by Jesse Scheinin
Eight years ago, Debbie Parsons invited her 7-year-old son’s friends over for a play date and was taken aback by their lack of decent manners. No eye contact, no greetings, no thank you, no cleanup.
To her mind, there was no excuse: These were second-graders, old enough, she believed, to know better.
Had they been raised by wolves? Clearly, no one had ever taught them basic manners.
“It struck me that these children didn’t have self-confidence,” says Parsons. “They saw me as an adult and they didn’t know how to address me.”
Back when she was a child in grade school, she clearly recalled her teachers discussing simple etiquette. The subject, apparently, was going unmentioned in her own kids’ school.
For that reason, Parson began to look elsewhere. And what she found was a huge surprise. She couldn’t find an etiquette teacher anywhere between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Parson saw her opportunity and seized it. Already holding a degree in child and family development, she traveled to Atlanta to study at the American School of Protocol, and five years later in 2009, she opened her own school in San Jose, the Parsons School of Etiquette (www.parsonsschoolofetiquette.com).
She’s not the only one. Similar programs have popped up around the Bay Area, led by teachers with credentials from etiquette institutions on the East Coast. And while movies like My Fair Lady have idealized the age of manners, modern-day instruction relies on a variety of methods to get kids in line.
But it’s not necessary to get a degree to inculcate decent manners.
“Any adult who is in a child’s life is formative,” says Linda Schneider (www.fluidpiano.com), a former etiquette coach who routinely instills good manners during her piano teaching. “By teaching them manners, we help them have good relations in the community. If children are ill-behaved and they bring that into their adult lives, they will be in trouble.”
Proper etiquette, however, has always carried a formal weight. In the South, there’s the cotillion, a formal ball, in which young people are “presented” to society. The teenage attendees dress up, dine, dance, and learn manners and social grace. The East, too, places an emphasis on social formalities.
But in the Bay Area, where weight is more focused on innovation and newness, traditionalism is often left at the wayside. A generation of entrepreneurs has been famous for going to the office in their pajamas.
“They were marketing their brains,” says Parsons. “I had a client call me – a developer here in Silicon Valley. He found out that the banks weren’t taking him seriously because of his attire. I took him out and redid his wardrobe, and then he went back to the bank” and got the loan.
Passing on Common Courtesy
Manners may not be dead, but new values have trickled so far down that young parents sometimes neglect to pass along the common courtesies that previous generations took as a given. These courtesies include writing thank-you notes, shaking hands, not talking back, saying please and thank you, making eye contact, holding doors and addressing adults as Mr. and Ms.
New technologies, like email, text messaging and Facebook, have also raised questions about where parents should draw the line when it comes to their children’s conduct. These technologies aren’t going away, but Parsons believes their use has gotten out of control.
Face-to-face communication always comes first, she insists, and when in question, “the person who is on the other side of a device needs to come second.” In other words: no texting at the dinner table, in class or anywhere else where it is disruptive.
Technology isn’t the only culprit. The hurried pace of today’s lifestyle renders family activities harder to organize. Parsons describes her own family’s busy lifestyle, constantly hustling between school, ballet lessons and baseball practice, eating meals on the go, in the car, through the drive-in.
With no time for family dinner, she didn’t have a chance to teach basics table manners.
So it should come as no surprise that many parents are turning to experts to import the basic skills of dining and conversation.
Cynthia Glinka of San Rafael runs Manners in Motion (www.dancewithglinka.com), an eight-week course that relies largely on role-playing to teach dinner table etiquette and beyond.
“We teach the gentleman how to tie a necktie and the ladies to sit with their dresses,” she says. “We teach dining dos and don’ts, how to use utensils, how to be civil when sitting at a table.”
The course concludes with a red carpet gala, in which the students demonstrate their newfound skills.
“I tell the kids to pretend we’re in a movie and you can be anyone you want to be,” says Glinka. “We’re all actors and actresses. Well, the boys puff up, and are able to do things they hadn’t imagined.”
But just as in algebra and social studies classes, teachers can only do so much. It’s what the kids see at home that ultimately make the lasting impressions.
“You’ve got to walk the talk,” says Syndi Seid (www.advancedetiquette.com), an etiquette coach in San Francisco. “There’s no way you can expect your child to have good table manners if you don’t. We live in a very different world than past generations. We’re bringing up children of the future. It is really important for them to be much more global in their own knowledge and behavior and style than any other previous generation.”
There are still basic guidelines for functioning in the world and when a child acts in a way that respects others and themselves, he or she will be more likely to succeed.
A child who shows good manners outside the home appears more confident, because he knows how to carry himself and shows an understanding of what is expected.
Jesse Scheinin is a freelance writer from the Bay Area.
Dos and Don’ts for All Ages
Good manners never go out of style. But, of course, standards vary greatly from toddlers to teenagers. Here’s a look at some common dos and don’ts for all ages.
- Saying please and thank you
- Washing hands before coming to the table
- Using a fork at meals
- Wiping mouth with a napkin
- Sitting at the table until excused
- Writing thank you notes – if only to sign the name
- Waiting turns
- Make eye contact
- Holding doors
- Not talking back
- Saying excuse me before interrupting
- Greeting adults upon meeting and saying goodbye
- Waiting for others to eat before digging in
Tweens and Teens
- Email etiquette. Teens and tweens need to learn the proper way to send an email to an adult.
- Facebook etiquette. Teach them not to hit the send button until they’ve thought about what they’ve written. Basic kindness is the essence of good manners.
- Texting boundaries. If your child has a cell phone, set boundaries about bringing it to the dinner table. Family dinner is for conversation, not texting. No texting when someone is talking to you.
Rules of the Wild: An Unruly Book of Manners, by Bridget Levin (Chronicle Books, 2004). An amusing picture book for kindergarteners through fourth grade that draws comparisons between the ways wild animals and humans behave.
365 Manners Kids Should Know, by Sheryl Eberly (Three Rivers Press, 2011). Advice for parents and teachers, using a manner-a-day approach for teaching essentials.