Do Manners Matter? Teaching Manners at Home and at School
By Jeanne Sathe
I used to think my children's manners were pretty good--that is, until my son Robin and I visited a friend whose 80-something mother-in-law lives in her household.
Robin and Tita--who is a bit of a grand dame, having been raised in a diplomatic family--collided in doorways three or four times before I realized the problem: They both assumed they were entitled to go first.
I quietly took Robin, 12, aside and told him to let Tita go first. I added that it would be nice if he held the door for her, since she is elderly.
Then at dinner, Tita corrected Robin when he used his fingers to eat sliced fruit, and gave him the time-honored line, "In my day, children were seen and not heard."
Robin not fazed at all, responded, "That must have been tough."
What kids say about manners
I still think my kids' manners are basically okay.
Like many parents, I would rather they be kind and considerate than have
"perfect manners"--whatever that means. Nevertheless, this is an area where a
little improvement couldn't hurt, right?
I asked Robin what he thought manners were, and he said, "Not doing something too disgusting." I probed a little further and asked, "So if I said, 'Mind your manners,' what would that mean?"
Robin said he thought that if we were at home, the comment would mean he was doing something rude like talking with a mouth full of food, and he would stop. If I said it when we were out in public, he added, it might mean he had his elbows on the table or wasn't sitting up straight.
Some families make the distinction between family manners and party manners, and teach their children special behavior for use outside the home. Other families I know make a point of practicing party manners on a regular basis.
One way to give kids' etiquette skills a workout is to arrange for them to attend a "special" occasion, such as a tea party. Use it as a reason to practice good manners, whether you have it at home or go out to a teashop or restaurant.
Kids seem more cooperative with this approach and it often is more effective than trying to teach manners ad hoc at the dinner table, when they (and you) may be tired and cranky.
Books to help instill good manners
If you find yourself thinking--as I did after the visit with Tita--that your kids' manners could use a tune-up, look for one or more of the excellent books that exist on the subject.
One that I especially liked was 365 Manners Kids Should Know: Games, Activities, and Other Fun Ways to Help Children Learn Etiquette, by Sheryl Eberly.
Eberly takes a "manner-a-day" approach, hence the "365" in the title. She points out that kids are more likely to imitate their parents' manners than to do what their parents say--something I learned a long time ago.
Eberly also makes a case for not having two (or more) sets of manners--at-home manners and party/company manners. "There may be some value in being relaxed at home," she writes, "but at what cost?
"One of your goals as a parent is for good manners to become habits for your child. If chewing with his mouth closed is necessary when he's out but not when he's at home, chances are he won't chew properly at home or when he's out. Having different codes of manners can be confusing to your child and not very practical in the long run. It's a bit like telling a pianist that how he plays at home doesn't matter as long as he performs well at a recital."
It's a good argument, good enough to make me consider rethinking my manners strategy.
Another popular book is Elbows off the Table, Napkin in the Lap, No Video Games During Dinner: The Modern Guide to Teaching Children Good Manners, by Carol McD. Wallace. Wallace reminds readers that constant vigilance on the part of parents will likely be necessary to instill good manners in kids.
To help you gain perspective on the whole subject of children's manners, check out what Miss Manners has to say on the subject:
"Of course it is rude for children to be loud and unruly anywhere, and incorrect for parents to have loud and disruptive children," she writes in a column for MSN. "Miss Manners does not consider the fact that that is the way children come to be an excuse."
Manners: classes and courses
If you'd rather not tackle the manners issue
yourself, you can send your kids to class. I think some kids would find this
really fun, especially the kind of child who gets a kick out of dressing up and
going out to tea.
A lighthearted approach on the part of a parent can also help make a class like this more positive and fun for kids. Don't say, "Your manners are so terrible, I'm sending you to a class." Instead, say, "You'll learn which fork to use, so that when you sit down to a formal dinner with 36 forks and spoons, you'll be prepared."
You can find an etiquette teacher in almost any major city by conducting a simple Web search. For example, the Etiquette Institute in Ohio.
Manners (or lack thereof) at school
If for some reason you wanted to go looking for bad
manners, a good place to start would be any school cafeteria.
On my infrequent visits to my sons' school cafeterias, I've seen kids yelling with mouths full of food and spraying food far and wide; kids picking their food apart and dropping the bits they didn't want on the floor; kids wadding their food into little pellets and throwing it at their friends.
And the noise level is enough to deafen an elephant.
Generally, schools have been so busy with academics and behavior issues that they have neglected manners. That is starting to change at some schools, however, with the recognition that using good manners is the same as showing respect.
This is a trend parents everywhere would do well to encourage. Here are some ideas:
Ask your child's teacher if there is time during class for an afternoon session on manners, and offer to help teach it.
Buy some books on manners and loan or give them to your child's classroom.
Copy this article from Education World and drop it off with your child's teacher. Stop by in a week or so to talk about it.
In the end, whether you opt to improve your child's manners by using a book, sending her to class, or helping to add manners to the curriculum at school, it's clear that manners are best taught by modeling in daily life, rather than by separating them out as something special.
So perhaps the first lesson is one for us parents: Practice what you preach.
Jeanne Sather is a Seattle-based writer and editor and the mother of two sons, who provide inspiration for (and criticism of) much of her writing. In addition to writing for several web sites, Jeanne is working on her first book.