Susan C. Stone's Practical Parenting Blog dotcom

Manners Matter

Posted on: September 10, 2012


Now that school has started, your children will be learning all kinds of things – how to read, do math, learn history and science. However, there are very important lessons that can only be taught at home. One of them is manners.

If you would like to give your child a very significant and lasting gift, consider giving them the information and practices they need to be considered mannerly. Now, I really don’t mean which fork to use (though later in life this may be important!  Who knows if they’ll be invited to dine with the Queen?). Instead, the manners that matter are behaviors designed to take care of the feelings of others and to grease the wheels of sociability. Teaching good manners used to be a routine part of raising a child. However, beginning in the 60’s with the rejection of formality and respect for authority, traditional manners were one of the casualties. Social  expectations were relaxed and democratized. It became a mark of coolness to address everyone by their first name, regardless of status. Instead of greetings, it was much more hip to smile and mutter “peace”. Speaking one’s mind was considered preferable to discretion and caution. People were even “PRIMAL SCREAMING” (look this one up if you missed the craze.).

If you are  raising children now, you are part of the first generation to be brought up on these more informal practices. For example, you are most likely accustomed to children addressing teachers and other parents by their first names – it’s  just your norm. I use this particular example because it goes to the heart of manners – which is respect for other people and their feelings. Now, using a first name instead of Mr. or Mrs. does not necessarily imply disrespect, but it became the top of the slippery slope of treating each other more casually. This casualness has crept into many of our social interactions and even become rudeness. You might be noticing that more and more people don’t RSVP to invitations, whether it’s for a 3- year- old’s birthday party or for a wedding.  When was the last time you wrote or received a thank you note for a present? When have someone called you to thank you for having them to dinner? When was the last time someone ahead of you allowed a door to close in your face instead of holding it? How many formal or religious events have you attended and seen people dressed as if they’ve just stopped in from a jog? And…DOES ALL THIS REALLY MATTER?

YES –  actually, manners now make more of an impact on someone’s impression of your child than ever before. When everyone was mannerly, it was taken for granted. Now when a child engages in considerate behavior,  people notice and the child is  seen as special! This specialness can translate into being more sought after for playdates, being viewed as a more active participant in the classroom, making the cut for a play or a team, enlisting extra consideration for special accommodations at school, making a good impression at an interview, etc., etc. It not only reflects well on your child, but on you as well as a good parent! You have the opportunity to take an unformed human being who is only aware of his/her needs and turn them out, 18 years later, as a civilized member of society who has the heart to relate to others and the skills to enlist  these others in pleasant, cooperative and even loving relationships.

If not the difference between a fish fork and a soup spoon, what should you be focusing your efforts on? With young children, making eye contact and saying “please”, “thank you” and “no, thank you” is a good start. Teaching children to respect authority by having them follow your rules and boundaries will serve them well in all sorts of settings.  Teach them how to be social – how to start a conversation with a peer, how to stay on topic in that conversation, how to take turns speaking and not to interrupt the conversations others are having.

Teach them how to greet someone new by shaking hands and saying “nice to meet you”. Let them know that some adults prefer to be called Mr. and Mrs. and that the adult is the one to give them permission to use their first name. Teach them telephone manners. Teach them to share, compromise, be inclusive and take turns. Teach them how good winners and good losers act. Use their own experiences to help them realize that making rude remarks or stating negative observations about others is hurtful and unacceptable. As children get older, holding the door for others, letting their elders pass through first and standing up to greet an adult guest are sure to make a big impression.

Show them that you respond to all invitations in a timely way and don’t retract your acceptances because a “better offer” comes along. As casual as we’ve become in our dress, having them dress appropriately for special occasions is another way to convey respect for others. Make sure they know how to thank someone for having them over for a party or playdate and don’t say it for them! Practice with them what to say when opening a present so that they take care of the feelings of the giver even if they hate the present or already have 27 of the same toy! Have them write thank you notes even if they can only sign their name. Let them experience the excitement of giving, as well as receiving, holiday or birthday gifts with others, especially within the family.

This may seem like a long list or an incomplete one. (I refer you to “Miss Manner’s Guide to Rearing Perfect Children” by Judith Martin for more suggestions.) Feel free to add your own personal and cultural practices and, remember, your behavior is their most potent guide. Even though you have 18 years to get the job done,  it’s not too early to start giving your child the tools to be special!

Susan C. Stone is a Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Los Angeles for 33 years.She speaks widely to the parents and teachers of children of all ages. Ms. Stone appears regularly on both radio and television as a parenting expert and is the author of THE INDULGENCE TRAP – When too much is not Enough!

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