Teaching kids about grace and good manners is a lifelong survival skill that will benefit them in making friends, building relationships, resolving conflicts in a healthy manner and being compassionate.
“What a beautiful home you have,” said Emma, the first time she walked into my home. She played with my children for a while, and then said she had to go home; her mom was cooking dinner. At the door, she gave me a hug and said, “thank you for inviting me. I had a lovely time.” I watched her skip back to her house.
Ok, so she lives next door. But WOW! I thought to myself. That was the most amazing manners I’ve seen in a 5-year-old without any prompting from an adult!
Shortly after Emma’s visit, I invited her family over for a neighbourly meal. Being the hospitable host, I was doling out gummy candies to my children, Emma and her 4 year-old sister, Margot. Their mother gently reminded them that two gummy candies were the limit.
After the second gummy candy was consumed, my children began buzzing around me like flies. Well, it IS gummy candy and two are just tongue teasers, right? So, I caved in and gave my children a third. When I offered them to Emma and Margot, both sisters politely rejected my offer. “No, thank you,” they said.
WHO ARE THESE CHILDREN?
They are gracious, well-groomed, respectful and articulate pre-schoolers. Are they for real?
Yes, they are. According to their mother, Yenny, the girls were taught at an early age to conduct themselves in a manner that has resulted in their present day delightful decorum. She cited their table manners as an example. The girls were trained from infancy that food was to be consumed at the dining table only, and if they needed to leave, they could do so only when given the permission to be excused from the table. The girls also had to adhere to table rules such as using appropriate utensils, chewing with their mouths closed, and not talking with food in their mouths.
Yenny attributes three key elements to the success of her “training” – consistency, reinforcement and persistence. She established a checklist that serves as a directive for the girls to behave.
On the list are items like good table manners, being a good sister, listening and obeying (respect) and doing homework. “Politeness and posture are heavily regulated,” she said with a laugh.
The list is checked off daily and at the end of the week, the girls receive a small reward such as getting their nails painted or going to the bookstore (their favourite pastime).
Yenny observed that the list works as a parameter for the entire family, including her husband. “Even on the hit British series, Super Nanny , the first thing she does is to establish a set of rules [for the children and the parents],” she quips.
This is a good strategy especially for parents who work full-time and rely on helpers and nannies to mind their children. It also plays a dual purpose by serving as a platform for the parents to keep in touch with the on-goings at home while they were away.
Without the benefit of daily supervision that stay-at-home mothers have, some working parents opt to send their children to social etiquette courses. Kian Lim, a freelance counsellor with Fei Yue Family Services Center is one such parent who sent 5-year-old Joseph to an etiquette class at a community club, where he learnt basic courtesy rules and appropriate social behaviour.
Based on her experiences, she said that the instructions from “authoritative figures”, like the trainers, carry more weight than the parents. However, she adds that parent reinforcement is very important. She explained that parents have to be aware of their own behaviour. Otherwise, they might have a “do as I say and not as I do” scenario, which is not effective.
A classic example, she said, is the treatment of domestic helpers in the Singaporean households. Parents often expect their children to treat helpers politely but may not exemplify such behaviour themselves. Conversely, helpers too, need to be educated that the kind gestures from the children need to be reciprocated.