There are hundreds of how-to's on the web for teaching manners – most of them lists of do's and don / ts. But we all know that lists are rarely the best way to teach anything. It's through discussion and participation, storytelling and play, identification and example, that we learn. And what better way to stimulate this involvement than with books. A preschooler or elementary school child seated with a parent can be entertained by characters that make him gasp, giggle, think, and learn. Following are ten books that parents can use with their children, beginning with books aimed at preschoolers, ending with those for ages 7 and up.
"Excuse Me! A Little Book of Manners," by Karen Katz, is a great book for toddlers. Six questions are arranged on double-page spreads with lift-up flaps, beginning with, "Mommy says, 'Do you want peas for breakfast?' What do you say? " Lift the flap and find the answer. Illustrations are clean and bright and a child is sure to want to hear this book over and over.
Jane Yolen's "How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?" illustrated by Mark Teague, features dinosaurs who do not want to go to bed: "Does he slam his tail and pout? Does he throw his teddy bear all about?" Human parents, dwarfed by each boldly painted dinosaur, bide their time until the story turns, and we learn that dinosaurs "give a big kiss…. [Then] turn out the light. They tuck in their tails. They whisper good night . " Children are sure to appreciate this lesson in cooperation.
An old favorite, with its childlike drawings and lessons on getting along with others, is "Manners Can Be Fun" by Munro Leaf. Table manners, sharing, and cleaning up are covered; then we meet the Whiny, the Noisie, the Me First, the Bragger, the Sulker, the Bathroom Wrecker, and many other undesirables. Leaf's aim is always clear: this is what you do not want to be.
"The Thingumajig Book of Manners" by Irene and Dick Keller features the gross behavior of a group of hairy elves: "Thingumajigs eat toads and snails and pick their teeth with their fingernails." Children will laugh at the big-nosed creatures who mumble and grunt, kick, bite, sulk, and slam doors. The rules for proper behavior are placed on a little banner at the bottom of each double-page spread.
Like the Thingumajigs, Gelette Burgess' little round-headed creatures in "Goops and How to Be Them" present the wrong way to behave. Goops slide down bannisters, lick their fingers, talk while eating, and gobble sweets. Though published in 1900, the poems still apply, and the art-deco illustrations, which circle the text, will delight a child and perhaps inspire her to create her own set of Goops.
In "What do You say, Dear?" by Sesyle Joslin and Maurice Sendak, the reader is shown a child in a humorous but unlikely situation and must guess what the child's response will be. For example, "You have gone downtown to do some shopping. You are walking backwards, because sometimes you like to, and you bump into a crocodile. What do you say, dear?" [Turn page]. "Excuse me." It's understatement at its most hilarious.
"Scallywags," by David Melling, features a family of wolves who are disheveled, boisterous, undependable, and, most unforgivably – late for a group photograph. Deciding to mend their ways, they eavesdrop on the other animals to learn good manners, but at the next dinner, where they are impeccably behaved, they ask the pig to stop slurping his soup and the goose to stop honking with his mouth full. The wolves, with names such as Hairball, Earwax, Brooz, and Scribble, are wonderfully characterized. This story is sure to inspire discussions on just how far one should go with "correctness."
7 & Up
Older children will enjoy "Lady Lupin's Book of Etiquette" by Babette Cole. Like Scallywags it features wolves, but in this case they're Lady Lupin's privileged pups: "Try not to show off at parties," advises Lady Lupin, in her tiara. And "Remember to open doors for older dogs." It's at once silly and sophisticated, with a table setting that features bones as the main dish, and Lady Lupin reminding her pups, "Never bark with your mouth full."
An innovative format for teaching manners is "Everyday Graces" by Karen Santorum. Poems, stories, and excerpts from literature are gathered together under 13 themes; selections include Hans Christian Andersen's "The Ugly Duckling," Chapter One from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, and Jack Prelutsky's "Why Do I Have to Clean My Room?" Each selection is followed by a short discussion of themes pertinent to that text.
Also innovative is my own "Dear Miss Perfect: A Beast's Guide to Proper Behavior." Animals (or "beasts") write in with their problems. A sloth, for example, wonders if she should write a thank you note. A parrot wonders if he might eavesdrop to learn new words. More unusual problems include a porcupine who would like to find a dancing partner and a Komodo dragon who wants to know how she can avoid being eaten by her parents. A child will enjoy guessing Miss Perfect's response and realize that manners are largely a matter of common sense and following the golden rule.
Read about manners with your child. It's a wonderful way to open discussion.