I think that teaching children manners is extremely important. I think that kids as young as four or five years old should be capable of sitting through a full meal at a nice restaurant without making a mess or disturbing any other guests. I agree that, in general, etiquette can sometimes feel like a bit of a dying art. So I should be completely on board with etiquette classes for young children, right? Wrong.
The New York Times has a nice, long profile of all the ways that the outside world can teach your kids manners. From $300 etiquette classes to restaurants with family night where the owner will walk around and correct children who aren’t listening to their parents, there seems to be a myriad of people who are willing to instruct our children for us. They even make sure to give parents a good excuse for using outside help, noting that with technology and stressful work-life balance, parents just don’t have the energy or patience to teach proper behavior themselves.
There’s just one big problem with this whole set-up. Teaching children how to behave is not the hard part. It’s not that kids don’t understand which utensil to use or when to say, “Please,” and “Thank you.” The problem is that children don’t feel the need to behave. They don’t see a consequence to bad manners. And those consequences are things that only parents can put in place. If you don’t teach your kids to care about other people and the way their actions affect those around them, then why would children want to bother with etiquette when whining or tantrums are easier and more effective?
Even more disturbing, these etiquette lessons sound like they’re playing in to the cause of the problem with children’s behavior, instead helping them understand why manners are truly important. Robin Wells, founder of a business that provides such etiquette classes says, “These days, you have to teach kids about return on investment.” She instructs children to do something kind for their parents, not out of the goodness of their heart, but to see the positive reaction that they get. “It’s almost manipulation at its finest,” she admits.
Another etiquette entrepreneur treats children like mini public relations executives. Faye de Muyshondt explains, “Say the words ‘manners’ or ‘etiquette’ to kids these days, and they run the other direction.” She prefers teaching the children that they are “building the brand called ‘you.’ ”
All of these ridiculous approaches completely miss the point of manners and they fail to teach children the important lessons behind proper behavior. It is not about getting something for yourself. It’s about being polite and respectful to those around you. Knowing a set of rules doesn’t make children any more likely to employ them unless it’s necessary. Parents are the only ones who can make children understand why and how these skills are important.
Outsourcing manners might sound like just another thing we pay people to teach our kids, but it’s a colossal waste of money. The rules aren’t the difficult part. And playing into our kids most selfish natures isn’t going to solve the problem either, it’s only going to make it worse.
You really want to teach your children how to behave? Put some time, effort, and patience into it. Enforce discipline at home so that they’ll know what’s expected out of them in public. And for Heaven’s sake, set a good example. It won’t cost you a dime and it will do a lot more good than a woman instructing an elementary age child about their “brand.”