How Do I Teach My Son To Be a Gentleman?

I wish that there were more people reading this article. These days, it almost feels like the very idea of raising a son to be a gentleman is outdated.

There is a strong focus these days about bringing up our daughters to be strong and confident, and to teach our sons to respect women’s boundaries.

But a lot has fallen off, I think, as far as teaching respect and manners overall, for both daughters and sons.

There is a lot of time spent on screens and phones, and those minutes have to come from somewhere. Unfortunately, a lot of teaching time may now spent on phones instead of talking to parents or spending time with other adults who would and could teach boys about respect.

First, to get started, what is a gentleman and how should he act?

To get started, the first thing you actually have to do is decide what a gentleman would act like in real life. This is not something that is the same across the board. To some degree, gentlemanly behavior varies depending upon the age, race, socioeconomic status, background, education, and experience of the person you ask.

If you are a parent (mother or father of boys), start this exercise by thinking of times when you came across someone and you were impressed by their gentlemanly behavior. Was it politeness that struck you? Chivalry? Manners? Hard work? Confidence?

This is a list that may grow and change as the years pass. But here are some ideas that may help you start building your own list, as examples of how a gentleman might act:

  • A gentleman says “please” and “thank you” without prompting by an adult.
  • A gentleman respects elderly people, and spends time with them, and listens to them speak.
  • He helps elderly people whenever can (to carry in groceries, to cross the street, to wash the car, to pick up heavy things, to mow the lawn, to walk the dogs, anything, sometimes at a moment’s notice) without expectation of anything in return.
  • A gentleman has a firm handshake.
  • A gentleman (even as a child) looks other adults in the face/eyes when he speaks.
  • Young gentlemen respect women, and show them respect by listening to them, follow their established boundaries, and use appropriate language around them.
  • Gentlemen help women whenever they can, even if the lady can do it herself, by doing things such as: opening doors, carrying things, putting themselves between her body and sketchy looking people or cars, offering coats or umbrellas when it is raining or cold, carrying groceries, doing outside chores, etc).
  • A gentleman has good table manners (eating neatly, using a napkin, knowing how to eat with a knife and fork, knowing which fork to use, waiting to eat until everyone is served, thanking the cook/host, praising the meal, avoiding criticisms of the food or presentation, making good conversation, in general acting in a pleasant way at the table).
  • A young gentleman helps anyone whenever possible (no matter who, what, when, where, or why).
  • A gentleman gives up his seat on the bus, metro, etc to women (especially pregnant women), elderly people, injured people, or anyone who looks weaker or is in need of the seat more than he is.
  • A gentleman dresses neatly, and knows how to dress up and down depending up on the situation.
  • When dropping off a friend, date, girlfriend, colleague, acquaintance, co-worker a building or a car, a young gentleman will wait until that person is able to get inside the building or start the car before leaving, to make sure he/she is safe.

There is definitely more to being a gentleman than teaching him to help, say please and thank you (and certainly more to being a man than manners). But this is a place to get started developing the habit with your son.

If you are raising your son to be a gentleman, you must first model the behavior you want to see

Our young boys like to look to others as a model for how they should behave. If we want them to take quick steps ahead of another person or group to open a door to be polite, this is something we need to do. We need to show them how to do it, and explain to them why it is important. Demonstrate opening the doors out in the world for others, and then be very gracious when they do. Thank them profusely, as well as other adults when a door is opened for you.

If you want your little son to use a napkin at the dinner table, make them available to him, encourage your son to use them, and then use one yourself.

If you want your son to chew with his mouth closed, listen to elderly people, speak without using curse words, and look adults in the eye, you must also do these things.

You can’t expect your son to do things that you do not do yourself.

Work on gentlemanly behavior over time with your son.

You are raising a human being, not training a monkey. This may require much effort. Further, it is not going to happen in a day, a year, or all at once. Some of gentleman training will have to wait until your son is older, and has both the discipline to do what you’ve asked, and the language to be able to comprehend what you are talking about. Some of it is also about experience. Young men sometimes need to see it done wrong or do it wrong themselves before they can do it right.

When your son is younger…

Start with basic manners. Please. Thank you. You are welcome. Excuse me. These are simple to demonstrate and teach, and you can work on the others gradually in your home and out in the world.

Start with politeness basics, like opening doors. Assuming your son is old enough to open doors, start encouraging him to do so, for you and your family, as well as other adults who might have laden arms or big bags.

Encourage your son to visit with elderly people, and talk to him before and after about how is expected to act. The younger he is, keep the visits shorter so that his natural exuberance and energy doesn’t take over.

Bring him along to places where the manners matter. Go to a fancy restaurant, just you and him. Go to some place where dressing up is necessary. Show him what a tie is and how to tie it, even though it might be a while before he can do it himself.

As he grows, naturally increase his expectations…

As your son gets older, he is going to have more opportunities to show off what he has learned (or not). This is the time for you to calmly talk with him about his behavior, and remind him of what the expectations are.

Again, don’t expect him to just know how to act. You need to put him in situations where he may be called upon to shake a hand, or talk to an adult. Help him stay on track by putting devices away before going to a gathering, or setting the expectations in advance (you’ll stand by me and talk, not sit in the car and sulk).

As your son grows, make sure to point out in the world when you observe the behavior you want to see. And not just the person being polite, but also the impact of that politeness on the receiving person. For the old woman who can now rest in a seat on the bus, or the pregnant neighbor who doesn’t have to carry all of her groceries inside on her own.

Help your son get his education. Maybe that is watching YouTube videos together about where the forks go. Maybe that is enrolling him in a class (like Cotillion) if it is available. Put him in situations where he has to talk to adults and girls, too (such as martial arts where the classes are not divided by gender or age).

When he meets others, encourage your son to shake hands, and to make small talk.

Teach boys to work/handle discomfort

It is an absolute fact that all boys must to learn how to work to get by in the world. The sooner your son learns a way to handle discomfort (and overcome it) the sooner he will be able to master his body and emotions. While it is normal to feel frustration, it is not polite or gentlemanly to snap at waiters because the food took to long, or to road rage at someone out on the freeway after getting cut off.

Learning to work hard is a key component of this, I think, because it teaches boys how strong they are, helps them build confidence, and gets rid of a lot of those petty insecurities that result in bad behavior. When a young man is confident in his work and in himself, he is much less likely to act out, lose control of himself or his behavior, or hurt others.

One way to do this is by starting in your home. Set age appropriate expectations for chores and help around the house. Everyone in the home has to do things that they don’t like, without complaining or throwing fits (though I want to sometimes).

You can also do this by putting your son in uncomfortable situations that they have to overcome. Climbing to the top of a local hiking trail, where the going gets pretty hard. Joining sports teams in skills that he isn’t good at just yet. Trying out things that are hard that he will be sure to fail.

Gentlemen act without regard to rewards/bribes

What we want to create is an adult who acts in a certain way on his own, not because someone told him to, and not because he’ll be rewarded afterwards for doing it. We want boys to open the door, not because someone will notice or appreciate it, because it is the right thing to do. And if you focus on external rewards for behavior, it is very difficult for boys to do things on their own without those rewards.

Over time, if you model the behavior, emphasize the behavior, and show the boys how their behavior is received and what it can mean to the world, they will start to do these things on their own, without the promise of a sticker or piece of chocolate.

Teaching boys to be good citizens

Boy or girl, it is vital that parents make efforts to teach their kids how to live in our society. People with good manners are more likely to succeed, to make good friends, to get jobs, to land a high quality mate.

People who are generally disliked will miss out on opportunities that they are otherwise qualified for and deserving of.

Manners and gentlemanly behavior will be encouraged at school to some degree, but not as much as I think it should be done. Ultimately, there are 20+ kids in a classroom with one adult, and that adult is focused on reading, writing, math, and all of the other various subjects that are soon to be tested on.

It is up to us parents to lead in our boys manners and behavior, and to show them how gentlemen would behave.

Let’s not fail them. Start today.