Dude, That’s Rude! Manners Can Be Fun. Don’t Behave Like You Live in a Cave. Tabletop Tipsters. There are nearly 1,800 titles returned on an Amazon.com search of children’s etiquette books, and etiquette courses for children as young as four are selling out. Children and their manners is a hot topic, as seen by the backlash from Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. Touted as “the secret behind France’s astonishingly well-behaved children”, Pamela Druckerman’s observations of French parents and children have raised the question, when it comes to etiquette and children, what is expected when?
For young children, learning basic manners is the best first step to becoming a polite, likable person. One of the first niceties parents can teach little ones is how to speak to others. Preschoolers can be expected to say “please” and “thank you”, as well as “hello” and “goodbye”, lest they start to think that manners only apply when they make a request. Part of this expectation can also be that children make eye contact as they speak these oh-so-important words, as a precursor to conversational and public speaking expectations held for older children.
One of the most challenging obstacles to teaching young children about manners is their attention span. The younger a child, the shorter amount of time she can be expected to wait patiently, and waiting patiently is an important etiquette skill to learn. Young children can be expected to wait one minute per year of age, so a two minutes for a two-year-old, three minutes for a three-year-old, and so on. Of course, children, like adults, learn patience, so it will take time to work up to these age milestones. However, even young children should be exposed to some delayed gratification, even if only for the length of time to say grace before dinner. Another form of patience children should learn is waiting for others to finish talking before speaking up. Interrupting is a habit that can quickly get out of hand, so if you find yourself with a toddler who can’t stop chiming in, gently, but firmly tell her that you will be with her when you finish your conversation. Waiting is also important in conversations with others and in games, as a child that does not interrupt and waits his turn is likely to find himself with more friends to talk and play with.
Older children can begin to learn more nuanced etiquette, as they develop an awareness of the feelings of others. After receiving a present, elementary-age children can, with guidance from a parent, write a thank you note to the gift giver. Children this age are often eager to help, so find ways to harness that enthusiasm and benefit others, such as clearing the table or teaching a friend a new game. It is important to explain to children how their actions made someone else feel appreciated and point out times when others do that for them. This is also an age when children can begin to learn about cultural etiquette expectations, like respecting elders, and particularly in the South, women, as well as situational manners, like behaviors expected at church or when hosting guests. At the dinner table, older children should know to chew with their mouths closed, ask for dishes to be passed, and try new foods. One tip I recently heard about encouraging children to expand their palettes is the First Try, Second Try. The first time a dish is served, the child is expected to have one bite; the second time that same dish is prepared, the child is to have two bites. No matter whether it is the first time a child tries a recipe, or it’s one that frequently appears on the table, he should be expected to not blurt out, “Yuck!” or anything else along that line.
Teenagers will be involved in more functions requiring etiquette know-how than ever before in their lives, some without the guidance of their parents. Table manners are increasingly important for teenagers. They can be expected to have a basic understanding of table settings, including when to use which utensil and which glass and bread plate are theirs. Teenagers should also know about tipping—when to do it and how much is appropriate. Teens should begin to be savvy about reading people and social situations. Academic awards dinners, sports banquets, proms, and dozens of other adolescent rites of passage can become complicated for teens to navigate without a solid foundation of etiquette.
At any age, children need to see good manners and etiquette modeled by those around them. Parents play the largest role in shaping their child’s behavior, for better or for worse. Beginning to teach children about manners when they are young, and continuing that etiquette education as they grow, will make for a child ready to successfully face any social situation.