We were at a birthday party for a three-year-old the other day and they gave my son a goodie bag. He looked inside and promptly told everyone within earshot, “There’s only two things in here.”

How ungrateful.

My wife and I quickly looked for a place to hide. We were mortified. Our son is a good kid who is actually thoughtful of others, but he’s five and doesn’t hide his feelings. After my wife and I apologized to our hostess and pulled our son aside for a talking-to, my wife and I resolved to help brush up on his manners before the mother of all gift-giving functions — Christmas.

Those lessons will extend far beyond the proper reaction to gifts. We’re talking manners in church, around family members, at the dinner table, and being around those less fortunate than us. Here’s how we plan to guide him and his brother and how you can reinforce these lessons to your kids.

1. What to Say

We’ve explained to both our children that they may not like every gift that someone gets for them. It may be a toy they already have or a toy they dislike. It may be that the gift is something they don’t want (see: clothes). But we have been trying to drill into their young heads that anyone who gets them a gift deserves thanks and a kind smile and, in many cases, a hug. Remind your child that the gift-giver is thinking of them and wants to do something nice for them. It’s a lesson that many adults still haven’t mastered, but our kids should be aware of the proper behavior from an early age.

2. Table Manners

Sometimes I think we put away the bibs and high chair for our children way too soon. Our three-year-old eats while wandering around the house. Our five-year-old leaves a pile of crumbs the size of a small hill under the table and consistently believes — despite a record number of reminders — that his shirt doubles as a napkin. When my wife and I consider how they will behave at a family holiday dinner, we shudder. We’re not talking about teaching them how to behave at a debutante ball here. We’ve simply been trying to gently (or forcefully) remind them that at dinner we sit on our bottoms, in a chair, while everyone eats. We use a napkin to wipe our mouths and we eat over the table. You can try to practice at each mealtime with encouragement and a reward for good behavior.

3. Church Manners

This is a tough one because there are so many children in our congregation and many of them see each other week after week. It turns a church service into a social gathering for the preschool/kindergarten crowd. These kids don’t mind the minister. They simply talk and converse over him despite the fear of punishment.

Here’s what we’ve done: Once at home, we sat our boys on the couch and showed them the proper way to sit, stand, and talk to others. We’ve reminded them not to put their hands on one another or to engage in any kind of obnoxious behavior. If you help your children understand the importance of the church service and how their behavior impacts the ability of others to enjoy the service, it helps give them the context necessary to understand the rules.

4. Unique Family Members

When I was a kid, I remember going to family functions with an older, distant cousin who didn’t have any fingernails. It was the weirdest, most disturbing thing for a seven-year-old. I never wanted to shake his hand or be around him. It freaked me out. We only saw him once or twice a year at the holidays, so it wasn’t a big deal. But as my kids approach that age, I want to make sure they know how to handle these types of situations.

Kids need to know that despite anyone’s physical limitations or deformities, there is a way to handle these unusual, potentially awkward situations with respect and kindness. Parents need to teach their children to try not to stare, to not point out or call attention to a person’s handicaps and to offer them a handshake and a smile. Look, it’s challenging. Again, adults can’t always follow these rules. But if we’re open about it with our kids and address it early, maybe the lessons will sink in.

5. Those Less Fortunate

As we attempt to volunteer or spend time in our community, our children will likely encounter children who have much less than they do. Our children have a long list of wants this holiday season. Many other children have a long list of needs each and every day. We’re trying to remind our kids that when they rattle off 27 toys and games they expect Santa to bring, it can sound selfish and rude to someone who has far less. Children need to understand that there are many in our communities who struggle each day just to have food, clothing, and shelter. If our kids can begin to learn that they have such abundance, it can help them empathize with the plight of others and to, hopefully, desire to help those who are in need.

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