We come into this world not knowing…
Children enter this world not knowing how to behave, it is a learned behaviour, absorbed from the people who surround them. Every country, culture and social group have different rules of what they consider the right and wrong behaviour for children in public. Therefore, it is up to the parents of these malleable beings we call children, to shape and form them into the adults of tomorrow.
Although children struggle with etiquette during meal time, praise their attempts and set a good example. First, children need lessons of what we expect of them; they are great mimics at a young age. Some cultures consider eating your food loudly with lip smacking sounds, belches, and “mmmmm” mumbles the highest compliments to the host. Other cultures eat in total silence. Although many parents teach their little ones the basics of please, thank you, and excuse me, in the home, they do not often go out of their way to create opportunities to teach them how to eat and behave for longer periods of time in public.
Eating out with children
It would be wise to explain to your children that whatever your rules at home, they may be different in other people’s houses. Explain to your children that how, and what, a family eats may be based on religion, ethnicity or family tradition. Some say a prayer, or grace before their meals, others do not. Some households start to eat as soon as the food is served, others wait for everyone to be seated before starting. Some families may excuse children from the table as soon as they are done and expect them to clear your own plate, while others wait for all members to finish their meal.
Parents should lead by example at their own dinner table and prepare the children for the rules of eating out in restaurants. Topics to cover at home would include the basic please pass the… , and how to assist if the object is at the far end of a large table. It will take patience, but repeatedly teach children how to properly hold and use their utensils. The dinner table is also the perfect setting to teach children how to have polite dinner conversation. The time to teach them is not when you and friends are eating out, but rather, before, at home. As a reward for lessons learned at home, promise to take the children out for a special dinner and focus on teaching them special dining out manners during this special treat.
Take the opportunity to teach them the order of service at a restaurant, how to read the menu, which special utensils to use, and what to expect from the wait staff. Another important detail to teach them is how to patiently wait for the meal after ordering—this isn’t Mama’s kitchen—if you want the luxury of ordering individually from the menu, the chef needs time to make it. Continue to practice every once in awhile, then when you have the opportunity to go out with friends your children will know what is expected of them and you will be able to enjoy dinner.
Expecting good behaviour in public
It comes too soon—their first day of school. Around 4 years old, we drop them at the door of the institution of higher learning—kindergarten, and hope they can suddenly make it in the real world. Hopefully their kind-hearted teachers have the infinite patience of a saint and can add to the little one’s knowledge of public manners. They will make new friends and have the opportunity to practice the skills they started at home, sharing, listening, and daily schedules and learn new ones such as learning to stand in line, and how to take turns at everything. They will learn to wait for their turn to speak by putting their hand up and to listen to others opinions, and most importantly they will learn to love learning.
In his book of short essays, All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum explains how the world would be a better place if adults adhered to the same basic rules as children, i.e. “Share everything; Play fair; Don’t hit people; Put things back where you found them; Clean up your own mess; Don’t take things that aren’t yours; Say sorry when you hurt someone….” These are life-long rules to live by.
Teach children at a young age to not interrupt people who are talking on a phone. Whether it is a home phone or a cell phone, keep in mind they may not yet understand that you are in the middle of a conversation with someone they cannot see or hear. You can teach them this by putting your phone on speaker and letting the child listen to your conversation. Explain to them how a phone works after the conversation is over. Eventually they may want to learn to use a phone and you can set the ground rules then, starting with phone calls to close family or friends.
Exposing children to public meetings
It would be wise at this age to occasionally take your child to a meeting, one where he or she is not the focus of the meeting and one in which the child may have no interest or chance to participate in the topic of discussion. Whether it is a town-hall meeting, a church service, a PTA meeting, or a lecture on astronomy; expose children to meetings where the audience is expected to sit still, be quiet, and listen. Children can learn a lot about acceptable behaviour at these meetings and have the opportunity to quietly observe other people. Be prepared to leave if the child cannot sit still through the whole meeting. As a rule, I am not in favour of busy bags in church for children or even toys in doctor’s waiting rooms. From an early age, teach your children to sit still and just use their brains to listen and think for a while.
Other public meetings which can be good practice for public manners are: children’s clubs, Sunday schools, library groups, or kids’ cooking classes. Children find themselves with strangers and hopefully, like at school, they have a good leader willing to enforce common public manners. You can prepare your children for these opportunities by talking to them about the manners they need to use in a meeting: do not speak while someone else is speaking; do not talk too much; listen to the instructor; and, listen respectfully to the other children or adults in the group.