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Teaching Manners to Kids

How to determine which manners kids really need to learn

My husband grew up the son of a woman who valued good manners above everything, especially candor. Rules governing behavior were clear and immutable to her. Food was passed to the left, men walked on the curb side 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 that might burst out uncontrolled, mid-bite — ripping through dinner like a peasant rebellion. We weren't an entirely lawless band; we cherished cooperation and disdained deceit. But we would have considered the many rules that governed my husband's childhood household formal, unnecessary, disingenuous.

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 own household, I had some experiences that have shaped 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 son, 3 years old at the time, 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-leeeeeeazzzz," says Spencer.

Grandma smiles and opens the bag to retrieve a cookie for him. Mission accomplished. My throat clutches — a response to the dialogue I've just heard. Spencer's "please" was nothing more than a verbal hoop to be jumped through in order to get the cookie. I resent my mother-in-law withholding cookies until the trick is performed. And then there's the phrase "the magic word." If "please" were truly magic, I'd be in Tuscany right now with Daniel Day-Lewis and a live-in masseuse.

Ever since Spencer could talk, I've conveyed my reservations about the whole please-and-thank-you exchange to my mother-in-law. But she has continued to drill these manners into her grandson. Saying these words doesn't mean the user is a good person, I tell her. 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. 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.

As Spence approaches age 4, I begin to realize that, in spite of my best efforts, he has become a very polite little boy. My mother-in-law beams each time he is complimented on his flawless manners. And though I'm loath to admit this, it's become clear to me that adults are far more receptive to children who know how to fling around an occasional "please" and "thank you." So I have thanked my mother-in-law for instilling habits in her grandson that will ensure smoother sailing through childhood and adulthood. I hate being wrong. I do not, however, write this from Tuscany, getting my feet rubbed, while Daniel Day-Lewis smiles at me from across the table. So I'm still right about some things.

Whither Is the Privy?

Pat tells me he remembers being at a restaurant with his mother when he was about 10. He grabbed a roll and was about to start chomping on it when his mother hissed, "Don't just grab the bread like that. You have to break it first." This made no sense to him. After all, he was about to "break it" with his teeth. His mother continued sternly, "It's impolite. You have to tear it in half first."

A bitter argument followed, one that quite possibly was far ruder to fellow diners than the fact that the boy hadn't ripped the bread. What neither Pat nor his mother mentioned then was that, years ago, the custom of breaking bread probably sprung from a practical need, not politeness. It wouldn't surprise me to find that our ancestors broke bread not to commune with their neighbors, but to check for insect larvae or bread mites. Manners that are simply conventions particular to a bygone era are the ones 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 curb side when they're with a girl, keep their elbows off the table, address their parents as "Sir" or "Ma'am" — or rip their bread before they eat it.

Kicking, Biting, and Other Forms of Recreation

"Let them work it out," I hear a mom say to another on the playground, as her daughter and another little girl smash each other's faces into the sand. I understand the girls' impulse. Occasionally I would like to grind someone's face into the dirt. But I resist because I fear for my safety, and because it's rude. Much better, I think, to write a cleverly worded e-mail to the adversary later.

Over the girls' high-pitched screams, the other mother says, "Yes, if we interfere, they won't know how to resolve conflict on their own."

It sounds like these mothers 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 conventions. Rules like "no biting, hitting, spitting, kicking, or ridiculing" will surely help elevate the girls' problem-solving skills to a higher plane. With these feral options removed, the combatants will have to consider diplomacy. Which, aside from being more effective, is a whole lot more polite.

I'm visiting a friend when her 3-year-old son runs into the living room, where we are having tea. Playfully, I say, "Oooh. Look who's naked."

"Don't say that," my friend admonishes through clenched teeth. "I don't want him to have any body shame."

I'm confused. I simply made an observation, without judgment, in much the same way I might have said, "Look at your blue shirt." One day, surely, the boy must learn there's a distinct difference between being nude and clothed. I mean, in the adult world, not only is it rude to run around naked, at most public functions it's illegal.

Weeks later I'm at a kids' pool party where a friend's young son sits, naked, examining himself while the adults eat sandwiches nearby. His mother, who'd have no qualms about telling him not to pick his nose, pointedly ignores his activity while the rest of us look off in various directions.

Later, on the phone, I say to another friend, "Why didn't Anne tell him to go inside or put some pants on?"

"Brett," says my friend, "that would have drawn attention to his behavior."

"It was hard to miss."

"Plus, I'm sure she didn't want to make him feel uncomfortable."

"So it's better to put a group of six mothers off their lunch?"

Not that I have all the answers. I too am concerned about raising my boys to feel at home in their bodies, assured their sexuality is a wonderful thing. But, like it or not, putting one's hand in one's pants is as private an activity as picking one's teeth or popping a pimple. Spence might as well learn that now because by a certain age those who haven't learned it have a hard time getting dates.

In Deference to Difference

My close friend and I gab at a kid-friendly restaurant as our boys play with toy cars and stickers.

"Simon," my friend says to her son, "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. It also passes through my mind that my friend doesn't seem to care about Simon's prolific swearing — but boy, oh boy, those feet on the banquette!

"Spence. 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 I. But what we want for our children is the same. We want them to be heard and respected. We want them to be welcome in any room. We want them to be spoken of highly. That way, in the event they choose to become brutal dictators, their rise to global domination will be a smooth one.

About the Author
Brett Paesel is the author of Mommies Who Drink: Sex, Drugs, and Other Distant Memories of an Ordinary Mom, now in paperback. She is currently writing a thank- you note to her mother-in-law for providing half the material in this article.

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