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Parenting and Teaching Kids About Social Norms

OK, I have to admit.  I got a little dorky on my daughter this evening.  We were talking about why I was expecting her to eat her homemade chicken nuggets with a fork instead of her fingers.  And thus launched a conversation about social norms.  Yes, I actually said that.  Who even uses the words “social norms” in
normal conversation??  Apparently someone with a psychology degree trying to have an educational family moment.  A little overboard, I admit, but at least she’ll remember this someday for a social studies vocabulary quiz.

Different Situations Mean Different Manners

She and I are working on her manners right now, so I thought a more thorough expanation was in order.  I expected her to use her fork for chicken nuggets because it was suppertime, she’s nine (not 2), and all the other food on her plate required a fork.  I said that if she wanted to eat them for lunch tomorrow, she could certainly eat them with her fingers.  These are somewhat subtle reasons, I realize that.  But this opened the conversation about why these things are even different or matter.

I said that if I served these chicken nuggets for lunch but the president ate with us, she’d absolutely have to use a fork.  Or, she could just eat however the president was eating.  The difference is that an important dignitary would be eating with us, worthy of extra effort to show respect and dignity.  However, hardly
anyone in a fast food restaurant, regardless of the time of day, would be eating chicken nuggets with a fork.

Isn’t this interesting to think about for a moment?  The same activity in different situations and different times of the day can dictate different kinds of manners.  The “social norms” for the situation make a difference for how you behave.  The norm for dance student apparel at the dance studio would be leotards, with or without pants if the weather is nice (even out in the parking lot).  But at school – gotta wear pants every day no matter how hot it is.  Same kids, same clothes, different norms.

Why Mind Your Manners or Care About Social Norms?

If this is getting a little tedious, I apologize.  But sometimes you just have to describe the obvious.  You learn about these things over a lifetime, so it can be hard to understand or describe why these things are a certain way.  It’s about gaining a certain awareness about yourself and your social environment.  Manners and social norms are generally about making others comfortable in your presence, often blending in to what the group does.  It usually makes you feel less self conscious and makes others happy to be around you.

If you are the only person at the table using your fingers to eat chicken nuggets, you are going to stick out somewhat.  Likewise if you are the only one trying to negotiate a chicken leg with a fork and knife.  Either way, you and everyone around you will be more comfortable seeing people eat in a similarly acceptable way.  This is certainly not to squash individuality.  But certain behavior differences can make you more or less socially acceptable.  And even for kids with an independent streak, being accepted by peers is pretty important for emotional development.

Teach Your Kids To Recognize Differences In Social Situations

Teaching your kids how to recognize social norms will give them good social tools for life.  As they grow older, they can pick and choose ways to stand out.  And that’s OK if they know they might get some flack for an unpopular or confusing choice.  It’s more unfortunate when they get social rejected but they don’t understand why they don’t fit in.

Show how to do a little “people watching” now and then, talk (discreetly) about what they notice.  Talk about different expectations like clothing ways you eat, behavior when playing outside or inside, etc.  Why are these things different?  What could be the reason?  What stands out?  Would you wear that?

Please, don’t bore them with the “social norms” vocabulary too much.  But do teach them to look, listen, and think about their surroundings.

Parenting and Teaching Kids About Social Norms

Erika Krull, MS, LMHP

Erika Krull, MS, LMHP is a practicing licensed mental health counselor in Nebraska.

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APA Reference
Krull, E. (2009). Parenting and Teaching Kids About Social Norms. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 13, 2020, from


Last updated: 26 May 2009
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