Teaching manners isn't outdated

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  April 26, 2012 06:00 AM

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Dear Barbara,

My MIL is a lovely person (how often do you hear that?!) but she's making me crazy because she's prickly about manners. I agree that some attention to manners is important (please & thank you) but I have begun to balk at some of her ideas. For instance, she expects my children (oldest is 4, youngest is 2) to greet her at the door when she arrives with a big hug and "welcome granny!" She insists that is part of good manners because it teaches respect for elders. This is the way my husband was raised and I have to admit he impressed me from the start with his impeccable manners, whereas my parents had no such standards, so I am very torn. Are there milestones when it comes to manners, like certain manners that children should know by certain ages?

From: FHP, Queens, NY

Dear FHP,

That example you cite? My mother gave me that same schpiel when my son was 3, and I remember thinking how narcissistic it was of her to want that greeting. Over the years, I came around. It was a sign of respect, kindness and, sometimes, love, and if it made her feel good -- well, isn't that at least partly what good manners are about? Making another person feel good?

So sure, some of what your MIL is asking may be outdated and/or generational, but that doesn't mean it's wrong. The younger a child learns specific manners, the more likely the behaviors will become habitual. If you teach a 3-year-old to clean something from the dinner table when he's finished -- his napkin, the salt shaker, the margarine container -- helping to clear the table is more likely to be automatic to him even when he's a surly teenager.

You ask about milestones for manners. The only ones I've ever heard of come from Sheryl Eberly in her book, "365 Manners Kids Should Know, Updated and revised for the 21st Century." Among others, she says 3-year-olds should be able to "use utensils at the table, say 'please' and 'thank you;'" 10-year-olds should "show self-control in public places, use good table manners;" and 15-year-olds should be able to "initiate conversation and show interest with adults; express appreciation to parents and others."

My suggestion is to sit down with you MIL and prioritize together two or three manners for your children to master in the next six months or year; another two or three for the following year, etc. That's a way of letting her know you value her input, but also need to find a way to manage it. Plus, having everyone on the same page will make it easier for the kids and the adults.

By the way, children learn manners by observing us. They especially learn about double standards when we insist they behave one way and see us do something totally different.

Readers, what manners are important to you for your young children to know?

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13 comments so far...
  1. Manners are a must. Please and thank you can start very young, as well as "excuse me".

    I cannot agree that forcing a child to greet and hug a grandparent is a must. Some children - and some adults - do not like this. I would never force my chilldren to hug someone they didn't want to. Just because it makes a grandparent feel good doesn't mean it is the right thing to do. Saying hello is recommended though, when someone comes to the house.

    Posted by 3boysmom April 26, 12 10:08 AM
  1. We're working on/reinforcing the following

    -Please and Thank You
    -Referring to women as "Auntie" and men as "Uncle" --we live in Singapore, and this is a local term that connotes respect (even thought it's a bit weird when we visit Boston and my daughter calls the guy at Papa Gino's "Pizza Uncle")
    -Saying excuse me when you bump into someone, and that you should go around, not through groups of people on the street/in the hallway
    -Look at people when they speak to you and you speak to them
    -Putting her cup into the sink (it's plastic, so we're less worried about the consequences--she's too short to see the sink)

    To the LW--it's also not a bad thing to learn that different manners are used with different people. I speak to my grandparents differently than I do my parents or my peers (or my peers kid's for that matter)

    Posted by C April 26, 12 01:46 PM
  1. I think manners are extremely important. Armed with manners "beyond their years", your children will be welcomed to dinner parties, in museums, in restaurants you wouldn't normally be able to visit. It's a great, freeing thing for you, not just an important life skill for them!

    But not all kids take to learning them all at once. My kids are great with "Thank you"s and "Bless You"s and "Excuse Me", but pretty bad at eating neatly for example. My son's always been good at chatting people up, but he's an outgoing kid. My daughter isn't as great at "working a room" because she's shy, but she can sit quietly and I've been teaching her to at least respond to questions politely. So you can definitely tailor your lessons to each child and his/her age.

    Just don't neglect the manners because you assume it's too early to teach. There are a lot more of them than you think and you'll need time to work through them--helping with trash/dishes, opening doors for others, how to avoid sneezing on others, how to excuse yourself from the room or the dinner table, letting the guest have first choice, how to lose a game without crying or grumbling, etc. This small request from your MIL is just a drop in the bucket. You'll see as your kids get older how often you'll need to model and teach on this subject!

    Posted by momof2 April 26, 12 03:57 PM
  1. Yes, Manners are a must. We are the ones responsible for "molding"our children into respectable human beings. But Grandma insisting that she gets hugs and kisses is very narcissistic!!! Yes they should greet her but forced affection is ridiculous. No good.

    Posted by jd April 26, 12 05:26 PM
  1. The idea that a 15 yr old should show appreciation to his or her parents made me smile. Not happening here! But my teen does do it with everyone else, and if his "surliness" gets too out of line his phone is disconnected. I totally agree it is worth the struggle to enforce manners from age 2 onwards. The main thing I've learned from parenting is to set expected behavior as soon as possible and be consistent. I think it's especially important, and beneficial to the child long-term, to demand they stand still, look at people when they are being spoken to, smile when appropriate, and respond politely.

    Posted by ruth kepler April 27, 12 08:15 AM
  1. Good restaurant manners are essential, too. You can practice at McDonalds or Friendly and work your way up.

    Older children should be able to sit in a nice restaurant without playing video games.

    NO child should ever be allowed to get up out of his/her seat in a restaurant unless it is to go to the restroom.

    Perhaps your MIL is trying to politely tell you that your kids' manners could use some improvement. Keep in mind that "good manners" isn't just for its own sake. They also teach children self-control, consideration for others, and to be aware of their environment.

    Best wishes!

    Posted by just cause April 27, 12 12:10 PM
  1. Expecting a friendly/polite greeting, yes. Demanding a certain script, no. If she's hung up on whether they call her "Granny" or some other nickname, or whether or not she gets an appropriate hug, she's making it all about her need for attention, not their manners.

    Posted by di April 27, 12 03:32 PM
  1. Manners should be taught starting at a very young age so by the time they are teens its automatic. Please, thank you, may I be excused were among the first things my son learned.

    By the time he was six, we added shaking hands, calliing adults Mr. or Ms unless the adult said otherwise, holding the door for adults, thank you notes for gifts received, and taking his hat off as he entered school and church. I was able to bring him to the theatre at 6 without issue, He has been to the state house for functions several times before the age of 10.

    While he is a typical teen in many ways - eye rolling and comments at home, at 17 he has impeccible manners. People often comment on them - elders at our church are amazed when he bolts a head soley to hold the door. First impressions count.

    Posted by K Martin April 28, 12 08:57 AM
  1. I agree that children should greet grandparents, or any guest, really, by stopping what they are doing and coming to say hello. I would not insist that hugs is a part of that. If they are comfortable with her, that will be a natural result of coming to greet her, but I agree with everyone above that insisting on physical affection being doled out as a duty is a bad idea. We want our kids to be polite, but not to be "nice" at the expense of their own sense of boundaries.

    Thanks for this question and the subsequent answers. I have been pondering this with our our two year old. I will get a hold of the book!

    Posted by Meri April 28, 12 03:10 PM
  1. I would suggest if your MIL focuses her attention and being a loving grandparent then her grandchildren will be excited to see her and will therefore run to the door to greet her and give her the big hug she expects, not because its good manners, rather because they are excited to see her and have been waiting for days with anticipation of her big arrival.

    Posted by Andy April 28, 12 06:51 PM
  1. How will they learn if they are not taught?

    In an era when people are paying boatloads of money to make sure their children play sports, get into good colleges, etc. people have forgotten that old quote "Manners Maketh the Man" or woman! If your child is at a business dinner, someday, and eats with his mouth open, doesn't know what utensils to use, can't find his own butter plate and takes the boss', then butters his whole roll instead of taking small pieces and buttering each one, for example, his advancement will be limited.

    Frankly, you are crazy to think that your child doesn't need to be taught good manners ASAP.

    I was so glad that I knew the rules of introduction, etc. My business career benefited greatly from having to read Emily Post in high school English class. Perhaps you could get a good etiquette book and teach your children yourself.

    Posted by Dixie Lee April 29, 12 06:52 AM
  1. I think ALL types of manners are critical and from and early age - I don't care how "old" or generational it may appear! We always ate at the table, no one was allowed to eat in front of the TV! The table was properly set, even if we were using paper & plastic. I also worked and we did not believe in more than 1 or 2 extra-curricular activities once they started school. We did not believe in activities every night - that's such BS!

    Once the kids sat at the table, they were taught how to properly use their utensils and once done, had to ask to be excused - even when they were 2 or 3! And they had to take their plates with them, put them on the counter next to the sink, then come back & push in their chair.

    As they got older, they were taught how to properly eat breads, where to place their napkins & where & when and of course, keep the elbows off the table. Why? Because it shows some class and it can make a difference in the job market!

    These were only the tip of the iceberg - oh yes, my teens were not permitted to have their cell phones with them at the table. Dinner/table rules are the most obvious but they were taught the manners in speaking to people, proper interrupting conversations and more.

    And BTW - one rule - the 3 times call rule. I call for dinner only 3 times, if you're too busy watching TV or anything else, fine. We, (or me only) eats and then everything is put away. Next meal, breakfast! Even my husband missed a meal with my oldest. Neither one were too happy about that, but those are the rules. I also didn't serve a variety of foods, if the kids weren't hungry, or didn't want was I made that night (and I rarely made foods they didn't want), then fine. Leave the table and do whatever (play), next meal is breakfast. Both girls only missed one meal in the pre-school/elementary years. No one starved, nor was there a melt down.

    Bottom line - both girls are in their early twenties with impeccable manners and have told me thru their teen and current years, that they are complimented on their manners. My oldest was able to get a job, over someone else, because of her manners. She was told that was the deciding factor.

    However, a lot of today's parents have no manners to teach their children, so it must come from the grandparents.

    g05

    Posted by gretchen April 29, 12 08:41 PM
  1. I once worked with a young man in his early twenties whose dad actually encouraged him to burp and pass gas at the table. He was brought up to think it was entertaining and hilarious.

    We discovered this lovely trait at the first client/team dinner he attended. When his boss read him the riot act the next day, the poor kid was completely bewildered.

    Out of pity, they did not fire him but put him through "manners bootcamp" (he agreed to it of course). Each team member was required to eat lunch with him once a week, and he learned from our examples.

    Just saying that what you don't teach now can have huge repercussions later.

    Posted by cape cod mom April 30, 12 10:42 AM
 
13 comments so far...
  1. Manners are a must. Please and thank you can start very young, as well as "excuse me".

    I cannot agree that forcing a child to greet and hug a grandparent is a must. Some children - and some adults - do not like this. I would never force my chilldren to hug someone they didn't want to. Just because it makes a grandparent feel good doesn't mean it is the right thing to do. Saying hello is recommended though, when someone comes to the house.

    Posted by 3boysmom April 26, 12 10:08 AM
  1. We're working on/reinforcing the following

    -Please and Thank You
    -Referring to women as "Auntie" and men as "Uncle" --we live in Singapore, and this is a local term that connotes respect (even thought it's a bit weird when we visit Boston and my daughter calls the guy at Papa Gino's "Pizza Uncle")
    -Saying excuse me when you bump into someone, and that you should go around, not through groups of people on the street/in the hallway
    -Look at people when they speak to you and you speak to them
    -Putting her cup into the sink (it's plastic, so we're less worried about the consequences--she's too short to see the sink)

    To the LW--it's also not a bad thing to learn that different manners are used with different people. I speak to my grandparents differently than I do my parents or my peers (or my peers kid's for that matter)

    Posted by C April 26, 12 01:46 PM
  1. I think manners are extremely important. Armed with manners "beyond their years", your children will be welcomed to dinner parties, in museums, in restaurants you wouldn't normally be able to visit. It's a great, freeing thing for you, not just an important life skill for them!

    But not all kids take to learning them all at once. My kids are great with "Thank you"s and "Bless You"s and "Excuse Me", but pretty bad at eating neatly for example. My son's always been good at chatting people up, but he's an outgoing kid. My daughter isn't as great at "working a room" because she's shy, but she can sit quietly and I've been teaching her to at least respond to questions politely. So you can definitely tailor your lessons to each child and his/her age.

    Just don't neglect the manners because you assume it's too early to teach. There are a lot more of them than you think and you'll need time to work through them--helping with trash/dishes, opening doors for others, how to avoid sneezing on others, how to excuse yourself from the room or the dinner table, letting the guest have first choice, how to lose a game without crying or grumbling, etc. This small request from your MIL is just a drop in the bucket. You'll see as your kids get older how often you'll need to model and teach on this subject!

    Posted by momof2 April 26, 12 03:57 PM
  1. Yes, Manners are a must. We are the ones responsible for "molding"our children into respectable human beings. But Grandma insisting that she gets hugs and kisses is very narcissistic!!! Yes they should greet her but forced affection is ridiculous. No good.

    Posted by jd April 26, 12 05:26 PM
  1. The idea that a 15 yr old should show appreciation to his or her parents made me smile. Not happening here! But my teen does do it with everyone else, and if his "surliness" gets too out of line his phone is disconnected. I totally agree it is worth the struggle to enforce manners from age 2 onwards. The main thing I've learned from parenting is to set expected behavior as soon as possible and be consistent. I think it's especially important, and beneficial to the child long-term, to demand they stand still, look at people when they are being spoken to, smile when appropriate, and respond politely.

    Posted by ruth kepler April 27, 12 08:15 AM
  1. Good restaurant manners are essential, too. You can practice at McDonalds or Friendly and work your way up.

    Older children should be able to sit in a nice restaurant without playing video games.

    NO child should ever be allowed to get up out of his/her seat in a restaurant unless it is to go to the restroom.

    Perhaps your MIL is trying to politely tell you that your kids' manners could use some improvement. Keep in mind that "good manners" isn't just for its own sake. They also teach children self-control, consideration for others, and to be aware of their environment.

    Best wishes!

    Posted by just cause April 27, 12 12:10 PM
  1. Expecting a friendly/polite greeting, yes. Demanding a certain script, no. If she's hung up on whether they call her "Granny" or some other nickname, or whether or not she gets an appropriate hug, she's making it all about her need for attention, not their manners.

    Posted by di April 27, 12 03:32 PM
  1. Manners should be taught starting at a very young age so by the time they are teens its automatic. Please, thank you, may I be excused were among the first things my son learned.

    By the time he was six, we added shaking hands, calliing adults Mr. or Ms unless the adult said otherwise, holding the door for adults, thank you notes for gifts received, and taking his hat off as he entered school and church. I was able to bring him to the theatre at 6 without issue, He has been to the state house for functions several times before the age of 10.

    While he is a typical teen in many ways - eye rolling and comments at home, at 17 he has impeccible manners. People often comment on them - elders at our church are amazed when he bolts a head soley to hold the door. First impressions count.

    Posted by K Martin April 28, 12 08:57 AM
  1. I agree that children should greet grandparents, or any guest, really, by stopping what they are doing and coming to say hello. I would not insist that hugs is a part of that. If they are comfortable with her, that will be a natural result of coming to greet her, but I agree with everyone above that insisting on physical affection being doled out as a duty is a bad idea. We want our kids to be polite, but not to be "nice" at the expense of their own sense of boundaries.

    Thanks for this question and the subsequent answers. I have been pondering this with our our two year old. I will get a hold of the book!

    Posted by Meri April 28, 12 03:10 PM
  1. I would suggest if your MIL focuses her attention and being a loving grandparent then her grandchildren will be excited to see her and will therefore run to the door to greet her and give her the big hug she expects, not because its good manners, rather because they are excited to see her and have been waiting for days with anticipation of her big arrival.

    Posted by Andy April 28, 12 06:51 PM
  1. How will they learn if they are not taught?

    In an era when people are paying boatloads of money to make sure their children play sports, get into good colleges, etc. people have forgotten that old quote "Manners Maketh the Man" or woman! If your child is at a business dinner, someday, and eats with his mouth open, doesn't know what utensils to use, can't find his own butter plate and takes the boss', then butters his whole roll instead of taking small pieces and buttering each one, for example, his advancement will be limited.

    Frankly, you are crazy to think that your child doesn't need to be taught good manners ASAP.

    I was so glad that I knew the rules of introduction, etc. My business career benefited greatly from having to read Emily Post in high school English class. Perhaps you could get a good etiquette book and teach your children yourself.

    Posted by Dixie Lee April 29, 12 06:52 AM
  1. I think ALL types of manners are critical and from and early age - I don't care how "old" or generational it may appear! We always ate at the table, no one was allowed to eat in front of the TV! The table was properly set, even if we were using paper & plastic. I also worked and we did not believe in more than 1 or 2 extra-curricular activities once they started school. We did not believe in activities every night - that's such BS!

    Once the kids sat at the table, they were taught how to properly use their utensils and once done, had to ask to be excused - even when they were 2 or 3! And they had to take their plates with them, put them on the counter next to the sink, then come back & push in their chair.

    As they got older, they were taught how to properly eat breads, where to place their napkins & where & when and of course, keep the elbows off the table. Why? Because it shows some class and it can make a difference in the job market!

    These were only the tip of the iceberg - oh yes, my teens were not permitted to have their cell phones with them at the table. Dinner/table rules are the most obvious but they were taught the manners in speaking to people, proper interrupting conversations and more.

    And BTW - one rule - the 3 times call rule. I call for dinner only 3 times, if you're too busy watching TV or anything else, fine. We, (or me only) eats and then everything is put away. Next meal, breakfast! Even my husband missed a meal with my oldest. Neither one were too happy about that, but those are the rules. I also didn't serve a variety of foods, if the kids weren't hungry, or didn't want was I made that night (and I rarely made foods they didn't want), then fine. Leave the table and do whatever (play), next meal is breakfast. Both girls only missed one meal in the pre-school/elementary years. No one starved, nor was there a melt down.

    Bottom line - both girls are in their early twenties with impeccable manners and have told me thru their teen and current years, that they are complimented on their manners. My oldest was able to get a job, over someone else, because of her manners. She was told that was the deciding factor.

    However, a lot of today's parents have no manners to teach their children, so it must come from the grandparents.

    g05

    Posted by gretchen April 29, 12 08:41 PM
  1. I once worked with a young man in his early twenties whose dad actually encouraged him to burp and pass gas at the table. He was brought up to think it was entertaining and hilarious.

    We discovered this lovely trait at the first client/team dinner he attended. When his boss read him the riot act the next day, the poor kid was completely bewildered.

    Out of pity, they did not fire him but put him through "manners bootcamp" (he agreed to it of course). Each team member was required to eat lunch with him once a week, and he learned from our examples.

    Just saying that what you don't teach now can have huge repercussions later.

    Posted by cape cod mom April 30, 12 10:42 AM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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