Good manners are a gift for the holidays and beyond

Parents sitting at a formal dinner table may feel an odd pang in the gut, and it’s not hunger. It’s anxiety about your child’s behavior under the scrutiny of family members or friends. Local etiquette experts assure us that kids can be graceful at the holiday table, as well as in other social situations. They just need some preparation before the big day.

Start at the Daily Dinner Table

“Although family meals may be somewhat casual, some rules still apply,” says Maria Tamayo-Isley, director of the Etiquette Group in Research Triangle Park. “Dinner, formal or not, requires use of the fork, knife, spoon, glass and napkin. All children must be able to practice good table manners, whether dining at home or in public.”

In essence, every meal can be an opportunity for parents. And formal table manners mirror those used every day. Lu Ann Ely-Rudolph, a Raleigh-based certified etiquette and protocol consultant, agrees, saying, “One uses the same manners eating at McDonald’s as they would in a fine dining establishment. Although the napkins may be paper and the utensils are plastic, they are used in the exact same way.” She adds, “The skills of dining do not change because of where you are eating.”

When teaching table manners, don’t worry too much about the difference among fancy forks. Concentrate on the basics: napkin on the lap; elbows off the table; pleasant “inside voices”; quiet, mouth-closed chewing; and not interrupting conversations. Parents should work on these in a consistent fashion. Table manners aren’t about stuffy conventions; they are about having useful skills that become second nature through daily use.

“Children need to know how to eat and have that reinforced constantly,” Ely-Rudolph says. “So many activities take place over a meal throughout a person’s life. Children with good table manners will be viewed positively, and that view will continue into adulthood.”

Looking on the positive side, Chapel Hill mom Sheryl Grant says, “It’s the easiest one to work on because it happens daily, giving us a lot of time to practice.”

Encourage Positive Behavior

Beyond the dinner table, parents should offer praise for spontaneous good manners. “Be consistent. Use repetition and positive reinforcement when good manners are shown,” advises Ely-Rudolph.

In addition, when family members use good manners while interacting with each other, it creates a more pleasant environment. Says Tamayo-Isley, “Respect and kindness within the family is at least as important as being polite to guests – probably more so.”

Grant, mother of a 6-year-old boy, says, “We work on manners a lot in the house, and constantly remind him to be respectful of others, including pets, parents and friends. I wouldn’t say that we’re strict, but we’re relentless.” And the experts agree this sort of reinforcement works.

Ely-Rudolph advises parents not to admonish their children in front of guests or their friends. Rather, she recommends that parents wait until they are at home or alone with their children. For younger kids, parents sometimes are successful if they take their child aside that moment.

As for children in your home who are not your own, Ely-Rudolph does not think it is acceptable to correct their behavior. “Never correct the behavior of children other than [your] own,” she says. If a close friend of your child’s is behaving poorly in your home, point out the rules of your household in a firm, no-nonsense fashion. “I would say, ‘In our home, we have to say please and thank you,’ for example,” she recommends.

Emphasize That Manners Pay Off

For many parents, teaching manners includes imparting the idea that good behavior is a gift. Plenty of my friends have stories of well-intentioned yet overly strict relatives who taught etiquette in a way that tainted their view of these important social skills. And yet every parent I know has a horror story about interacting with the badly behaved children of a friend, co-worker or relative. Obnoxious kids don’t get many social invitations. So, using good manners allows kids to demonstrate their respect for their elders, their siblings and friends and, ultimately, themselves.

Ely-Rudolph advises that the skills our children need are knowing how to “introduce oneself and others; sportsmanship; entering and exiting doors, elevators and escalators; etiquette in public places – movies, concerts, symphonies, theatres and houses of worship — and good grooming skills.”

Looking people in the eye when speaking and learning to shake hands also are important assets for kids as they move into adulthood. Make these activities part of everyday life and practice them in a fun way. When experts teach these skills, they rely heavily on praise, songs and rewards.

“[Teaching manners] starts with the attitude that rudeness is never acceptable in any situation, and that manners and civility are always appropriate,” Tamayo-Isley explains. “Thinking that manners only belong in important social situations is a bit like suggesting that conversational ability is required only for the rare special occasion, with grunts and sullen stares the norm for all other times.”

Calm the Holiday Jitters

As important as manners are on a daily basis, the “final exam” is the holiday season. Good manners during Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma’s house or the Christmas or Hanukkah family celebrations can ratchet up the anxiety for any parent.

“I typically don’t worry about my children’s behavior and think I am very lucky to have two well-behaved children,” says Durham mother of two Stephanie Cain. “But, last year when we joined my parents at their temple to celebrate the Jewish New Year, I felt the pressure to offer up two angels whom my parents could ‘show off’ to their friends. While I was happy we were all together, I was nervous.”

Cain’s solution was to bring along her “arsenal” of distractions to keep her kids in line. “I sat on the ready with quiet toys, books, sippy cups and Cheerios.” And her two young children, ages 2 and 5, behaved. Ultimately, the anxiety about having well-mannered kids at the service was driven by wanting to please her parents. It’s a pressure that most parents feel; our children’s behavior becomes a reflection of our parenting skills.

Says Tamayo-Isley, “The parent always makes a good first impression when they have a well-mannered and properly behaved child.” But this should not intimidate parents. A special holiday situation can become an opportunity for kids to showcase the manners they have learned in the home. And parents can experiment with strategies to help their kids do their best.

Parents should try not to let their anxiety affect their kids. Says Ely-Rudolph, “If children know the right thing to do, they will do the right thing, and the fear of being self-conscious will not be an issue.” So, parents shouldn’t make it one.

Experts warn that last-minute attempts at manners indoctrination probably will not work. “Waiting until days before the special event to start teaching table manners sets the child up for defeat,” Ely-Rudolph says.

Turn to the Pros

If you are not confident about your ability to teach manners, plenty of local experts are available. There also is the tradition of cotillion, often offered as a summer camp. Cotillion is a series of classes in manners, etiquette and sometimes dance that usually culminates in a formal event where the young participants demonstrate the skills they have learned. Although most Southerners are familiar with cotillion, and some do not have happy memories of it, experts say that cotillion has evolved in recent years.

Chapel Hill mom Lenora Hunter felt cotillion was a good learning experience for her then-4-year-old son. “They made it fun. It certainly created some awareness hearing about manners, especially from someone other than me.”

Grant also was pleased with the message taught by sending her rambunctious son and his friend to cotillion. “I think when they [saw] that manners are something other people do, and not just our family, it reinforces the idea that they’re part of a bigger plan to be civilized and polite. [Having] manners is really about thinking of how other people feel, and that’s not necessarily the first thing that pops into a 6-year-old’s head.”

Good manners are a valuable part of any education. Just as we start teaching our kids the ABCs, pleases and thank-yous should be basic building blocks in our homes.

“Manners should never be stilted or affected. They should come naturally and comfortably, and that requires daily practice,” Tamayo-Isley says. “Make good manners the standard practice in your home, and your children will learn to handle any social situation with natural grace and confidence – and that’s incredibly empowering!” There’s nothing stuffy about that.

Robin Whitsell is a Carolina Parent contributing writer who lives in Chapel Hill with her three daughters and husband. Visit her Web site at www.robinwhitsell.com.

Ages & Stages of Good Manners
Age – Appropriate Skills

Birth to age 2 – Sitting with the family at the dinner table.

Preschool – Learning to say please, thank you and excuse me; honoring personal space; using utensils; offering apologies.

Elementary School – Handling introductions; not interrupting; shaking hands; making eye contact; being excused from the dinner table; using a knife at the dinner table; introduction to phone manners; thank-you notes; etiquette in public places.

Middle School – Proper dinner conversations; Internet, e-mail etiquette and cell phone manners; opening doors for others

High School – Advanced conversational skills; workplace etiquette; driving manners; dating skills (being socially respectful); interviewing skills for jobs and college.