"The hardest job kids face today is learning good manners without seeing any."
- Fred Astaire
Why are kids today ruder than ever?
That was the question posed in a recent article in Parents magazine. The answer was attributed to a number of factors - an increasingly coarse culture, a lack of proper role models - but at the top of the list was parents themselves.
"Our children learn by watching us," says Mindy Lockard, a Eugene mother of two who runs the Internet etiquette resource ManneroftheMonth.com. "If we are practicing the behavior ourselves, they are going to learn from that."
Most etiquette experts agree that parents have the biggest role in influencing their child's manners. And because many adults don't know the rules of etiquette themselves, neither do their kids.
Peggy Post, the great granddaughter of etiquette guru Emily Post, suggests that parents learn the origins of common courtesies. If, for instance, kids learn that the act of removing your hat at the dinner table comes from the custom of knights lifting their visors to show they meant no harm, they are more likely to follow the custom.
One issue many parents face in teaching their kids manners is a perceived lack of time. But, experts suggest, your family's busy activity schedule shouldn't be an excuse for ignoring the basics.
"Despite our hectic schedules, manners are just as important as they have always been," Lockard says. "We should never be too busy to choose to treat others with care and to interact with them in a thoughtful way."
Lockard, an etiquette consultant who studied the subject at the Protocol School of Washington, also hosts summer etiquette camps, dining classes for kids and workshops for fraternities and sororities. She has worked with students at Lifegate Christian School and St. Paul Catholic School, and she works one-on-one with kids such as George Rear, 12, a sixth-grader at Monroe Middle School learning the art of phone conversation, e-mail correspondence and common courtesies.
"I've learned that young men should always open the door for older men and women," George says. "I thought (these classes) were going to involve a ruler and that somebody would snap me with it every time, but it's actually nothing like that. She (Lockard) coaches me very gently."
Rear's mother, Lara, says her son has become more confident and less socially anxious since starting his three times weekly etiquette lessons with Lockard in October. The instruction costs about as much as music lessons.
"Whatever she's charging is not enough," Rear says. "I think all kids should be required to go to (etiquette) class."
Lockard says well-mannered kids are able to look beyond themselves. And in that sense, learning the rules of etiquette can serve as a potential antidote to what some experts have diagnosed as a growing culture of narcissism among today's generation of children.
"Manners are the process of knowing who you are, enjoying who you are and having confidence in ourselves," Lockard says.
"When you do that, you're able to look beyond yourself at other people"
Lockard makes a distinction between etiquette and manners. Etiquette is the rules of social conduct. Manners are the reason we use those rules.
Manners, Lockard says, are entirely about other people's experience with us. It's the reason we chew with our mouths closed. Our friends probably don't care to see what's going on inside of our mouths. But if we were alone all the time, it wouldn't necessarily matter.
Experts disagree on when to start teaching manners. Most etiquette classes are geared toward 8- to 12-year-olds, but some say you can start as young as 3, at the age when most kids are able to empathize.
One popular parenting book, "On Becoming Baby Wise," even recommends introducing table manners as early as 10 months.
If your child throws food, or spits out his peas, the book suggests placing the child in his crib to teach him cause and effect.
"I think manners and the understanding of manners is a (lifelong) journey," says Lockard, who began teaching her two daughters how to say "please" and "thank you" in sign language when they were 10 months old.
"I don't think it's ever too early to start, nor do I think it's ever too late," Lockard says.
With the basics of "please" and "thank you" out of the way, Lockard is currently teaching her two girls such topics as honorifics (using titles such as Mr. and Mrs. to show respect), shaking hands, basic table manners and walking friends and guests to the door.
"It can take a while for kids to process (the lessons on manners)," she says. "It's a matter of practice, practice, practice and reinforcing. It's constantly keeping it as something that is in the front of your mind."
When it comes to manners, few subjects cause more confusion in these informal times than what to call adults. In recent years, the practice of using a title such as Mr. or Mrs. with a first name ("Mrs. Mary," for example) has become increasingly common.
Most experts suggest parents teach kids to use the more formal practice of pairing titles with last names unless an adult asks otherwise. If Mr. Jones says, "Please, call me Steve," your child can then revert to "Mr. Steve."
Post suggests that parents set a good example by calling adults by their formal titles when talking to their child. If you're talking about Susan Smith, refer to her as Mrs. Smith.
When talking directly to another adult though, parents can cut out the formality. Mrs. Smith then becomes Susan, and you can explain to your child, "I call her Susan, you call her Mrs. Smith"
The days leading up to the holidays, Lockard says, are a good time to brush up on manners and offer your child some valuable life lessons.
One of the first things you can teach is that gifts are about more than what's coming your child's way.
"It's easy to focus on the receiving process and on what we want," Lockard says. "It's important to work with your children in looking beyond themselves with the holidays and focus on what it means to actually give gifts."
Lockard recommends getting your kids involved in the buying and wrapping of presents.
And, she says, it's a good idea to show your kids what it means to give to charity.
She suggests taking part in a local toy drive. Kids can either donate their own toys or purchase new toys.
Writing thank you notes is another way to instill manners during the holiday season. Lockard has a policy in her household that her two girls must write a thank you note before they can play with the toys they've received.
"Just engaging in the act of gratitude is a wonderful act to instill in kids," she says. "It's important to stop and thank each person who gave a gift, rather than just unwrapping 15 gifts at a time."
Even if your kids are too young to write, experts say you can have your child draw a picture or dictate a thank you note to an adult.
A thank you note, Lockard says, should communicate two things: an appreciation for the person giving the gift and an appreciation for the gift.
Teaching kids manners doesn't have to be a series of rule-driven lessons.
By making the subject fun and interesting, and by focusing on the "why" rather than the "what," Lockard says it is more likely your child will retain some of what they have learned.
And you will too.
"I believe manners always come first (before etiquette)," Lockard says. "It doesn't matter if you know which fork to use if you're unkind to everyone at the table."
HELPING YOUR CHILDren MIND their MANNERS
Here are some tips from etiquette experts on brushing up your child's manners during the holidays
Thank-you: It's never too early to start your kids writing thank you notes. Even if they can't write, they can draw a picture or dictate to an adult. Make the process fun by using attractive stationary, letting kids apply the stamp and making a trip to the post office together.
Table manners: Eating meals together will give you lots of opportunity to reinforce table manners. Here's a little trick: Have your child hold up both index fingers and make a circle with the thumbs and middle fingers. This makes a "b" on the left hand side (where the bread goes) and a "d" on the right (where the drink goes).
Explain: Kids are more likely to listen if they know the reason behind a particular rule of etiquette. Did you know the common courtesy of removing your hat at the dinner table dates back to the Middle Ages, when knights lifted their visors to show they meant no harm?
Titles: In general, children should call adults by their formal title. If an adult asks a child to call him by his first name, experts suggest using a title with a first name, such as Mr. Steve. In some instances (such as with a close family friend), it is OK for children to address someone by a first name. But if meeting, say, a friend's parents for the first time, children always should use Mr. or Mrs.