There's a lot that goes into preparing your preschooler for that inevitable foray into formal education: the alphabet, counting, raising your hand... But manners shouldn't be left out of the mix.

If your child is going to learn together with his peers for the next 12 years, he's going to need the basic fundamentals of etiquette: self-confidence, consideration for others, respect, common sense, tact, and flexibility. Just don't teach them all at once! That's the advice that Cindy Post Senning and Peggy Post, descendants of manners guru Emily Post, want to give parents. Their book, The Gift of Good Manners: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Respectful, Kind, Considerate Children, (HarperResource, 2002) suggests that parents introduce manners in stages, based on a child's cognitive development.

So, what social graces can your preschooler digest? At this stage, a child's memory is improving, and the Posts suggest allowing him to understand the concept of the future. What does this have to do with manners? Everything. It allows your child to anticipate the outcomes of his behavior, practice self-control, and learn about delayed gratification.

Your preschooler is starting to meet more children and adults outside of the family unit, which will allow him to put those good manners to good use. Here's a list of tips from the Posts to help prepare your social butterfly:

  • Teach Values: Why should I? When this (perfectly valid) question pops up, explain to your child that good manners make people feel good. And when you make people feel good, it makes you feel good. Provide your child with concrete examples of occasions when someone was nice to him, to reinforce this point.
  • Coach Them in R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Introducing the concept of sportsmanship is a great way to teach early team skills. If you think about it, it's also all about respect. Think of sportsmanship as an extension of sharing. At this age, children are starting to realize that there are benefits to sharing. In fact, it can even be fun! Create opportunities for your child to play with her peers, such as initiating a game of catch, but don't push the issue. Playing with others is a major transition which takes time.
  • Work on Communication: Preschoolers are rapidly learning to speak more clearly. As such, your child should be learning to master the magic words: “please”, “thank you”, “you're welcome” and “excuse me.”
  • Encourage Table Manners: The best way to start teaching table manners is, you guessed it, eating at the dinner table as a family. Senning points out that this meal does not have to be dinner. “Whatever meal works best for your family,” she says.
  • Get Out and About: It's definitely time to expand your child's horizons. Almost everything is new and interesting to them at this stage. However, the Posts remind parents to look for activities suited to a child's age and personality: stick to activities that last about an hour or two. “Out-and-about occasions should be fun for children, not a test of their endurance."

During the preschool years, the Posts urge, keep in mind that children may not always be ready to share or to feel someone else's pain. The concept of empathy is not fully formed at this stage, so kids aren't able to understand what it means to be considerate.

Still, by setting good examples and prompting the act of sharing, parents can help their preschoolers begin to evolve. They can bring home the idea that while they are important, they are not the center of the universe. And that is the first step towards a lifetime of good manners.