Why manners matter

Hannah Dickson spends an hour with Diane Levy

One of my duties as parent helper at school camp was standing at the kitchen servery dishing out food as the kids filed past holding out their plates. I was impressed that nearly every child gave me a smile of thanks. Most followed up with the verbal thank you, and a few went the extra mile and said, “Thank you Hannah”. Those children earned a special place in my heart – and an extra-large serving. Admittedly, I was usually on breakfast duty so a super-duper serving of rice bubbles may not exactly have made their day, but I’m sure the parents serving the ice cream at night were equally impressed by those manners. Which all goes to show manners make a difference.

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Why do manners matter?

They matter for a wide variety of reasons, says Diane Levy. A good-mannered person is far more pleasant to be around than an ill-mannered one, which means the world seems to open more doors to those who have been taught to mind their p’s and q’s. In short, manners make life easier.

But it goes much further than that, says Diane. Teaching manners is far more than just reminding children to say, “Thank you for having me,” although that is important. What we are also instilling in our children are the all-important virtues.

Gratitude and respect

“Manners are an outward demonstration of two important virtues – gratitude and respect. When we teach our children to have good manners, the accompanying development of the virtues of gratitude and respect is good for their emotional well-being, their social interactions and their soul.”

But wait, there’s more, she adds. Gratitude and respect are the biggies, but check a list of virtues and you’ll find that children who can stop what they are doing and welcome people to into their home, say thank you for a gift, a meal or a lovely time, let others go through a doorway first, and ask for something with sincerity and politeness, are displaying a whole host of virtues.

To gratitude and respect, add assertiveness, confidence, consideration, courage, courtesy, enthusiasm, generosity, kindness, love, respect and self-discipline – to name a few. The list of what we are teaching goes on! We can’t forget the teaching part. Manners don’t come naturally to children. They need to be “caught, taught and modelled” says Diane.

What’s the best age to start?

She says parents often ask this question. Her answer is simple – the earlier the better. “The sooner we start, the more automatic the behaviour will be.”

That means as soon as your little one is ready to sit in her highchair and hand you a spoon, you are ready to say, “Thank you for giving Mummy your spoon.” As soon as she starts stretching her hand out for a cracker you are ready to model, “Can I please have a cracker, Mummy?” Of course at this stage ‘peeese’ is just fine and deserves a positive response from you.”

Teach them to say thank you

Encourage the same habits of gratitude by making a point of encouraging your child to say thank you to the host whenever he leaves a play date or party, and to the teachers and coaches when you pick him up. The same applies to treats and gifts – nothing gets to be unwrapped until gratitude is shown. This can be an extra challenge for shy children and they will need your ongoing support. “But this is a life skill that is worth persevering with,” says Diane.

The practice of good manners can often morph into a family tradition. Rituals such as not leaving the table until the cook has been thanked for the meal, or not starting to eat until a prayer of gratitude has been offered, can all be woven into a family’s identity.

Starting early is easiest, but the good news is it’s never too late. Diane refers back to her carpooling days ferrying her children and their friends around. “Some of them had lovely manners. They would get into the car and greet me, and get out and thank me. Others weren’t quite as accomplished,” she says.

“I developed the habit of keeping my elbow on the central locking button. The car doors simply didn’t open until the child nearest the door said, “Thank you for the ride”. I was always interested that as soon as one child modelled gratitude and good manners, the rest would follow. I was never sure if they developed courtesy or just worked out the quickest way to get away from me!”

A note on sincerity

Sincerity is at the heart of good manners and this can take a little bit of work.It’s important to honour a child’s natural integrity. They may sincerely have an issue with saying thank you to Great Aunty Maude for the ugly paisley pyjamas. But this is the time to start explaining the difference between tactful and tactless. Explain to them that while they may not be grateful for the pyjamas they can express gratitude for the thought and care behind them.

As with all good parenting strategies we need to practice what we preach. Diane suggests asking ourselves the following question. “What are you modelling and what are you noticing?” Here’s to good manners all round.

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