their child is “bad” or “obnoxious” and that they are fed up. When we sit down to talk, the conversation often goes like this:

“Hmmmm,” I say. “What exactly do you mean by obnoxious? It’s kind of a big concept and it can mean a lot of different things.”

“You know,” they reply. “Disrespectful.”

“Well, how do you know when he’s being disrespectful? I mean, what does he DO that makes you think that?” I might add.

“It’s just his overall attitude. He’s too big for his britches and just doesn’t respect me.”

Well, take it from me, this back and forth can go on for a long time, and to tell you the truth, it’s useless until mom and dad start taking that BIG word and breaking it down into specific actions like:

“He rolls his eyes at me.”

“Now we’re talking. So to you, disrespectful means he rolls his eyes.”

“Yes, and he laughs at me when I tell him to go to bed.”

“Okay, and what else does he do that shows he is being obnoxious or disrespectful?”

“Sometimes he mocks me when I am upset with him. He mimics what I am saying and makes a face while pretending to be me.”

“So to you, he’s disrespectful when he rolls his eyes, laughs at you, makes faces, or mimics you when you’re talking.”


“How about leaving his clothes or towels on the floor? Is that disrespectful?”

“No, that doesn’t bother me.”

“What about interrupting you when you’re on the phone? Is that disrespectful?”

“No, but I guess he should try to wait till I get off.”

“Well the thing is, to some people those things would be considered disrespectful, and your son needs to understand exactly what’s included when you use that word. Otherwise, how can he really know what is and isn’t okay? And how can you enforce any kind of rule?”

Then I would get the parents to really hone-in on which behaviors they consider to be disrespectful and talk to their son about them. They would have to explain what they expect from him in a way that leaves nothing to the imagination. Then, he can at least try to comply and if he doesn’t, everyone will know it.

Most of you guys aren’t faced with the attractive adolescent behavior just described … yet! But it starts early, and all of us fall into the trap of expecting our kids to know what we mean when we use phrases like “good manners” or “appropriate behavior.”  How can they though, unless we SPELL IT OUT and show them, from the time they are really small, what we mean by those words?

We all want our kids to be considerate, polite, and respectful towards us and everyone else, too. That’s a no-brainer. It is our job, after all, to civilize these darling little “wild things.” It’s hard though, and it takes a lot of thought and attention to get these notions across.

There is a book out there called, “Good Manners at Play, Home, and School” by Carrie Finn which makes the job a lot easier. Finn does a fantastic job of teaching what “good manners” are and explaining it in a way that kids can easily comprehend.

Young children are concrete thinkers, which means that they can’t get their heads around fuzzy statements like, “Use your manners,” unless, of course, you have taught them EXACTLY how to do that. Finn’s book gives plenty of clear, specific examples of kids using good manners in lots of different situations, with a variety of different people.

I highly recommend this clever, well-done picture-story book, and suggest you pick up a copy and read it with your three-to-six or seven-year-olds regularly. Even a slightly older child will get a lot out of this one, and it shows you how to take a broad concept and break it down into clear, attainable goals.

It’s a great, great way to help your kids understand what the heck you’re talking about when you tell them to “behave.”


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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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One response to “You Say, “Bad Manners.” I Say, “How Can You Tell?””

  1. Hazel M. Wheeler

    The ambiguity around manners and rules is very real for children. I appreciate the idea of really spelling out specific expectations, because kids can get somewhat confused when we use those more vague terms of ‘disrespect’ ‘attitude’ (huh? says my nearly-6, and then I have to describe the behavior so he understands) and so many other adult describers.

    I’ll be looking for this book. For some younger kids, I’ve found specific social stories to also be helpful.

    Keep on with the great writing and site!

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