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Humans are complex social animals. We cannot get along by ourselves; we need other members of our species around. Manners help keep us from hurting each other so we can remain together.
Although the world is a more casual place than it once was, people must still interact with each other. People will always need to interact kindly so that they will be treated kindly in return.
Part of your job description as a parent is to teach manners to your child.
An infant is not born with manners and must be taught how to behave with politeness and courtesy. But the child IS born with a built-in desire to please the parents and the wise parent uses this to gently guide the child along the paths of courtesy.
The dictionary defines manners as polite conventions or polite ways of social behavior. I like to think of manners as the quintessence of human communication because manners are based on LOVE, CONCERN, and EMPATHY–all very human characteristics.
HOW CHILDREN LEARN MANNERS
How can parents best teach a child the polite conventions we call manners? When should a parent start?
Children learn best through imitation. If they are surrounded by people who love each other, do not wish to hurt each other, and follow the “rules” for courtesy, the child will MODEL THIS MANNERFUL BEHAVIOR.
But children learn in other ways too. They learn by INSTRUCTION and SUGGESTIONS, and REMINDERS. Some parents today seem almost afraid to make a direct suggestion when it comes to a matter of discipline or manners but the gentle suggestion and the quiet reminder are both effective ways to reinforce what the child is learning through imitation.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with reminding a toddler to say “Please” and “Thanks”. We hear a lot about four letter words today, but these six letter ones are much more useful. A monosyllabic exclamation may get someone’s attention but will not otherwise do much for human communication!
Children learn at a rapid rate, but until they cognitively understand the reasons for courtesy, they will need to be reminded to say “Please”. Many times.
What about the advanced course in manners? How important is it to teach children adult manners and when should parents start? I feel strongly that parents have the task of preparing their children to be able to live anyplace in our complex world. Basic good manners are not elitist; they are necessary everywhere.
When you have finished your job of parenting, your child should be able to walk through any door on earth and feel both comfortable and self-confident. The child who has not learned social conventions will not feel comfortable inside this hypothetical door.
INTERACTING WITH OTHERS
Ideally all lessons in the social graces are preceded by an empathy lesson. “How would you feel?” is a good way to help the child understand what courtesy is all about.
It’s also important to tell your children how much you like their caring behavior. “How nice of you to give a toy to Jenny when she was crying. I’m so happy that you think about other people’s feelings!”
Specific instructions about meeting new people should start by age 5 or 6. Both boys and girls should be taught to shake hands when they are introduced to new grownups.
Model the appropriate behavior first: look the new person right in the eyes and hold out your right hand. Then tell your child he or she is old enough to start doing this grown up behavior. Next role play together, pretending to meet lots of new people. Be creative pretending to be the President, Mickey Mouse, or the latest music superstar. When the next occasion occurs, gently remind your child to MAKE EYE CONTACT and HOLD OUT THE RIGHT HAND.
Niceties of what you say like “I’m glad to meet you” and who gets introduced to whom can come later when these basics are firmly in place.
By the time children are in middle school they should have mastered the FIRM handshake, the unafraid LOOK and the smile and appropriate words that go with an introduction.
Table manners are not trivial. Eating together, at least for some meals, is an important part of most family’s togetherness. Eating with care, delicacy, and restraint is one of the attributes that makes us human and different from animals. Watching someone with gross eating habits is repulsive to most of us.
By the time the child is 3 or 4, parents can expect reasonable table manners. Most children by now will use a spoon and fork pretty well although they may prefer finger foods so they don’t have to worry about food spilling off the utensils.
A fun way to teach table manners to preschoolers is to turn an occasional family meal into a party. Use a tablecloth or pretty place mats, light candles, have special foods, and generally make a big deal out of the event. Use and demonstrate party manners like delicately wiping off a milk moustache with a corner of the napkin. Ask for and pass food with exquisite grace. Most kids get in the spirit of things and imitate these manners.
If you must correct your child at the table remember that there are two reasons we sit down at the table together: we eat the food we need to keep our bodies in good working order and we use the meal as a social occasion when we can talk together. Keep the mealtime atmosphere pleasant so that the family can enjoy both aspects of eating. If you must point out that people keep their mouths closed while chewing, do it quietly without a big fuss.
With young children pick an appropriate restaurant where the service is prompt rather than leisurely and where something the child will enjoy is on the menu. Always bring along paper and crayons so the young child doesn’t get restless before the food is served. If your child is cranky or hungry ask for some crackers.
Be involved with your child and notice whether the child is squirming or unhappy. Be prepared to use all your clever distraction tricks if they are needed. I played a drawing game with my children where each of us in turn would draw part of a picture, some of which turned out pretty wild.
Do not permit the child to make undue noise, get out of the chair, or run around the restaurant because it is not safe and is unfair to other customers. If the child won’t stay seated, leave.
Minimum restaurant manners include sitting quietly and not screaming, spitting, throwing or playing with food. A child who cannot comply with these rules should be taken out of the restaurant, after one warning because we all make mistakes. Even in a fast food restaurant, there are rules which parents must enforce: stay at your table and dump all food containers into the trash can.
As the children get used to the requirements of restaurants you can take them to increasingly “fancy” places. Be sure they understand this is a special treat and privilege. Play games ahead of time about being seated, menu reading (both side of the page), quiet conversation so other diners are not disturbed, etc.
As the children grow older they will be invited to other people’s homes to eat. School-age children are anxious to do the right thing so they may need some advanced lessons in table manners. Explain and demonstrate that when confronted with a lot of silverware at your plate you work from the outside in. The best advice you can give the child is to watch what the hostess is doing. If she picks up the asparagus spear, that’s OK. If she cuts it, follow suit.
Parties, family “special” meals and trips to restaurants are privileges, not rights. By the time your child is four, his or her manners should be acceptable in these settings. If a four year old displays terrible manners tell the child his or her manners need work so no restaurants until the manners improve.
Toddlers love to answer the telephone. Because it’s easy to lift up the receiver and say, “Hello!” and it’s magical to hear an answer, this is one of their first opportunities to master a grown-up task.
From the beginning start teaching that we talk slowly, clearly, and politely into the phone. Instruct your child to say “Just a moment, please.” and hand you the phone if the call is for you, to not interrupt or make noise when you are talking on the phone (this will take many months of instruction), and to not bang down the receiver.
In addition to polite conventions like “Who is calling, please?” teach the important safety rule about answering calls when the parents are away. Children should be taught to ALWAYS say, “My father can’t come to the phone right now, may I take a message?”
As soon as the child can write they should be taught to WRITE DOWN ALL MESSAGES. A first grader can write the person’s name. By fourth grade children should be able to write the time of the call and the reason for the call as well as the name of the caller.
It’s not difficult to teach a child how to write a letter or a thank-you note. Start with preschoolers. Let them draw a picture and print their name on YOUR letter to Grandma. As they get older buy them their own stationery and teach them how we write a letter with a salutation and signature.
Every gift deserves a thank-you note. From the time children can print their name they should sign the note you write to Aunt Mary thanking her for the sweater she knitted.
By the end of primary school children should write their own letter of thanks–promptly. By graduation from middle school or Bar Mitzvah age children should be able to make their own list, write and address each note, stamp and mail it, and check off the list. The rule is write the note before you use the gifts OR no later than a month after receipt.
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