To some, the words children’s etiquette may sound like an oxymoron or else something straight out of the 1950s. In 1965, the book White Gloves and Party Manners became the go-to manual for the young and socially-graced, delving into subjects such as how to set a table, exit a car, greet guests, sit properly, etc. In fact, it’s still around. But how many of us knew that?
Today, our overscheduled, multitasked days and nights make it hard for moms and dads to teach their kids anything but the basic pleases and thank yous – if there’s even time for that. Nevertheless, child experts say instilling manners and respect for others early makes learning stick, and will carry kids farther into their teen and early adult years as they get noticed and impress those around them. In short, the right way of doing things will make them stand out.
Maybe paramount to that, if approached in the form of a game, little ones are all too eager to learn and embrace the art, making it less of a power struggle for their parents. Believe it or not, even today appropriately shaking hands, helping behaviors, saying excuse me, first impressions, making eye contact, park and playdate etiquette, being on time, accepting a not-so-coveted gift, proper use of escalators/elevators/doors, good sportsmanship, and being a gracious host to friends and family are all learned behaviors. Most kids are not born knowing they shouldn’t interrupt, or how to hold the door for someone at the grocery store, not to point, or how to genuinely look someone in the eye when greeting them.
With that, games aside, it’s true that children learn by example – even if you think they’re not paying attention. Modeling behaviors is a great teaching tool. If you practice elbows off the table, so will they; if you tell a child to wait until you’re finished talking to speak, make sure you give her your undivided attention when you are ready to listen. She will understand that your attention is her reward for doing the right thing.
Always say thank you to your child – even if he’s only handing you his soiled painting smock. And say please – even if asking your son to pick up his toys for the 5th time.
For family games that cause kids to think and enjoy learning about etiquette, these ideas can be challenging and fun (be sure to make age-appropriate):
What Would You Do?
Cut out some cards from sheets of cardboard and write a different scenario on each. These may include someone pushing a stroller while juggling lots of grocery bags, friends spreading rumors about a classmate, passing and serving food at the table, sitting on a crowded bus or train when an elderly person steps up, etc. Have everyone choose a different card and explain how they would handle the situation.
Beat the Clock
Put all the necessary items (flatware; napkins; plates; salad bowls; glasses) for a proper table setting in the center of the table, or within reach of each child. See who can do a complete place setting the fastest, with no mistakes (again, make this exercise age-appropriate).
Dolls and Toys
Both genders learn well from using dolls and stuffed animals to illustrate manners scenarios. Encourage your children to use these to set up various scenarios (someone disabled who is unable to reach an item high up on a shelf in the grocery store), and ask them to demonstrate how they would handle it.
Etiquette Tea Party
No – they’re not dinosaurs. Most children hold a tea party at one time or another with their toy dishes, dolls, and stuffed animals (and mom or dad stuffed into a tiny chair!). But why not make it real? Invite their friends and have your daughter or son play gracious host. Have the boys pull out chairs for the girls. Serve tea and scones (or brownies, etc.), but make sure no one begins eating until all have been served. Place napkins on laps and teach them how to stir their tea without making a lot of noise. This is a fun, yummy way to learn manners – something they’ll remember and their friends will take home with them.
When you are reasonably sure your kids are mastering their manners, give each of them a little pad of bad and good manners “tickets.” If they catch one another or their parents defying the rules of etiquette, they get to hand out a bad manners ticket. If someone gets five or more of these, they have to clear the entire table or perform some other chore. Conversely, if they receive five good manners tickets, they get a reward such as a gold star or maybe a movie or meal of their choosing.
Beth Herman is a freelance writer and frequent Farmers' Almanac contributor with interests in healthy living and food, family, animal welfare, architecture and design, religion, and yoga. She writes for a variety of national and regional publications, institutions, and websites. Her Story, "Remember Any of These Famed Furry Friends?" can be seen in the 2015 Farmers' Almanac.