Do manners still matter?

By Jane Phare

When it comes to children, is etiquette still important? Or, Asks Jane Phare, is this generation ruder and harder to teach?
Is this generation  ruder and harder to teach?
Is this generation ruder and harder to teach?

When little boys start at King's School they learn to doff their caps to adults, look them in the eye and call them by their names. There's a raft of other expectations too, modelled by older boys, the prep school's teachers and headmaster Tony Sissons. But they're not just the stuffy rules of a private school stuck, some might argue, in a bygone era. There's a reason behind all that doffing, says Sissons, behind the expectation that boys open doors and let adults through first, call him "Sir" or "Headmaster" and stand on public transport to give their seat to an adult. Good manners, he says, help build self-esteem and confidence, help prepare them for what comes next.

It's a belief echoed by most education and parenting experts spoken to by Canvas.

Good manners, they say, are not only important, they're essential. So essential that they are an inbuilt part of the education process at boarding schools like Auckland's Dilworth, where many of the boys come from poor or unstable backgrounds, different cultures, and often have one parent or caregiver.

By the time they leave Dilworth - not far from private schools like Diocesan, St Cuthbert's and King's School - principal Donald MacLean likes to think they will be able to hold their own in any social situation or context.

He acknowledges that Dilworth teachers have an advantage in that they can model and teach manners 24/7, five days a week. "I think all schools want to do this [teach manners] and we are lucky because we have a captive audience."

At formal house dinners, the boys dress up, have guest speakers and are served their meal by "brothers" from another house, trained as waiters by the school's chefs. Out comes the good china and cutlery. It's where boys learn the finer points of etiquette - tipping the soup bowl and spoon away from themselves, placing their knife and fork together when they've finished, and sitting still during the formal speeches.

Says MacLean: "In this situation you don't slurp your Coke out of a can, you pour it into a glass."

The etiquette expected on a marae, at Polyfest or at Government House representing New Zealand youth will be quite different, he says. "They need to respect that and they need to know how to behave so they don't embarrass themselves and others."

Peter Vos, head of Dilworth's junior campus, is in charge of the 192 boys who arrive, as 9 or 10-year-olds, each year. The teaching of manners starts with simple things, he says, the "pleases and thank yous", courteous behaviour in the dining room, talking to adults in an open, friendly way, standing when visitors enter a room.

Far from the doffed caps of King's, children at Westmere School are allowed to call principal Carolyn Marino and the teachers by their first names. Marino doesn't detect any lack of respect in her school as a result. Many call her Whaea (mother) Carolyn. Respect, she says, goes deeper than the title that is used. She doesn't think today's pupils are any ruder than previous generations, although acknowledges they are growing up in a more liberal environment with "blurred" boundaries. Yes, some of her pupils will rush through a door without a thought for who else might be trying to get through. Adults need to model what is expected, she says. "They [children] just need to be told."

These days many children are brought up in an adult world, Marino says, "in and out of cafes" and eating dinner on their lap in front of television. She agrees that table manners and conversation skills taught or picked up around the family dinner table in previous generations are no longer learned.

"Now in schools we teach the manners to take to their home."

Ask any busy parent and they'll invariably agree that they want their children to be well-mannered. In Dickens' day, Oliver Twist's polite plea of "Please Sir, I want some more," resulted in a clout from Mr Bumble, but today an impressed adult might well exclaim, "What lovely manners!"

And what parent doesn't want to hear another parent or teacher praise their child's politeness or swell with self-congratulatory pride when the teenage son stands up, looks a guest in the eye, shakes hands firmly and asks how they are? It's walking, talking evidence of a job well done.

But in reality it often doesn't turn out that way, despite our best intentions. We find ourselves hauling the youngster off the couch, extracting the iPod/iPad/computer game from their hands, and scolding them for not greeting guests properly. Or we realise with horror that they've had so many dinners in front of TV, picking up food with their fingers, that they don't actually know how to use a knife and fork properly when sitting at Aunty Julie's Christmas dinner table. We assume that, somewhere along the way, our children will just pick up this stuff, that they'll learn to put the fork in their mouth, not the knife, and that though picking up a sweetcorn cob might be okay, eating mashed potato with their fingers is not.

Observers blame the lack of table manners on the fact that children haven't been given the opportunity to learn them. Many families no longer sit together at the breakfast or dinner table; instead children perch at a breakfast bar, often without an adult, or eat while watching TV. Vos has increasingly noticed that students arriving at Dilworth have little or no idea of how to hold cutlery properly and are not used to eating at a table.

Family therapist Diane Levy blames the microwave - instant food heated in minutes and eaten when a member of the family is hungry. "When things had to be cooked in an oven there was a lot more eating round the table."

Levy, a therapist for 37 years and a mother and grandmother, says adults need to lead by example. If a parent is up and down from the table, or clearing messages on their phone at the breakfast table, it's no good expecting children to behave in a different way. She says manners need to be both taught and "caught", and the process takes time, perseverance and endless patience.

Jenny Hale, senior family coach and content director at the Parenting Place, concedes some busy parents may have "dropped the ball" or simply see manners as "the small stuff", while struggling with bigger issues like getting kids to do as they're told, or getting them to school on time.

"I would argue that manners aren't the small stuff because sometimes if we go for the small things we also capture some of the big things. If you insist that as a family the children and adults speak nicely or kindly to one another, you knock over some of the other problems."

Levy points out that manners embody a string of virtues including compassion, respect, responsibility, friendliness and consideration, and that most parents want their children to display those virtues. But she acknowledges that some parents think manners are an overblown, old-fashioned idea and that "you have to stick up for yourself in the world.

"As we become more individualistic I think both ideas prevail. I don't think manners are any less important than they ever have been."

Hale thinks adults should "hold the line" and keep modelling good manners, and that includes the use of new technology. Adults do a disservice to children by not teaching them to stop what they're doing and greet a visitor, she says. "Not insisting they look up means they've lost an opportunity to connect and forge a relationship. Children want to be connected and they don't always know that it's rude. To me, it is a parent's job to explain why this is important in the family."

She acknowledges that parents probably get weary of the constant effort teaching manners takes. "I think we would do it more if we saw what the benefits were. Adults will respond to children who can hold a conversation." Good manners are simply too important to neglect, she says, and that includes more traditional etiquette.

Levy agrees and says there's nothing wrong with a hierarchical order for people to go through a doorway rather than "elbowing your way through". Though she acknowledges that some might see a man ushering a woman through first as "patriarchal and patronising", Levy sees nothing wrong with it. "I may be old-fashioned but I still rather fancy the idea of older people first, women before men, children standing back."

These days it might not occur to many children to stand back and let adults through. One child therapist says she often has to stand aside for a tidal wave of primary school children coming towards her when picking up her children from school. They seem not to notice an adult approaching, nor do they give way if they do.

Grandparents might well grumble that such behaviour would never have been tolerated in their day. So what's gone wrong? Is Generation Z ruder and harder to teach good manners?

Most of the people Canvas spoke to don't think so, saying kids thrive on firm boundaries and guidance. But they do point the finger at parents who may have unwittingly allowed their little darlings to become ill-mannered. And there is sympathy, rather than blame, there too. Modern parents, they say, have a harder job, often working in isolation in the case of solo parents. Children are less compliant than previous generations and parents are no longer part of a wider community supporting them.

Two generations ago, Levy says, parents and caregivers had the backing of the community; the local teacher, principal, doctor, police officer, grandparents and extended family all agreed to the "rules" and expectations, which included good manners.

"Now we are a far more individualistic society, far closer to 'what I want' is more important than what the community requires."

In addition, children have been encouraged by adults to become centre-stage, with an inbuilt sense of entitlement and strong opinions on what they will and won't do. Auckland musician and singer Cathie Harrop has taught children, both in schools and privately, for years and says she thinks it's the parents who have changed, not the children.

Children, she says, are only as bad mannered as their parents allow them to be. Harrop was "shocked" to be dismissed in an email from a pupil she had taught for four years.

"I don't find that good manners, I feel that's really offensive. The mother could have rung me."

Triple P psychologist Michelle Melville-Smith says many parents struggle to put boundaries in place. The result can be a "disrespectful" change in adult/child dynamics. "Sometimes without meaning to parents fall into traps where children almost have more power."

Melville-Smith, mother to three young children, finds most parents want their children to display good manners at daycare, school, at home and at other people's homes. "We do generally want our children to grow up and be good functioning members of society and that usually means they need to have reasonable social skills and manners." The trick, she says, is to let the children know the adults are still in charge, in a "firm and loving environment".

Easier said than done. Many parents, busy working and tired by the end of the day, find the process of enforcing manners an exhausting, repetitive and soul-destroying process.

Although there's no shortage of helpful advice for parents - including well-meaning books with titles like Peas And Queues: The Minefield Of Modern Manners and actress Whoopi Goldberg's Whoopi's Big Book Of Manners - making it happen can be an uphill battle. But educators and therapists, often consulted when parents are at their wits' end, are confident that children will do the right thing if shown the way.

Says Sissons: "Inherent in the learning process is that children want to please and if they're given the right direction, they will follow good etiquette if they're taught." Children, he says, takes their patterns from adults. "They will follow the lead of what they see in action. It's not just talking about it, it's actually how you put it into practice."

King's teachers are accordingly encouraged to model good behaviour and manners."If you walk past a piece of paper [on the ground] because you're busy going somewhere then why would you expect the boy to do differently? You'll get what you model."

MacLean doesn't think today's youngsters are harder to teach than previous generations but that they mature and develop more quickly and have more access to technology. That access means the teacher is no longer "the wise person in the room" while everyone else has to listen.

"There's so much stuff kids can find out," he says. Sometimes that can lead to a more relaxed relationship between children and adults.

"Older people are very harsh on younger people. I think they mistake a casualness and a 'we-actually-know-a-lot-more-than-you-think-we-do' attitude for arrogance and bad manners when in fact it's just where the world is at now."

At Dilworth, access to mobile phones and screens is limited. Says MacLean: "They [the pupils] have to have personal interaction with real people in real rooms. That's the way of very sloppy manners developing, people always interacting electronically."

School principals acknowledge that, in some cases, schools are being left to teach manners that are not learned at home. Child therapists are cautious about blaming parents, saying they are raising children in a rapidly changing world and that digital distractions haven't helped.

Sissons says while some boys might learn manners at school that they might not have been taught at home, parents are supportive of the school's methods.

"I've never come across a parent who doesn't value the teaching and the environment of having manners. I've never received a complaint in that area."

Like others, Sissons thinks these good manners will help later in life with such as job interviews, giving them an advantage with prospective employers. I think first impressions are extremely important so the handshake, the eye contact, the standing at the appropriate time definitely will help."

MacLean says he regularly receives feedback from employers that former pupils have presented well - confident, chatty and polite. He's had senior bank staff ring him after Dilworth boys have been for job interviews. "Can you send us any more?" they want to know. "I don't think manners are any less important than they ever have been."

HOW TO RAISE A POLITE CHILD: catch them being good

The atmosphere around teaching manners is important. Keep it light-hearted and try not to growl. Catch them using nice manners.

Use a wink or a high-five to show them you've noticed.

TABLE MANNERS

Rather than using a sergeant-major style of enforcing table manners every night, try to make it fun. Try "Monday Manners", the night you focus on manners at the dinner table.

Concentrate on four manners you want learned such as: eating with your mouth closed, saying, "Excuse me, could you please pass me ... " or saying thank you for food served on their plate, and asking to be excused from the table. You could rate each other, in a light-hearted way, or have one child scoring how the others are doing.

REMEMBERING TO SAY THANK YOU

Instead of constantly saying "What do you say?" with little result, try something different. Pass the child a toy or food or drink and hang on to the item if they don't say "thank you". The child will look up to see why you haven't released it. Give them a smile and wait for the magic words - you might even mouth them as a prompt.

USING PEOPLE'S NAMES

Encourage children to call people by their names when greeting them. Do role-plays with a family member or friend. Make sure family and friends back you up when teaching manners.

ASKING A QUESTION BACK

Encourage children to ask a question back to adults who ask about their day or school.
It helps build their confidence and self-esteem.

Jenny Hale, Parenting Place

- Canvas

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