Traverse City Record-Eagle

Evelyn Petersen: Ask Evelyn

August 6, 2011

Ask Evelyn: Manners are an endangered skill

Q: Why is rudeness so rampant? Why are manners non-existent in many children, regardless of age? Have parents become too busy to teach manners? Are we be coming so self-absorbed with our computers, smartphones, cellphones and notebooks that we are out of touch with real people in one-to-one, face-to-face situations? Is this lack of awareness of others and their needs and feelings partly responsible for the lack of manners and the escalation of bullying? Is it important to have good manners when you are interviewing for a job? Or when we are working on a job? Or when you get married?

A: These are some questions I’ve been asking myself. I used to think that teaching manners was a simple matter of adult modeling and praising children for saying please, thank you, excuse me and so on. But that assumption is part of the problem.

Manners are not just about the words; they are really about being considerate and respectful of others. The polite words are only stepping stones to help children reach an awareness that the needs and feelings of others need to be considered and respected. And children need this sort of bridge.

Some folks have given manners a bad rap by saying that they are an artificial, phony part of “elitist” behaviors. Wrong! Manners are a bridge to help children (and grownups) get to the heart of “treating others as you would like to be treated.” This is the true meaning of manners and the reason we need to use them.

Manners that are meaningful and relevant can change the world.

If you teach children manners only by rote — words with no connection to meaning — their manners will soon be forgotten, like a cast-off childhood game. In teaching manners, your parental modeling is vitally important. So is your reinforcement, consistency and your praise.

Most children are not exceptionally gifted in empathy, so you need to add one more aspect. Make these polite words and manners relevant to the child. Give children simple REASONS for the manners that will make sense to them.

Tell them it makes Grandma really happy when you say, “Thank you for making cookies; I love them.” Say, “We are really happy and proud when you ask if there is something you can do to help.” Say, “I saw that Grandpa smiled and hugged you when you told him about that nice thing you did for your sister.” Or, “Mrs. Petersen has a bad knee and has a hard time carrying in her groceries. We were proud that you offered to help.”

We need to think of ourselves as part of a community as we teach and model manners. We are all in this together. We need to speak up for good manners and considerate behavior whenever it is possible.

Let’s get everyone in our family and extended family involved in teaching and appreciating meaningful manners.

And if you think this is something unimportant because you are so busy, just think about the way you want your children to treat you when you are 80. Whatever you model, they will learn.

Evelyn Petersen is an award-winning parenting columnist and early childhood educator and author who lives in Traverse City; see her website at askevelyn.com.

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