Etiquette is a big word that may conjure up images of a dizzying number of silver forks on a damask-covered table. In reality, etiquette is simply social rules for behaving in public. And it’s more important than ever.
Experts say good manners make others feel respected, boost the user’s confidence and may play a key role in your child’s future success.
As families gather around the dinner table for the holidays, parents can take advantage of that time at Thanksgiving, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah and Christmas to teach children how to eat properly and show gratitude for gifts.
Good manners are simply a matter of practice.
At home, the family dinner table is the perfect place to begin teaching proper manners, says Patricia O’Brien. She gives etiquette lessons to children ages 4 and up at her Skokie business, Manners Please. Horrified by what she witnessed at other tables while at area restaurants, O’Brien took classes through The Protocol School of Washington and began teaching.
Four is not too young to begin “planting the seed,” as O’Brien puts it. “They’re like sponges; they want to learn.”
She has her pupils dress up in party clothes—no sweats allowed—with hair combed and nails scrubbed, when they come to class. “By dressing the part, they’ll feel the part,” she says.
O’Brien urges families to eat together at the table—complete with tablecloth and the good silverware—at least once a week. That way, children can see the right way to dine and mimic what they see.
The Reilly family in Edgebrook dines together several nights a week, says Susan Reilly. She sent her daughter, Katherine, to O’Brien’s classes because the lessons made the 10-year-old feel special. The girls in the class “got to feel like little ladies for an afternoon,” Reilly says.
Her younger daughter, Anne Marie, 7, has been picking up dining tips from her big sister.
More than fine dining But Reilly, who runs a decorating business from home, sees manners as more than just niceties. They also teach respect.
“In the society we’re living in right now, it’s give, give, give to the child, whatever they want,” she says. “We’re losing some of those good old ways of teaching our children right from wrong and politeness from rudeness.”
Reilly continues: “It’s not always about me, me, me; it’s about how I need to behave in order to respect other people.”
Showing respect means addressing people properly, says Reilly, who insists her daughters acknowledge the adults around them. The girls say, “Hello, Mrs. Smith, hello Mr. Smith,” while looking the adult in the eye. And first names are reserved for only the closest of adult family friends, she says.
Helen Byrne’s first graders practice good manners constantly. Her class at Frederick Chopin Elementary School in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood has their routine down. Several times a day, the children line up for lunch, restrooms, computer class and dismissal. But before Byrne leads the line out of the classroom, they chant in unison, “My arms are down, I do not talk. I look straight ahead, I am ready to walk.”
Byrne says repetition is the key, so she has become a broken record of “What do you say?” when a visitor enters the room, when a child wants to borrow a pencil, when papers are passed out. She uses her other mantra, “Thank you,” not only in the traditional sense, but to gently nudge transgressions into good behavior.
“Thank you for sitting in your seat,” she says to a squirmy boy, or “Thank you for raising your hand,” to a girl calling out.
Byrne believes respect goes both ways. When a guest arrives in her class, she uses the visit as an opportunity to teach proper introductions, even extending the courtesy titles of Mr. and Miss to her youngsters. “This is Mr. Josh,” she says. “And this is Miss Maya. This is Mr. Ivan.” She gently insists each child shake the guest’s hand while saying hello.
At the Reilly household, telephone etiquette is also part of the manners equation. Katherine and Anne Marie know to say, “One minute please,” and “May I ask who’s calling?” The girls write down phone messages, too, which Reilly says she receives most of the time.
Reilly trusts her daughter to behave themselves even when she’s not around. She says when parents tell her after playdates, “Your daughters are always so polite,” she feels good, “like I’ve done something right.”
Politeness begins at home It’s easy to practice politeness at home, O’Brien says. During this holiday season, give your school-aged child a box of thank-you cards and a dictionary to encourage writing their thanks to people.
Bring home a few key books for your family. O’Brien recommends The Gift of Good Manners: Parent’s Guide to Raising Respectful, Kind, Considerate Children from the Emily Post Institute as a primer for parents. The doyenne of classic good behavior addresses a variety of situations for offspring—ranging from the terrible twos through the teenage years—in chapters divided by age group. Most chapters center around respect, and include tips for teaching about privacy (always knock), whispering (only for quiet; never when others are around), interrupting (only OK in emergencies) and dressing appropriately (behavior is much more important than clothes.).
For middle-school girls, there is also Oops! The Manners Guide for Girls, by American Girl Library. Oops! is full of practical solutions for sticky situations such as how to say “thank you” for an unwanted gift and how to deal with horrible house guests. With the help of cartoons and quizzes, girls also learn how to make introductions, smooth over embarrassing moments and behave at family gatherings.
To reinforce table manners, O’Brien suggests taking your child out to eat in a restaurant with silverware and tablecloths. Or setting aside at least one meal a week to eat at the table as a family, have children set and clear the table. Turn off phones and the TV. “There should be nothing on the table except for your food and your utensils,” O’Brien says.
Lauren Fitzpatrick is a devout follower of Ms. Manners and is a writer living in Chicago’s Ukranian Village neighborhood.