Practicing politeness with a child

Sunday, April 28, 2002

NEW YORK -- Children aren't born with good manners but they aren't born with bad ones, either.

If parents practice politeness in their daily lives, chances are their kids will, too.

"It's all about how you act with each other. Act like good manners is normal behavior and the children won't know anything else," says etiquette expert Marjabelle Young Stewart.

Begin the day with a "good morning," end it with a "good night," and remember to use "please" and "thank you" throughout the day, she advises.

Stewart, who co-authored "Stand Up, Shake Hands, Say 'How Do You Do"' and "White Gloves and Party Manners" (Robert B. Luce), says politeness and respect are natural in a loving family. They are not snooty or elitist traits, she says.

Bad habits hard to change

"Manners are just the happy way of doing things."

But, notes children's author Babette Cole, busy parents can be the worst role models.

"The 'old-fashioned' rules of etiquette are dismissed when parents are rushing around," says Cole, whose illustrated book "Lady Lupin's Book of Etiquette" (Peachtree) is "for 4- to 44-year-olds."

By not taking the time to set the table properly or sit down to a multi-course family meal, parents are making it more difficult for their children later in life.

"Bad habits, once ingrained, are very hard to change," Cole says.

She adds: "It is important to learn social skills. Children have to know how to behave in an adult world; they'll be living in it sooner than you think."

Once children see that using good manners and being charming makes them appealing to others -- which leads them to getting what they want -- kids catch on quickly, Cole says.

Learning manners doesn't have to be unpleasant.

In Cole's book, Lady Lupin, a Scottish deerhound, teaches her brood of puppies what utensil to use when eating spaghetti, not to bark with their mouths full and how to write a thank-you note through humorous illustrations.

"Making it fun and funny makes manners easier to digest," Cole explains.

She also says that children often welcome guidance -- "it's like having a peg to hang your hat on."

Cole recently read her book to a group of young children at a school near her home in eastern England. The youngsters did not find the notion of good manners outdated, nor did they mind the gender rules advocated by Lady Lupin, including "Ladies always go first."

"The girls thought 'What wonderful boys for opening the door' and the boys thought 'What wonderful girls for thinking we're wonderful,"' Cole recalls.

There will, of course, be manners missteps along the way, says Barbara Findlen, managing editor of Family Fun magazine, but what parents need to look for is the spirit of politeness, good will and thoughtfulness in their children.

Parents also need to commit to a long-term learning process. "It's really helpful to approach this with positive attitude and a sense of humor. This isn't supposed to be punishment," says Findlen.

Family Fun recently published suggestions from its readers on getting kids to cooperate in the quest for good manners.

Make manners a game

One family plays The Manners Game at the dinner table.

At the beginning of the meal, each "player" gets a stack of 10 pennies. The goal is to hang on to them.

But if the player slurps his soup or wears his hat to the table, he loses a penny -- if another player can explain the appropriate correction.

Findlen, however, also reminds parents to have realistic expectations. A long dinner in a fancy restaurant isn't necessarily the best place to practice manners, she says.

Also, take into consideration the age of children and the style of parenting they are used to.

In her own house, Findlen, the mother of a 6-year-old girl and 3-year-old boy, has used a reader's tip to prod proper behavior using sign language. "It doesn't embarrass the child and the child also feels special because you're communicating and others don't understand," she explains.

Findlen's advice is to do whatever it takes to get children to accept etiquette at a young age because it makes a well-mannered adult.

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