Every parent has imagined it. Her meticulously groomed and beautifully clad offspring gratefully accepting holiday gifts amidst glowing decorations, offering an unprompted and heart-felt thank you to swooning grandparents or friends while she stands nearby, nearly collapsing from pride.
Reality check time. Though this scenario probably has played out for some families, most children are likely to miss a beat (or two) during big gift-receiving moments like Christmas or Hanukkah. Though we may be loathe to admit that our precious youngsters might ever act inappropriately in the face of generosity, many of us have indeed witnessed a child – our own included – opening gifts in rapid-fire motion, advancing to the next with nary a thanks in between. The question is, are we raising ungrateful and spoiled children if this happens to us?
The answer is no. Manners – the grease that keeps the wheels of the civilized world running smoothly – do not always come naturally; they need to be taught. And the younger we start with our kids the better, according to Peggy Post and Cindy Post Senning, authors of Emily Post’s The Gift of Good Manners: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Respectful, Kind, Considerate Children. In their book, they point out that “mannerly behavior eventually becomes natural” when kids begin learning in early childhood.
So what can parents do to help their kids learn good gift-receiving manners at this time of year? The Emily Post Institute Encourages parents to spend some time practicing how to respond ahead of big gift-receiving moments. Role-playing gives kids the chance to make mistakes and – even more importantly – learn from them, before the moment of truth arrives and a loved one or friend is hurt when a thank you is left unsaid. Specifically, have your kids practice:
- Looking at the person giving the gift and smiling
- Focusing on the person and the gift – not something opened just before
- Saying thank you immediately
- Finding something positive to say if they don’t like the gift such as, “This shirt is the best color blue” or “This is so nice of you,” followed by “thank you so much.”
Experts at the Emily Post Institute also tell us to remind kids that when they receive a gift, it means the gift-giver has Spent time picking it out and wrapping it, and that the gift is not just about the item—no matter how amazing it is. A gift is also an expression of the giver’s feeling for us and when we say thank you and mean it, it makes that person feels cared for and respected in return. And respect, is the foundation for good manners.
“We’ll never get anywhere in this world if we don’t have respect for each other,” says Elizabeth Williams, Richmond mom of two, who points out that children learn respect for others by emulating their parents. She explains: “When I say ‘yes, ma’am’ or ‘yes, sir’ to my own parents, it’s a way for me to lead by example.” Annette Doll, a licensed professional counselor in private practice with Westhampton Family Psychologists in Richmond, says leading by example, or modeling, is a great way to help children learn desirable behaviors.
“It’s also important to let children know you aren’t perfect either,” laughs Williams. Her kids have pointed out when she has forgotten to put her napkin in her lap at the dinner table, or hold the door open for their grandparents.Children face a litany of social rules to learn. Sit up straight. Put your napkin in your lap. Don’t slurp your soup.Pass to your left. It can be downright overwhelming.
But, says Williams, “Good manners are essential in the classroom, and in the workplace. If we teach our kids when they’re young, they’ll get it.” And let’s face it, having good social skills will help our kids throughout their lives.
“Manners make children feel good about themselves,” says Susan Norton, Williams’ mother and owner for the last 25 years of Junior Assembly Cotillion in Richmond, a ballroom dancing and manners education program for middle-schoolers. “Manners are the most important way to build self-confidence and respect for yourself and others.” Williams and Norton agree that the best way to get kids to make good manners a habit is to recognize them when they get it right. We know the Power of positive reinforcement in sports and in academics; the same holds true for etiquette training. Norton describes some kids arriving at the first dance of the cotillion season scared to death – their hands in their pockets, looking at their feet. But, she continues, by the end of that first dance, after they’ve had some instruction and some praise for getting it right, they’re transformed – because when kids know what to do in social situations they feel more comfortable and confident.
How else can we get kids to naturalize good manners? By making it fun.
Norton and Williams laugh describing family dinner nights when Williams was growing up. If a family member forgot to place her napkin in her lap, she had to go out into the hallway and count to 25 before she could come back. Other games to play to reinforce good table manners include creating a sign like silently holding up two fingers when someone is noticed with an elbow on the table. The last one to join in on the sign has to run a lap around the house or clear the table.
Giving kids a chance to practice good manners away from home is also important, especially at this time of year when families gather to celebrate the holidays. Williams describes she and her sisters each getting to go on “dates” with their dad when they were growing up.
They would choose a formal restaurant and practice their good table manners in public.
For younger children, it’s important to role-play before going out to dinner or eating at a friend or family member’s Home. The Emily Post Institute suggests practicing:
- Placing napkins in laps
- Waiting until all are served or the hostess begins to eat
- Saying please and thank you to the hostess or server
- Holding utensils properly
- Chewing with mouths closed
- Offering to help clear when eating in someone’s home
- Thanking the cook, no matter what was served
Another good scenario to practice, especially with younger children and picky eaters, is what to do if the menu includes items they don’t like. “Yuck!” “That’s gross!” or “I hate broccoli!” are, clearly, statements kids should never use in polite company. What can they say instead? If the offending dish is really distasteful to young diners, a simple “No, thank you” will usually do.
When kids get it right: praise, praise, praise! “When we tell our kids that they used good manners it makes them want to do it more,” says Norton.
But what about the inevitable question, why? When kids ask why they shouldn’t burp at the table or chew with their mouths open – or tear through gifts without saying thank you – how should we as parents answer?
Norton explains, “It’s respect. When we do those sorts of things at home or in a restaurant, it’s disrespectful to others – it makes them feel they’re not important.” Williams adds, “When we’re aware of others, when we make others feel respected and happy we make ourselves feel happy.” And that’s a pretty good answer, don’t you think?