Manners - the Art of Social Confidence

Why are Manners Important?

So, let's first examine the concept of manners.  Manners are just tried and true methods of interacting with other people, making them feel good about themselves and at ease with you.  This, in turn, makes you feel confident and good about yourself.  What parents don't want this for their children?  All parents want the best for their children.  They want them to be happy and confident.  Teaching them manners is an important part of achieving this.    Karen McIlveen, principal of  The Grace Academy , suggests that teaching children from an early age how to act around people gives them confidence and builds strong self-esteem. “People always respond positively to good manners and this in turn builds the child’s self image and confidence.” 

Are manners still relevant?

Many parents today seem to consider manners an old fashioned concept.  As long as kids can get the food to their mouth, what does it matter how the food gets there?  As long as kids can talk for themselves, why do they need to know how to greet people properly?  On any outing, you are likely to see children displaying bad manners.  Go to a restaurant and you will see children running around or climbing on furniture; Go to a party and there will be children being loud and obnoxious.  Indeed, it isn't just children showing poor manners these days.  We notice courtesy when it is shown because it is so rare now - the shop assistant who smiles and is helpful; the person who holds the door open for us; the driver who stops to let our car through.   Does this mean that manners and courtesy are outdated concepts?

In April 2002 The Public Agenda published a survey that struck a national nerve: Aggravating Circumstances: A Status Report on Rudeness in America (www.publicagenda.org). Based on interviews with 2,013 U.S. adults, the report included these findings:

-Nearly 60% of Americans say they often encounter reckless and aggressive drivers on the road.
-Almost half say they are of ten subjected to loud and annoying phone conversations.
-Almost half say bad service has driven them out of a store in the past year.
-Three-quarters say they often see customers treating salespeople rudely.
-79% say that "the lack of respect and courtesy should be regarded as a serious national problem."

Public Agenda's president, Deborah Wadsworth commented: "Lack of manners for Americans is not about whether you confuse the salad fork with the dinner fork. It's about the daily assault of selfish, inconsiderate behavior on the highways, in the office, in stores, and in myriad other places . . . ."   

Are my kids too old to start learning manners and etiquette?

It is never too late to start improving on children's social skills by teaching them manners and etiquette.  Teenagers, and even adults benefit from practising their social skills.  Maura Graber,  director of The R.S.V.P. Institute of Etiquette, said: "It is human nature to 'act out' if one is unsure of the proper behavior for any given situation. During one's teen years, it is even harder to feel sure of oneself, as teens are in that confusing and uncomfortable position of being between childhood and adulthood. Teens need manners as social tools, to navigate their way through the differing social events they will encounter as they grow up into mature adults."

It is unfair to send children into social situations, whether it is school or a birthday party, where they feel awkward and unsure of themselves.  By teaching them manners, parents are arming their children with the tools they need to feel confident and enjoy themselves.

How does manners give my child an advantage?

By giving children a thorough grounding in manners and etiquette, parents are providing them with the basic building blocks for a solid future. Manners form a fundamental part of good social skills.  People with good social skills are naturally more popular than their less socially adept peers, which means they have better supports to call on when experiencing difficulties in their lives. Also, well-liked people get more social reinforcement (messages from other people that they are worthwhile and okay), so they tend to have better self-esteem, which can also help them through tough times. Ultimately, people with polished social skills are more likely to succeed in their careers and personal relationships because they are adept in any social situations. 

In a modern world where manners and courtesy are a rare commodity, teaching children these fundamental social skills gives them a huge advantage.  They will be more likeable and they will feel more likeable.  This point alone should answer the question 'why do we need manners today?'   Think about the occasions when you have met a polite, courteous child.  If you are like most people, you were charmed and immediately won over.  All children deserve to make that same impression on the people they meet.

Elena Neitlich from Etiquette Moms says "Children need to learn proper manners and social skills now more than ever.  Competition for spots in colleges and good jobs is become tougher and those young people whose social skills are well developed and natural will stand out and have a leg up on their peers.  Knowing the proper social graces allows children to feel confident and poised.  If people don't have to worry that their manners will offend, they can partake in social situations with ease, their focus being their goal and not whether or not they might pick up the wrong fork.  Of course, manners are not just used to 'get ahead'.  Treating others with dignity and respect creates a society that is civil and thoughtful.

Adults must remember that even though today's children seem very mature, they aren't; They have just been bombarded with adult content and in turn copy what they see and push the limits as far as adults allow.  Children must learn the basic tenets of society from caring, knowledgeable adults in order to navigate easily through life posessing dignity and respect for themselves and others."

A Parent's Duty

It is, unfortunately, a sad fact of modern life that parents are overwhelmed by the many demands on them, and as a result, do not have the energy or time to teach their children more than the basics of good manners.  If kids don’t pick their nose in public and remember to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, parents are happy.  Yet parents owe their children to teach them strategies to cope gracefully with social situations they are likely to encounter in life. 

Social skills are like any other kind of skill - they can be learned.  The skills required may range from basic interactions (ie. how to approach someone, make a good impression, strike up conversation, keep friends) to formal etiquette (ie. fine dining situation, formal introductions) and social confidence (appropriate email or cell phone manners, how to behave in situations when alcohol or drugs is present, how to gracefully refuse an invitation).  If parents are not comfortable teaching their children these skills or just don't have the time, there are now many places that offer courses covering these essential skills.

The History of Manners

Manners evolved because of people's desire to a) help others relax and b) to protect one person from another.  For instance, the handshake probably came from medieval Europe, where kings and knights would extend their hands to each other to show that they were not concealing a weapon and therefore intended no harm.  The art of courtesy and etiquette was a constantly evolving process and the different ages had, by necessity, different requirements.

For instance, the people of the middle ages were advised to:

"Turn away when spitting lest your saliva fall on someone. If you cannot swallow a piece of food, turn around discreetly and throw it somewhere."

"Before you sit down, make sure that your seat has not been fouled. Farts may be concealed by coughing.

"It is impolite to greet someone who is urinating or defecating. Don't blow your nose with the fingers you hold the meat with."

Hmmm, come to think of it, some of our kids could still do with following these rules!

By our parents' generation, manners and etiquette were pretty much standardised.  Children were taught a set way to greet people, eat at the table, act around adults, converse and behave in general. To see a chart of manners children were expected to show a couple of generations ago, go to http://www.cai.org/bible-studies/our-hidden-history-good-manners

Today a lot of these courtesies have gone by the wayside, some because they are outdated (like the one that stipulated men should not offer a handshake to women first) but most seem to have disappeared because parents are just not taking as much time to teach these courtesies as they once did.  The reasons for this appear to be
a) parents are too busy or too tired to take the time to teach manners,
b) modern lifestyles of sitting around the tv to eat dinner instead of the table has meant a loss of opportunities to teach manners,
c) the modern focus on not criticising children has led to too much tolerance towards their bad behaviour, and
d) the role models presented to children in the media encourage lack of respect and bad manners.

7 Strategies for Improving Children's Manners and Social Skills

1) Remind yourself of all the manners and courtesies children need to know.  Talk to older family members, look on the net, go to the library.  Make a list of the manners you expect everyone in the family to follow and put it somewhere prominent.

2)Talk to your children about why manners are important.  Use relevant examples to illustrate your point.  Emphasise that you are going to require more of them now.

3) Come up with a plan for how you are going to enforce manners.  Like any other behaviour, your children will test you to see if you are going to insist on it or not.  Be calm and consistent.  Read the5 Keys of Parenting.

4) Model good manners and courteousness.  Children will be watching their parents to see how they behave.  This has far more influence than a list posted on the fridge.

5) Practise good manners with your children daily.  Practise morning greetings, table manners, introducing friends and offering to help, etc.  Some manners will need to be taught through role playing as children may not have regular opportunities to practise them, such as how to greet an elderly person or how to introduce mum to your teacher.

6) Make use of the television. Ask your children to evaluate the behaviour of people in shows and ads.  Are they being polite?  Is that the way a kid should talk to their parent? Use the situations to get your child to think about how it could have been done differently.  Get them to think about what they see instead of blindly accepting the behaviour as normal.

7) Get into the habit of sitting at the table at least 3 times a week.  Even if you eat in front of the tv, make sure your children are displaying good table manners.  They can still eat with the mouth closed, elbows to the side, and not slouched over their food, for example.  It requires parents to remain observant of their children instead of the tv, however.

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