Why today's children need to mind their manners

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

"ThanksforalovelydinnermayIleavethetable" is my five-year-old son's obligatory post-dinner thank you, always delivered as quickly as possible to enable a fast escape to dinosaurs and racing tracks. It's been drummed into him by his father and me, though given the cursory way it's delivered, I sometimes wonder what the point is.

I guess I'll take my parental wins when and where I can get them but it's kind of ironic given my own childhood habit of demanding "What's the point? Who cares?" when faced with instruction on table manners. I would deliberately leave my cutlery akimbo, stab at my peas with the end of my fork and prop my elbows defiantly on the table to make it irritatingly known I thought all this etiquette stuff was just nonsense.

Pleases and thank yous I could get on board with because the benefit was so immediately obvious. But what felt like archaic dining etiquette just seemed so irrelevant.

I must have come around eventually because now I'm the one giving my son's elbows a gentle prod or reminding him to use his napkin. But the question still stands – what is the point? Is there a place for old fashioned etiquette when it comes to contemporary kids' manners?

Amanda King, Director of the Australian Finishing School, says being well mannered at the table is not just desirable for children, but essential.

"Excellent dining skills combined with poise and posture make for a well-rounded, resilient, confident child" says King.

She had me at "resilient" of course, it being every parent's touchstone word of late. But really, what does "poise" have to do with resilience? Isn't the idea of deportment all a bit Downton Abbey?

Not in the least, says the impeccably groomed King. Because at the heart of excellent table manners and graceful bearing is confidence and respect.

"Eating well and correctly show respect for the person who prepared the meal and the company you keep and demonstrates an awareness of how lucky we are to have healthy food and people to share it with," King maintains.

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"And being adaptable to different social situations builds confidence which in turn can help to develop leadership skills."

In other words, knowing what to do with a fork can be amazingly reassuring in an otherwise intimidating setting and sitting up straight can be an effective way of generating confidence even when you don't initially feel it.

As King acknowledges, however, by the time kids get to the dinner table they are often tired and hungry – not a state particularly conducive to outstanding behaviour and one that often leads to rushing a meal.

"It should really be about sharing food with your family and not all about bolting it down and rushing over to the TV," she says.

Anna Musson, Director of The Good Manners Company, agrees that the evening meal should be about shared time and conversation as much as it is about consuming food. And it's up to the parents to take the chore element out of manners and make it fun until it just becomes second nature.

"Sticking out elbows can become a game about who is doing chicken impersonations," she suggests; "Chewing with mouths closed can be a game about keeping what's inside your mouth a secret and not talking until you've swallowed; setting the table can be shared – one person puts out the knives, one does the forks."

And give the kids an opportunity to correct you from time to time. There's nothing my son loves more than busting me doing something I'm always telling him not to do. He gets to take ownership of the "good' behaviour and set an example to me – effectively turning the tables in a very satisfying way.

Along with learning good table manners, both Musson and King stress the importance of children being able to interact confidently and respectfully with adults. Let's face it, a kid who makes a good impression on the adults is at a natural advantage. When a child greets me politely and looks me in the eye – well, I don't know about you, but I'm pretty much putty in their hands.

Some kids have a naturally gregarious and charming personality but for the ones who don't, a well-placed "thank you" and a firm handshake goes a long way. Standing up on public transport for adults, a polite phone manner, the ability to make conversation – Musson says these are all forms of etiquette that not only benefit the child but create openings for good feelings and shared connections in a community.

If your child can speak confidently and politely to anyone from their best friend's mum to the waiter at the pizza shop to the politician visiting the school, then the world and its opportunities become just that little bit more accessible to them.

So while concepts such as "grace" or "poise" might seem outdated to us, and being a stickler for good table manners might seem more trouble than it's worth, when you think about them in terms of confidence, kindness and respect for self and others, then they start to make sense again. Some things, after all, just never go out of style.