It’s no longer a major faux pas to, say, leave your hat on when you go indoors or fail to stand up when a lady enters the room. It’s also pretty safe these days to wear white after Labor Day and not extend your pinky when drinking a cup of tea. There are just certain old standbys of etiquette that no longer fit our lifestyles or simply aren’t necessary. But before you throw the rulebook out completely, it’s important to consider how manners still very much matter in modern times.
Teaching your children etiquette is not only a parental responsibility that can help them lead happier, healthier and more successful lives. It’s also about we, as conscious beings, recognizing in this increasingly “me first” society there are other people out there with very real feelings, aspirations and emotions. And by putting a subtle emphasis on etiquette, we’re taking a small but crucial step in cultivating a kinder and more congenial civilization.
What Etiquette Really Means
Etiquette is a French word dating back to the mid 18th century that sounds as formal as the royal courts it was originally intended to govern. Its full definition according to Merriam-Webster, “the conduct or procedure required by good breeding or prescribed by authority to be observed in social or official life,” seems somewhat unapproachable in this time and place. However the simple definition, “the rules indicating the proper and polite way to behave,” is a notion most parents today can wrap their heads around.
According to Juanita Allen Kingsley, a certified etiquette program instructor and director of business development for Century Health Systems, traditionally what we had were a set of rules concerning how to dress, the correct utensils to use at dinner and things like that. As a teacher of socialsklz:-), a series of workshops focused on giving children, tweens and teens the tools to thrive in the modern world, Kingsley sees the focus of etiquette today on how you should treat yourself and other people. “It’s really about choosing civility, choosing a culture of kindness. And not only choosing it, but maintaining it, making it be your default setting,” she says.
Snezana Pejic, program director, founder and instructor at the Etiquette Academy of New England, says, “Etiquette was always about showing respect and kindness and empathy in our relationships with others.” However, she points out that while etiquette indicates a specific code of behavior, it also varies among different groups of people and geographic locations. “Every culture has its own way of showing polite, mindful behavior, respect, kindness and empathy,” says Pejic. And it starts with learning to respect yourself, in order to gain the greater perspective of respecting the world around you.
Obstacles of Teaching Etiquette
From the workplace to our homes and schools, on the highway or at the mall, there seems to be a general rise in inconsiderate behavior. Why? Kingsley points to a host of factors ranging from a media culture making a practice of glorifying people who are not kind, are rude and act outrageously to the rise of technology that reduces opportunities to practice face-to-face interactions. There’s also the matter of adjusting to modern lifestyles that have children and parents on the go, often in completely separate directions. “I think with parents having so little time with their children, it’s really hard at the end of the day to instruct, when you just want to go with the flow and enjoy each other,” says Kingsley.
Pejic, who was formally trained by British instructors while spending four years as part of the royal protocol for His Late Majesty King Hussein of Jordan, is confident etiquette is still alive and well. She also says it’s continually evolving based on how our society changes. Whether we’re sending letters, talking on the telephone or using text, emails and social media, it’s still as important as ever to know how to treat people and communicate fluently and effectively. Unfortunately, this type of instruction isn’t typically received in many schools focusing primarily on teaching hard skill and STEM related subjects.
To make circumstances even more challenging, where there used to be larger extended families and communities to support the development of children, today it almost always comes down to one or two people. “It’s so much pressure. The parents are overworked. Teachers underpaid. The community is sort of trained not to intervene. And the families are so much smaller,” says Pejic.
Developing the Manners That Matter
Even when your intention is to raise a well-mannered child, most parents would attest it often could be an uphill battle. And once bad habits and behaviors are formed, it takes a lot of work to change them. So from a very young age it pays to begin building a solid foundation. Says Kingsley, “Even a 4-year-old can be taught to shake hands and look someone in the eye and say hello, thank you for inviting me or may I help you?”
Kingsley recommends small but meaningful steps, such as having your little one acknowledge gifts by drawing a picture and helping them transcribe a thank-you note – the kind of stuff grandmas go crazy for. “Instilling gratitude as a language in a family is a big part of what we’re talking about,” she says.
Programs at the Etiquette Academy start at 7 years of age, when Pejic says most children are able to control their motor skills and emotions to a certain extent. “Before that, younger kids should learn to share, how to listen and be aware the feelings of others are as important as their own,” Pejic explains.
Between the ages of 7 and 10, developing table manners, such as chewing with your mouth closed, keeping elbows off the table, using napkins and partaking in dinnertime conversation are important. Pejic says kids should also know when to speak up and when not to interrupt, and be able to identify and adhere to the boundaries that exist between different people you encounter, whether it’s family, friends, teachers or adults.
Kingsley adds kids need to learn to clean up after themselves and put things back where they belong. “It’s an idea of leaving something the way you found it. That you’re not the only person that’s using something – you’re not the only person sitting at this desk or using this piece of equipment,” she says.
As middle school is a time when children start developing deeper relationships, it represents the opportunity to learn about being a good friend and the give and take that comes with it. It’s also a time of newfound independence, so it can be very meaningful and empowering for kids to participate in household chores and understand how they contribute to the family.
When it comes to high school, it’s time for teens to learn professional behaviors and leadership traits while continuing to polish personal relationship skills. So when they head off to college or join the workforce, they have a sense of how to dress, how to behave and how to communicate in their personal and professional lives.
Lessons Every Day
As often is the case, kids tend to learn more by watching what we do rather than listening to what we say. If you’re going to be checking your smartphone at the dinner table or fail to treat people courteously, don’t be surprised when your child follows suit. Consistently modeling the type of manners you expect will often have the biggest and most lasting impact.
While many families no longer are able to sit down to dinner together each night, Kingsley recommends designating one evening a week for a more traditional family meal where basic etiquette is emphasized in an enjoyable, relaxed setting. She also says when children attend a school or outside program that teaches etiquette, the improvement is often dramatic. Not only does this type of program serve as an agent for the parents in instructing in social skills, but it also represents an efficient use of time.
“If my kids can go to a program on a Friday afternoon when I’m still at work or on a Saturday afternoon while I’m taking care of some things I need to, and we can cover table manners, we can cover introductions, making eye contact, conversation starting … it’s getting done,” says Kingsley.
Pejic reminds even when you enroll in an etiquette course, it can take weeks to change a single behavior. “Don’t get frustrated,” she says. “It is persistence. They need your support, your kindness and respect. They’re learning from us every single day.”
Whether it’s getting along with a bunkmate at camp, collaborating on a school project, being interviewed to get into a special program or building a relationship with the first person they feel strongly about romantically, success is partly going to be contingent on mastering certain soft social skills. By putting in the time at home, choosing an etiquette program or getting involved in opportunities in the community that broaden experiences while educating and inspiring, the investment in your child’s future is sure to pay dividends. And if enough of us buy into a new age of civility, we just might make the world a little bit nicer place … one kid at a time.
Brian Spero is a father and frequent contributor to Boston Parents Paper.
10 Tips for Online Etiquette
(With Juanita Allen Kingsley)
Many parents would be surprised to learn more than half of all children use social media networks before the age of 10. The time to talk with children about expectations of their online behavior should happen at a very young age.
1. Be kind. Don’t post or say anything you wouldn’t want someone to say or post about you. How would you feel if your friends’ parents read what you posted?
2. If you’re using an electronic device and someone starts talking to you, put it down and make eye contact.
3. Be thoughtful about what user names and email address you choose. They should be non-offensive and gender and age neutral.
4. Use proper spelling and grammar. Social media and texting aren’t an excuse to be sloppy.
5. Don’t text or post when you’re angry or hurt. Don’t fight on social media or let offline issues become online drama.
6. Remember, you don’t have to answer every post or text you receive.
7. Never give bad news in a text: “I heard you didn’t make the team.”
8. Make a list of no-texting/checking social media zones (i.e. at dinner, at the movies, during family time).
9. Don’t ignore a friend you’re with by texting or chatting with another online. It’s rude.
10. Remember texting and social media are a privilege. It’s something that should add to our friendships, not take the place of one-on-one interaction with the people in your life.