Lisa, a waitress at a family-style restaurant, handed the hamburger platter to the 13-year-old and overheard the girl’s mother remind her: “Say thank you.” Why does the mother of a 13-year-old have to remind her daughter to say thank you?

According to Jill Rigby Garner, founder of Manners of the Heart, “The over-emphasis on self-esteem and happiness is the reason our society has become self-absorbed, self-conceited, and self-consumed.” As parents, when we teach manners to our children, we teach them to put others first. “Defining manners as an attitude of the heart that is self-giving, not self-serving,” says Garner, helps parents focus not on rules and regulations but on the goal: a polite and thoughtful child.

Playing Favorites

Children have innate strengths that may include academics, athletics, musical ability, and more. However, teaching them to be polite, gracious, and charitable to others will give them an advantage everywhere they go. Adults treat them preferentially in every arena: school, church, friends’ houses, and even the grocery store. Who doesn’t want to go out of his way for a well-mannered child? They’re the ones every mom wants to have over for a play date.

Further, employers today look for candidates who can work as part of a team, interact appropriately with staff, and have a sense of decorum. By teaching manners to your children, you teach them the skills necessary for their personal and professional futures.

Never Too Young

“Children emulate what they see,” Garner says. Therefore parents must model manners to their children, showing them how to interact within the family, as well as with strangers. Whether parents are thoughtful and courteous or not, children are listening.

You can teach your child manners in fun ways. Pick an aspect of etiquette—like learning to say thank you for a gift a child might not like—and make a game of it. Before a birthday or holiday, take index cards and put silly stickers on them to represent gifts. As your child selects a card, have him pretend to unwrap the gift, look up, and practice saying, for example, “Thank you for the green frog. It’s nice.” The goal is to help your child appreciate that someone took the time to buy him a gift, even though he’s not excited by it. This helps develop gratitude.

Practice taking phone messages with your tween. Let her know it’s appropriate to ask how to spell the caller’s name. Again, make a game of it by making up funny last names. Later, when you can’t come to the phone, have a friend call and leave a message for you. Explain to your tween that it’s important to the caller that she take down the correct information.

Teach children to hold doors open—especially for elderly people. Nowadays, it’s almost always guaranteed that your child will get a surprised look and a thank you.

Thank-you notes have become a lost art. Have your child send a handwritten or emailed thank-you note to her grandparents. If she received a gift of money, let the giver know what she bought with it.

Please, Please, Please

A parent wouldn’t expect a child to know how to tie his shoe if he wasn’t taught the technique over and over, and then practiced it. Likewise, a young child needs to learn good manners by repetition, so that good behavior becomes habit.

Garner suggests that repetition is the most effective method of instilling manners, though it takes parental time and patience. If, for example, your child asks for a glass of water without using the word “please,” have him ask for a glass of water saying the word “please” three more times. The idea is not to punish, but to change a behavior pattern.

If you recognize that your child hasn’t learned a specific aspect of etiquette, it’s never too late. Start small and start today. Pick one area that will have the most impact on your child’s life. This will give her an invaluable life skill. Thank you.

Jan Udlock is a homeschooling mom of five and a freelance writer.