Manners Matter. Now What?

Kids come in to this world knowing nothing.  They really are starting from scratch and have to learn everything.  Not just their numbers and letters.  Not just how to add and subtract.  But, the social nuances which occur in every everyday setting.  Some social expectations are so prevalent in our society, kids can’t get through life without hearing them a hundred times.  These include things like, “now, share.”  And how about, “don’t interrupt.”  And the most famous, “say Please” or “What do you say? Say Thank you.” 

But, our society moves so fast.  The time for teaching is just not there.  It really shows up in social manners.  I’m talking about things like chewing with your mouth closed.  Eating with manners – not too fast, not too sloppy, not starting till everyone has food, waiting to be excused from the table.  Is this because families don’t eat together?  Is it because kids’ restaurants are really food with entertainment?  Nothing is more unattractive than looking over in a restaurant and seeing a preteen eating with their mouth open.  They don’t even know they are doing anything wrong.  No one taught them.

Kids have to learn manners; they don’t seem to pick them up on their own.

And it is much easier to teach manners the younger they are.  My eldest daughter went to high school at a private boarding school as a day student.  Almost all of the boarding students understandably came from wealthy families; families accustomed to being in varied social settings.  Having 250 high school students to handle every day and night and weekend, the school had a list of standards.  There was a dress code.  There were room inspections.  There were schedules and chapel and study hall.  And there was a dining room, with dining room tables, chairs, real place settings, silverware, etc.  It really stood out for me that whenever I visited the campus, I never opened a door.  The person in front of me opened it and held it open for me.  The students greeted me with “hello” or “can I help you?”  When I was introduced to a student, they immediately extended their hand for a handshake greeting.  These were high school students in today’s world!  And no one was standing by directing them.

It dawned on me that these students really had an advantage when they entered the world at large, or the professional world, not through their high intelligence, expensive clothes or even their contacts.  It was their manners!!  They knew how to talk to adults and be polite and respectful. 

They made a fabulous first impression. 

They knew how to dress for the occasion.  During chapel services, everyone was impressively quiet with not a teacher making a move.  Do you see that at your public school’s assemblies?

I would encourage all parents to take the time to teach their kids manners.  In fact, the parents may need to up the ante on their own manners. There are so many good and cute books that teach toddler manners and that is a good place to start.  But, when your children are about 8 or 9, look in the local bookstore or library for a book on teen manners.  Read it and decide which manners you want to adopt.  And teach in a positive, not negative tense.  Teach casually.  Don’t say, “don’t chew with your mouth open.”  Instead, say, “When you have food in your mouth, try chewing with the lips closed together.  It takes a little practice.”  Say, “Please use your napkin to clean off your fingers.”  Say, “Let’s wait till everyone has their food before we begin eating.”  Say, “We are going someplace nice.  Please wear something a little dressy.”  I wouldn’t say these things in front of their friends or even other extended family members.  It’s not a time for ridicule.  It’s gently coaching for the game of life. 

When I myself was growing up, I would ask my mom if we could eat in the dining room.  I loved the tablecloth, the fancy china and crystal.  Maybe at your house, make the effort to have more formal meals just for fun.  It doesn’t have to be a special occasion, really.  It just makes everyone feel special.  Maybe, just maybe, at the same time you’ll be giving your child that little extra edge when they too go out into the world at large.  One thing for sure, it couldn’t hurt.

Because manners really do matter.