Despite what your kids might think, the point of manners is not to provide parents with opportunities to scold everybody. "Manners help us get along with one another--they're about treating others well and being treated well ourselves," explains Lizzie Post, great-great-granddaughter of Emily, and co-author of Emily Post's Etiquette, 18th edition.
Faye de Muyshondt, manners coach and author of socialsklz:-) for Success: How to Give Your Children the Tools to Thrive in the Modern World, agrees. "Good manners can make your life more happy and more fun," she tells her students, "and with good manners, you often have more friends, and you hear more yeses than nos."
Certainly, a polite response may come more easily when it's "Thank you for the Lego castle" than when it's "Thank you for the itchy brown sweater vest." But good habits can be learned for any situation. As Post explains, "Kids inherently understand consideration, respect, and honesty, which are the principles of etiquette."
But can etiquette be fun? Faye de Muyshondt thinks so, which is why we're sharing her tried-and-tested activities here--ones that go beyond the classic "Mother, may I?" into games, crafts, and lots and lots of role-playing. So read on for giggle-inducing ways to have a great time teaching good manners. You're welcome!
What is it about the simple act of meeting and greeting that turns children skittish, as if they're more likely to pick your pockets than say hello? Lizzie Post knows: "Poor kids! We say, 'Don't talk to strangers.' But then we're constantly asking them to talk to new people." Indeed. Yet, as Faye de Muyshondt points out, "Your child is going to make thousands of first impressions. Teaching him that skill? What a great return on your time."
Throw a pretend party (set the mood with candles or balloons) and invite the guests of honor: your kids. Have them ring the doorbell, and encourage them to use these techniques to make their very best first impression: eye contact, a warm smile, a firm handshake, and a polite introduction or greeting, such as "It's nice to meet you" or "Thank you so much for having me." Or role-play how it feels when someone you're greeting looks at their shoes. (Spoiler alert: it feels bad.)
Compliments are anything but frivolous. In some ways, they constitute the very basis of friendship and support. "I see you," we say to our friends in a million ways, "and I like what I see." As Faye puts it, "Making people feel good is one of the most meaningful yet simple things anyone can do. And a genuine compliment is so much more rewarding than clicking 'Like' on Facebook." The fine art of compliments--giving and receiving them graciously--rewards givers and receivers alike. (Just remind kids to beware of such backhanded classics as "You actually look nice today!" and "Did you get less fat?")
Here's an incentivizing strategy adapted from a Post family tradition. Paint a Styrofoam star (craft shops sell them), then set up a "compliment corner" with pretty pins and assorted sequins. Children get to pin a sequin to the star every time anyone in the family offers a meaningful compliment. It can be about something tangible ("I love that color on you!") or intangible ("You're so patient with me."). The receiver should accept the compliment graciously. Lizzie's family put their star atop their Christmas tree, but you can simply display it in an admiration-arousing place.
Google "funny apology notes from kids" and you'll find some doozies, from "To the best brother ever! I'm sorry I pinched you in the nuts" to the brilliantly poetic "All I want to say sorry for is not being sorry 'cause I tried to feel sorry, but I don't." But it's not just kids who find apologies hard. Consider the classic blame-dodging political excuse, "Mistakes were made." Saying that we are sorry challenges us to take responsibility for our actions and to think about someone else's feelings. Luckily, kids are inclined to empathy. Like the rest of us, they just need a little practice.
To cultivate the habit of sincere apologies (rather than that vague sooorry we all know too well), try a game of Apology Charades. A pair of players decides on a bad-behavior scenario and acts it out silently. "I laughed at your self-portrait," say, or "I left my banana peel on the kitchen floor." (For inspiration, recall every blooper video you've ever watched.) The guessers have to identify the problem, and add an apology: "I'm so sorry that I whacked you instead of the piñata." The person acting the part of the wronged party then graciously accepts the apology. Score one point for each correct guess and a bonus point for eye contact and sincerity. (Minus one point for laughing.)
Gratitude is more than just saying "thank you." In fact, it may well be a key to happiness. Research suggests that grateful kids feel happier, do better in school, and have lower rates of depression than their less thankful peers. Get in the habit of showing your gratitude for gifts, kindness, or wonderful moments and, says Lizzie, "Your kids will pick up on it. When you see a beautiful sunset or have a great dinner, saying in front of your kids how grateful you are will teach them to do that, too." Great advice, Lizzie. Thank you.
Tie a piece of ribbon around your child's wrist (use a bow rather than a knot). Over the course of the week, add a bead for each expression of gratitude she makes: one thank-you bead for tangible things ("Thank you for the tofu lasagna.") and two for intangibles ("I'm glad to be part of this family."). You can award bonus beads for creative expressions of gratitude, such as spontaneous thank-you notes or banners in praise of tofu lasagna. (No beads? Tie a knot in the ribbon instead.)
Remember the movie Airplane? That guy droning on and on about his lost love while various listeners try to put themselves out of their misery by dousing themselves in gasoline or attempting to stab themselves? You don't want your children to be droners, especially with "lost love" replaced by "magic cards." "Conversations are a two-way street," Lizzie likes to remind kids. "One person talks, one person listens. The listener should be encouraging, maintain good eye contact, and add questions, comments, or the sounds --mmm hmmm-- of engagement." She adds, "And kids have such big mouths, it's always good to talk about what not to talk about. Like Mommy and Daddy's financial problems."
Friendly Potato is like hot potato gone slow and chatty. Start by generating some juicy conversational topics, then have pairs of players pass a potato back and forth as they take turns speaking for a minute or two. "It's a great lesson in awareness," Faye explains. "A child who has a tendency to talk too much is going to be aware of holding the potato the whole time. Likewise the one-word-response child is going to be aware of constantly tossing the potato back."
"Eating is inherently gross and nasty," Lizzie says, laughing. "You're chewing food, you burp, there's stuff stuck in your teeth. Table manners are all about making eating, which we've turned into a social activity, pleasurable for those around you." She recommends focusing on a different topic each night of the week--chewing with your mouth closed, elbows off the table, napkins in the lap, knife and fork held correctly, lips politely wiped--so that dinner doesn't turn into a nagging session. But she is vehement about this topic: "You as a parent need to keep on top of it. You need to do it, you need to practice it, and you need to do this wherever they are. Even if you're eating fast food on the highway."
Have your children design paper citations and an officer's badge (use card stock and aluminum foil and tape it to an existing pin), then let them take turns policing the table during mealtime. Violations of table manners incur tickets, which can be paid with a good-humored apology: "I'm sorry, officer. Yes, I do realize that my mouth was open while I was chewing peas." The person with the fewest infractions at meal's end gets to pick dessert.
When it comes to cell phones and other devices, the etiquette challenge is doubled: kids must learn the right way to use them--and how not to use them. Both Lizzie and Faye recommend setting house rules regarding when and where gadgets can be turned on. "It's really important to keep those boundaries tight," Lizzie advises. "Make sure you're using your cell phone respectfully in front of your kids. Don't be texting while they're talking to you. And when you're eating dinner, put the phone away."
It might seem like an archaic skill, but your child still needs to learn how to make a phone call. Pretend to be a potential play date or someone in a library or shop and have your child call your cell phone from the house phone to role-play an interaction. Review such topics as introducing yourself ("Hello. My name is Emma. I'm calling to find out if you sell a toy I'm looking for."), speaking clearly and at the right volume (so, not "I said Squinkies! SQUINKIES!"), and initiating and closing a call with courtesy ("Thank you so much. I'll be right in. Good-bye!"). Once her confidence is inspired, she can try making the call for real.
Originally published in FamilyFun magazine.