Manners go a long way. They open doors. People listen to what you say instead of reacting to what you do. If you pick your nose, swear, fart loudly, constantly talk over others, scratch your arse or eat like a pig, chances are that’s what people will focus on. What you are trying to say, sell or convince them of will get lost as they react to their subjective idea of ‘bad manners’. What’s coming out of your mouth will be a wall of words to them – meaningless babble as they obsess on the finger that picked your nose, then handed them a cup of tea. Not cool.
So it’s important that we model and teach good manners to our children. However, because tolerance levels around ‘bad manners’ are very broad and culturally defined (i.e. religious people will be offended by blaspheming; some people by swearing; some by ‘piggy’ eating; some cultures eat with their hands and spit on pavements, etc), teaching kids to ‘get it right’ is difficult.
Yep, manners are tricky. It’s a balancing act between training your child to conform to whatever social norms have been agreed upon, and fostering their uniqueness, individuality and spontaneity. Teaching them to be agile – to adapt to different situations appropriately – without completely sacrificing their emerging sense of self. In other words, we don’t want to produce well-mannered clones, but we do want to make sure our kids don’t limit themselves by offending other people. Being a rebel without a cause makes for a hard life!
The broad areas where families come unstuck on manners are around eating, swearing and social etiquette (saying please and thank you etc). Older people seem to get particularly irritated when they are not thanked. They want to be appreciated (we all do, to greater or lesser extents) and practising gratitude is good. A gratitude attitude goes a long way in life.
We think the important thing is for you sit down together as a family/whanau and get clear about expectations, stages of development, and skill levels around manners. The fine motor skills necessary for mastering cutlery, for example, will take time and patience. Kids don’t learn the same way we do – their cognitive abilities increase as the frontal cortex slowly controls more of their learning – a process that will be substantially complete by the age of about seven, after which they effectively learn the way you do.
Same with learning impulse control over things like swearing. Dr Timothy Jay, a physiologist and expert in swearing, says by the age of six, children have a pretty broad vocabulary of swear words and that boys swear more than girls – quite a lot more! Dr Jay’s research confirmed nearly two-thirds of adults with rules about children swearing regularly broke their own rules and that our efforts to keep language clean are probably futile. We didn’t make a big deal out of it and none of our four grown children have overly potty mouths. See it as a stage that will pass – the less oxygen you give it, the better. We took the attitude that kids are adaptable – they quickly learn rules in different situations. Once, daughter number two chanced her luck by saying “fuck” at her nana’s place – something she only did once, after hell’s fury rained down on her little head!
Each family will create its own norms around manners (different strokes for different folks); it will come down to your family negotiating and deciding on a code of manners that works for everyone. Make sure your kids understand the ‘why’ of manners, i.e. “We wash our hands before dinner, so we don’t pass bugs round”; “Let’s write a ‘thank you’ letter to Grandpa for making you that boat so he feels appreciated”, “We don’t kick balls inside because things we like might get smashed” etc.
Rules (let’s call them guidelines) around table manners are particularly important – things can get really ugly, really quickly! Because eating together is one of the most important ways for families to connect, we think it’s worth putting effort into agreeing on table manners and having clear consequences if they are broken. “We don’t throw food at the table.” Full stop. The aim is to create as stress-free a meal as possible, so everyone is safe to share stuff about their day and feel the love. Creating a safe, loving family culture is much more important than adopting the Sergeant Major role of ‘manners’ enforcer’.
By Ruth Kerr and Richard Aston, parents to four adult children in a blended family. Ruth and Richard co-authored Our Boys – Raising strong, happy sons from boyhood to manhood based on their 15 years’ experience working at Big Buddy – a social agency that matches well-screened male mentors with fatherless boys.