Realms of the Rude: Teaching manners to kids during the holidays
Many a parent has emerged from a holiday season thinking that their children – or perhaps some other kids in their lives – need a serious manners’ makeover.
That starts at home, experts say, with parents who clearly spell out their expectations in advance, prepare kids for common situations they’ll encounter at holiday gatherings and model kind and respectful behavior themselves.
“Children are like sponges, and they absorb everything around them, including the words and actions they observe,” said Heather Newton, director of the Bullfrogs and Butterflies preschool in Virginia Beach. “I live by the motto: positive breeds positive.”
Here are five areas where kids tend to slip into the realm of rude:
Reacting to gifts or food they don’t like
Kids should practice a polite response to anything they find gag-worthy, said Jules Hirst, a coach with Etiquette Consulting Inc. in California. “For example, if your Aunt Beth gives you a new jacket but you were hoping for the newest Xbox game, remember to say a sincere ‘thank you’ followed by a hug,” Hirst said.
There’s always something nice to focus on, added Cindy Post Senning, a children’s manners expert with the Emily Post Institute, an etiquette education organization in Vermont. “Teach them to find the positive thing they can say, say it, and then say thank you,” Senning said. For example: “This shirt is the best color blue. Thank you so much!”
As for food, “If there is something on the plate or if they tasted something they do not like, DO NOT make a face or begin to complain,” Hirst said. “Simply don’t eat it.”
Writing thank you notes
Ideally, kids should send letters within three days of receiving a gift, or at least by New Year’s Day, according to the Emily Post Institute. Age is no excuse: young kids who haven’t learned how to write can draw – or scribble – a picture, and parents can help with the “to” and “from” sections. Older kids should personalize notes by stating what they were given and how they’ll use it.
There may be some wiggle room if a child has thanked someone in person or the giver is comfortable with email. “It may depend on the person’s preference rather than rigid etiquette rules,” said Michele Tryon, community outreach organizer at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk. “Handwritten notes may be meaningful to Grandma, while a thank-you email may be OK with Uncle Ted.”
While the overall message should focus on the positive, children shouldn’t have to lie about a present they don’t like, Tryon added. “We can teach them to say or send a note saying, ‘Thanks you for giving me a gift; it was thoughtful of you.'”
The holidays are a perfect time for a refresher course on basic etiquette rules, including coming to the table with clean hands, using silverware and napkins properly, waiting until everyone is served to eat, saying “please” and “thank you” to hosts and offering to help clean up.
Kids also should turn off cell phones and other electronics, keep their voice at a conversational volume, engage with the people sitting next to them or across the table and – common bad habit alert – swallow their food before opening their mouths. “If it’s a problem, try putting a mirror in front of your child during a meal so she can see how it looks,” Senning suggested.
At the same time, meals that interfere with bedtime or naptime or are overly formal or lengthy likely will be a major challenge for younger kids. Two ideas: bring crayons, books or other quiet toys to the table, or allow children to be excused between courses or after a certain amount of time.
Talking to relatives and family friends politely.
Before holiday gatherings, practice the art of small talk. That includes brainstorming questions kids might field and what they might ask an adult; easy topics can be recent vacations, favorite sports teams or weather. Children who are very shy can at least smile or nod in response to questions.
Kids should maintain eye contact with the person who is talking, Hirst said. “Keep the technology in your pocket, purse or back pack, or at home,” she said. “If you are having a conversation with your aunt, then she should get your full attention.”
But again, don’t expect too much of a young child, Newton noted: “Be aware that constant company and social interaction is exhausting and stressful.”
Dealing with multiple hugs and kisses.
Some children aren’t as comfortable with physical contact as others, especially with relatives or friends they don’t know well. While that’s OK, making faces or rolling their eyes is not.
Parents can teach alternative social skills that still respect a child’s boundaries, such as saying “hello” from a distance, shaking hands or giving a high-five. A parent also might hug or kiss the relative to show kids that he or she is safe to touch, Tryon said.
“A parent might say, ‘Johnny is not ready for a hug or kiss; I think he is saying hello from a distance for now,'” she said. “Adults should not take it personally if a child is uncomfortable with physical affection, but might offer a statement like, ‘It is OK if you don’t want a hug right now. I’m happy to be here with you and your family anyway.'”
Tagged Kids through Tween and Teen