Excuse Me...

How to Encourage Good Manners

by kat hobza

An 18 year old boy’s elbows are on the table; his face is inches from his plate.  His cell phone just buzzed with the 30th text message since dinner started a few minutes ago.  His 15 year old sister’s chair is situated half way across the dining room and she has one leg propped up underneath her.  These teen siblings are bickering like a couple of kindergartners and the young “lady” just called her brother something that would make a hardened criminal blush.  Surely these children were raised by wolves, right?

  No, they were raised by me.  And as God is my witness, I have been badgering these quasi adults about socially acceptable behaviors since birth.  We started small with “Don’t throw your Cheerios on the floor” and graduated to, “Pick your head up out of your plate when you eat.” For a brief period of time, it was working! My children’s first words were “please” and “thank you”; a proud, if not fleeting, victory. So what happened?

    Blame can be placed in several corners; the culprits include us, society and life:

            We have to pick our battles.  Like most mothers who tire of the sound of their own voice, I pick my battles.  Unlike my grandmother, the wife of a general in the Air Force, I don’t insist my children: spoon soup away from their mouth, tear bite sized pieces off of rolls and butter them individually, or make them rest eating utensils on the side of the plate between bites.  I just ask them to bring their food to their mouth, keep their elbows off the table, eat with their mouths closed, shut off the cell phones and use appropriate language.  While I haven’t waved the white flag yet, suffice it to say I have lowered my standards when it comes to manners over the years. 

   The influence of pop culture.  Children are bombarded with tireless examples of uncivilized behavior.  Even when we limit our kids’ exposure to Bart Simpson, Family Guy, or Rock of Love Bus, the assumption has to be made that crude behaviors and gestures are permeating our otherwise angelic children’s subconscious on some level. 

  Hectic schedules. The daily grind is also culpable when it comes to bad manners.  How many families are even making it to the dinner table often enough to observe kids’ manners?  And if we are making it to the rare and elusive family dinner, how many of us are too exhausted by the time the chili comes out of the microwave to place much importance on whether or not little Sally’s napkin is in her lap?

What do we do about it?

     Joyce Mayer, director of Moss Mansion, and occasional instructor of manners classes, attributes waning manners to the last point.  “We no longer host manners classes because we found we are in direct competition with things like soccer and football.  We now hold classes for groups, such as the Girl Scouts.”

  Joyce also notes that sometimes children struggle with manners because they feel they are arbitrary and don’t understand why certain social pleasantries exist.  She asserts that most manners are grounded in reason, and the act of being gracious and thoughtful.  When this is explained to children, it is easier for them to wrap their heads around the importance of good manners.

      In the ongoing struggle to raise well mannered children, I asked Joyce for three things we can teach our children before they partake in Thanksgiving dinner.  She suggested the following:

Silverware.  Each piece of silverware represents a course that will be served.  Follow the hostess’s lead.  She will cue you in to what piece to use at what time, and she will only put out what you need.  Show children in advance the difference between a standard spoon and a soup spoon.

Conversation.  Practice a dry-run before Thanksgiving.  Encourage your children to think of a question to ask family members.  This not only gets children thinking about the art of conversation, it provides a unique bonding experience for children and older generations. For example, a 10 year old girl may feel she doesn’t have much in common with her grandmother until she asks her what her favorite subject in school was and why.  She may discover that her grandmother once enjoyed the same things she does.  Another unintended benefit of this approach to conversation is that questions always lead to other questions.  This will keep the conversation, and likely the relating between generations, going all afternoon.

Napkin usage.  Placing napkins in laps is not only an indication of well mannered individuals, it is used as a cue for the hostess.  When a napkin is placed in the lap, the hostess knows you are ready to be served.  When you excuse yourself from the table temporarily, place your napkin on the back of the chair, or leave it folded by the plate.  This lets the hostess know you are coming back.  When you are finished eating, a crumpled napkin on the table indicates you are ready for your plate to be cleared. 

     Futile though it may seem, a daily (or sometimes hourly) reminder of basic manners is important.  Hopefully children can master please, thank you, and excuse me.  Greeting family and friends with a practiced handshake and a “Pleasure to meet you” or “Nice to see you again” is also fairly fundamental. Basic table manners such as chewing with closed mouths, keeping elbows off the tables, sitting up straight, spooning vs. shoveling food, and not talking with a mouth full of food will be greatly appreciated by all dinner guests.  If you really want to wow the crowd with your well mannered, refined children, teach them to say, “May I be excused” when they are done eating.  Next, teach them to clear the dishes while the adults chat.  If your children can do these last two things, any etiquette infractions that took place during dinner will be forgotten.  

       Joyce reminds us to not point out mistakes, and ended our visit with an assurance that my 18 years of attempting to instill manners in my children has not been lived in vain.  “Your children’s manners will cycle back when they are 25 or 30, and the manners you’ve taught them over the years will come flooding back when it really matters.”  That is very reassuring, and I’ll do my best to remember that tomorrow night at the dinner table when it feels like I’m watching feeding time at the zoo.

Joyce Mayer of the Moss Mansion suggests the following titles on manners:

Sources for manners information:

Emily Post’s Etiquette

By Emily Post, Elizabeth L. Post

 Children’s books:

Little Book of Manners

Courtesy and Kindness for Young Ladies

By Emilie Barnes

            Little Book of Manners for Boys

            A Game Plan for Getting Along with Others

By Bob and Emilie Barnes

Miss Manners – Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior

(Freshly Updated) by Judith Martin (2005)

Kat Hobza lives in Billings and is a mother, retired media empress, writer, exceptionally poor golfer, occasional hiker, infrequent jogger, sporadic reader, part-time elementary school aide, high-heel collector and a miserable failure at cooking/cleaning.