Do manners still matter?

Teaching children manners ... does it matter?
Teaching children manners ... does it matter? Photo: Getty Images

Manners. Some believe they maketh the man but what about the child? Is the notion of manners outdated?  Does anyone notice those little niceties our mothers told us would get us far in life or has the world become such a whirlwind of activity and distraction that we no longer take notice of, or at the very least place emphasis on, etiquette? 

Ita Buttrose, in her book ‘A Guide to Australian Etiquette’ opens with “Good manners … are essential for civilised living.” She goes on to say “… the reality is that many children are, and have been, raised in Australia with little idea about manners.” This would appear to be borne out, at least in part, by a recent survey for Meat and Livestock Australia which found that despite 97% of parents believing it is important to teach children table manners, many of them fail to see it through, placing more emphasis on what their children are eating rather than how.

The survey found that most families did at least manage to sit down at the table to a ‘proper dinner’ together about four times a week, but what happened when they were there could be anyone’s guess. Arguments, talking with their mouth full, using electronic devices were all cited as normal dinner accompaniments. 

But are we doing children a disservice by allowing manners to slide? Will doors that would have been open slam shut should our children fail pass the etiquette test? The answer is ‘yes’ for many business people who cite Peter Druker’s famous assertion that “manners are the lubricating oil of an organisation.” 

Old-fashioned parenting styles where children were simply instructed is often considered un-conducive to the hectic pace and modern approach to parenting. Children are now allowed their autonomy and are expected to learn as much through observation. Naomi Higgins, founder of parenting advice company Mother Crafting and mum of four children under 5 thinks this approach is fundamental: “Children are sponges of their environment. So it is a positive influence to try and eat with your kids. When a family sits together to eat, it not only helps them with manner guidelines and healthy eating habits, but it emulates a great sense of belonging and encourages good communication skills. The younger we encourage this (from toddler stage), the more likely it becomes second nature.”

The idea of children picking up good manners from observing their parents is typically French in outlook, at least according to Pamela Druckerman. In her international bestseller ‘French Children Don’t Throw Food’, she describes French parents using the word éducation as “something they imagine themselves doing all the time.” 

One mum who has reason to ponder this is Corinne Madden, a French mum of two who has been in Australia for 20 years. Through helping to run the Explorers Playgroup in North Sydney Corinne is well-placed to observe Australian children’s manners while also steering her own children through the Australia/France cultural divide.   She acknowledges that that divide is often more apparent around the dinner table, citing one playdate when a nine year old guest commented ‘it’s so calm here’ as the family sat down to a nicely laid table with music in the background and manners to the fore. 

Corinne believes that the focus of food should not be solely on the what, but that the “when and the how are as important, it is all tied together. The time we take over food is significant as it is when the family connects.” Another Francophile, Karen Le Billon, author of ‘French Kids Eat Everything’ sums this up in her discussion of convivialité, a word which encompasses sharing food and sharing time. With time spent in adult company being the norm she argues, French children do not think to question the expectations placed on them, in fact they are barely aware of them.

Another international mum, Christina Ludwigson, cites the French approach of treating children as small adults when discussing the importance of manners. “Children are treated with respect by adults therefore they learn to respect. It’s really important with many families being so international now that children are able to adapt to different situations and cultures. I think that’s made easier by having good manners.” All this said with authority from a French/Australian heritage and a globetrotting childhood.

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To many people manners mean formality; and to some a dependence on traditions whose place in modern Australia is questionable. Here, informality is celebrated along with the climate and the image of a laid-back beach lifestyle. “I love that we don’t ever have to stand on ceremony here”, says Jody Brookes, a mum from England who has been here for three years. “The kids are able to be totally relaxed; we love barbies and being able to be so casual.”

The stealthy invasion of technology is ever-present and, together with long working hours, was an oft-repeated reason for a lack of formality or adherence to manners at mealtimes. According to the survey 45% of children in the last week had eaten in front of the TV and almost more alarmingly 8% had eaten dinner on their own in their room.

Mobile phones are often on the table during mealtimes lest the diner miss a vital communication. But when you are surrounded by your nearest and dearest surely a little convivialité would go a long way.

What do you think? Are manners still an important skill to teach children? Leave your comment below.

*Correction: This article originally stated that the Meat and Livestock Australia survey found 43% of parents don't enforce table manners. The findings only specified that "most families" admitted to allowing poor table manners.

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