Cincinnati Family Magazine

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May 27, 2024

Kids CAN Mind Their Manners


My husband grew up the son of a woman who valued good manners above everything. Rules governing behavior were clear and unchangeable to her. Food was passed to the left, men walked on the curbside of the sidewalk, “please” followed every request, and one always complimented the lady of the house on the meal even if half of it was stashed in a napkin on one’s lap!

I grew up in a family that prized the ill-timed guffaw. While we weren’t an entirely lawless band, we cherished cooperation but disdained deceit. We would have considered the many rules that governed my husband’s childhood household formal, unnecessary … and even disingenuous.

So merging these two worlds became a challenge as soon as Pat and I had our first child. And as we negotiated the terms of our household, I had some experiences that helped to shape my thoughts on the subject of children’s manners. They are experiences I’d like to share.

But first let me take out my gum.

Please and Thank You

“I want a cookie,” my 3-year-old son demands of my formidable mother-in-law. Holding the bag of cookies like a prize, my mother-in-law says, “Say the magic word.”

“Puh-leazzzzzzzzzz,” says Spencer, like a good little robot.

She smiles and opens the bag to retrieve a cookie for him. Mission accomplished. Spencer’s “please” was insincere, simply a verbal hoop to be jumped through in order to get the cookie.

“Manners are not just words and rules, but actions that need to be implemented everyday,” says Rita Woodard, certified etiquette instructor of Southern Grace at Fair Haven in Murfreesboro. “We encourage parents to help their children by reminding them often of the three fundamental principles of manners: respect, consideration and honesty. When young people know and practice good manners, they become self-confident and considerate, earning the admiration of others,” she adds.

Ever since Spencer started talking, I’ve shared my reservations about the whole “please and thank-you” mechanical exchange with my mother-in-law, but she has continued to drill these manners into Spencer. I’ve told her that saying these words doesn’t mean that the user is a good person. They’re words anyone could use.

“In fact,” I’ve said, “Kim Jong Il could use them and he’d still be North Korea’s worst nightmare”

My mother-in-law simply shrugs when I say thing like this. I guess she figures if you’re going to be a brutal dictator when you grow up, you might as well be a polite one.

“Most parents do begin with early lessons in language, i.e., ‘the magic words’ and their application,” says Carol Holland of First Impressions Consulting in Franklin. “Subsequently, parental tone of instruction changes with time.”

By the time Spencer turned 4, he had become a very polite little boy. My mother-in-law beams every time he is complemented on his flawless manners. And though I’m loath to admit it, it’s clear that adults are far more receptive to children who know how to fling around an occasional “please” and “thank you.” Lately, I have thanked her for instilling habits in her grandson that will ensure smooth sailing through his childhood and even into adulthood.

The Question of “Yes, Ma’am”

Now 6, Spencer asks me why his friend Jake calls his dad, “Sir” and not “Daddy.”

“Some parents like their children to call them ‘Sir” as a sign of respect,” I say.

“It sounds weird,” he says.

I tell Pat about this exchange later. Given his more conservative background, I wonder what he’ll think.

“Wow. That makes his dad sound like a Confederate General,” he says, taking the dishes out of the dishwasher.

“Unfortunately, the respect level in our country is shrinking daily,” says Denise Davis, of White Gloves and Party Manners in Franklin. “I think that saying ‘Yes, Ma’am’ and ‘No, Ma’am’ is a show of respect and care when you answer an elder or person of importance – say your own parents – with this response. Manners never go in and out of style.”

Manners that are simply conventions particular to a bygone era are ones that I have chosen not to enforce with my children. Of course, deciding which conventions fall into this category is a completely subjective thing. To that end, you will find that my boys don’t, as a rule, bless sneezers, walk on the curbside when they’re with a girl, keep their elbows off the table or address their parents as “Sir” or “Ma’am.”

Kicking, Biting and All That

“Let them work it out,” a mom says to another on the playground, as her daughter and another little girl smash each other’s faces into the sand.

“Yes,” the other mother says over the girls’ high-pitched screams, “they need to figure it out by themselves. If we interfere, they won’t know how to resolve conflict on their own.”

It sounds like the mothers next to me are concerned about respecting their children’s autonomy. It also sounds like they assume that through this autonomy, their girls will come to a peaceful conclusion by themselves. And while I laud the moms for their optimism, I’d like to remind them that even in the adult world, we’ve found the need for the Geneva Convention. Rules like, “no biting, hitting, spitting, kicking or ridiculing” will surely help elevate the girls’ problem solving skills to a higher plane. With these options removed, they will have to consider diplomacy. Which, aside from being more effective, is a whole lot more polite.

And, if it’s an inescapable fact that adults can’t duke it out in the dirt, swipe each others’ doughnuts or kick each other repeatedly under the dinner table – it seems to me that we’re better off learning this sooner than later.

Not in Public

A friend’s 60-something mom said to me the other day, “You young mothers worry about every little thing. In our day, we just let the kids run around, we fed ‘em, and listened to ‘em, and somehow they grew up.”

It’s true that parents, today, are inundated with experts telling us what may damage our children psychologically as they grow into adulthood – and much of this advice is extremely helpful. But sometimes parents react by imposing no rules of etiquette or behavior at all.

Worried about instilling shame in our children, for example, many parents no longer impose rules like “take your hand out of your pants” or “put some clothes on before the guests arrive.”

I visited a friend and her 3-year-old son ran into the living room where we were having coffee. Playfully, I said, “Oooh! Look who’s naked!”

“Don’t say that!” my friend admonished me through clenched teeth. “I don’t want him to have any body shame.”
This confused me. I simply stated the fact without judgment, in much the same way that I might have said, “Look at your blue shirt.” Surely there will be a point at which my friend’s son will have to learn that there is a distinct difference between being nude and clothed!

Vive la Difference

My close friend and I gab at a kid-friendly restaurant, while our children play with Matchbox cars and stickers.
“Simon,” my friend says, “take your feet off the banquette.”

Simon makes a defiant face, but complies. Spencer’s feet are on the banquette, too. Normally, I wouldn’t make a big deal of this. Kids run around this place like crazy. By comparison, ours are being quite well behaved. Besides, I tend to give a “longer leash” to my children when I’m engaged in an adult activity, as I am now. It also passes through my mind that my friend doesn’t seem to care about her Simon’s prolific swearing – but boy, oh, boy, those feet on the banquette!

“Spencer. You, too,” I say. And I’m grateful when he slides his feet to the floor.

I’m supporting my friend’s edict, not because it makes sense to me, but because I know that her value system concerning manners is as complicated as mine. It’s a patchwork of inherited traditions, personal bias, contemporary psychology and convenience. She will make different choices than me based on her experience. But what we want for our children is the same. We want them to be heard and respected. So that, in the event that they choose to become brutal dictators, their rise to global domination will be a smooth one.

Brett Paesel is a freelance writer.

get your manners here

First Impressions Consulting
Franklin • 599-2640 •

Southern Grace at Fair Haven
Murfreesboro • 691-1887 •

White Gloves and Party Manners
Franklin • 771-7101 •

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Beyond “Whatever!” How Big Kids Can Volunteer By Karen A. Cole, Ph.D.
You Can Talk to Your Teen By Robyn Warner

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