I’m pretty snobby when it comes to good table manners. My mother and father were raised in post-war Britain. Times were tough—and so were the clergy members who ran the schools my parents attended. Proper dining etiquette—among other things—was literally beaten into them. I was raised differently, of course, but learning how to eat like a civilized human being using correct utensils was somehow instilled in my upbringing.
So I was mortified that, in spite of my best efforts, my kids ate like wild beasts. I turned into a non-stop nag. And I was starting to dread the traditional sit-down family dinners that my husband and I were working so hard to preserve. What I envisioned as blissful quality time with my 11-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son—appreciating the painstakingly planned home-cooked meals and engaging in enlightening conversations about their day—turned into incessant harping on table manners.
“Please sit up.”
“Put your feet down.”
“Do you need a spoon?”
“You’re too old to think that wiping your mouth on your shoulder is OK.”
“Are you seriously eating that toast one crumb at a time?”
“Did you just wipe your hands on the cushion?”
“Please, for the love of all that is good and holy, use your fork.”
It was a work trip to Belfast that was a turning point for me. At breakfast each morning, I noticed families with children eating together. I felt a little wistful watching them, as I often do when I’m away from my kids. But then I realized that I was feeling something else, too: astonishment, amazement, wonder and envy.
These kids, close in age to my own, were eating their breakfasts. And they did so while remaining seated at the table, with napkins in their laps, using cutlery and chatting politely. I wanted to run over and ask the parents “How do you make them do this?!” I didn’t interrupt them (because that would have been rude), but my motivation to instill good manners in my own children was renewed.
But how? Nagging didn’t work. Neither did pleading, bribing or threatening. My kids are stubborn. It was enough that they were actually eating the food we’d lovingly prepared for them, but they would be damned if we would control how they ate it.
So I turned to my tried-and-true parenting resource that often horrifies me but always has an answer: Dr. Google. And Dr. Google suggested etiquette classes.
I didn’t even know that was still a thing, but I was excited. I envisioned a stern woman with a tight grey bun wearing a high-necked blouse with a cameo pin. She’d scowl at my feral kids, smack rulers on tables and terrify them into learning and practising continental dining and silent service codes. It would be money well spent!
But Tina Manousos doesn’t have a tight grey bun nor does she scowl. She isn’t even stern. From her comfortable home in a couple of two-hour classes, she has somehow made my children interested in using proper etiquette and good table manners. They brought home Play-Doh to practise cutting their food (“You carve your meat, Mom; you don’t saw it”), and I nearly wept with joy one morning when I passed through the kitchen and witnessed them eating their breakfasts with a knife and fork. No nagging. No supervision even.
Manousos teaches the history behind certain customs, and I’m surprised at how interesting my kids found these tidbits. “During the Second World War, they could catch American spies at the dinner table because they’d put their hands in their laps!” she told them. In my house, we’re settling for no lying down at the table and calling it a big win. They’re kids, so, you know, they’re not perfect. But now, instead of nagging, I can joke “Is that how Ms M says you’re supposed to sit?” or “If you were a spy, would you be shot right now?”
There are introductory classes for kids ages four to seven called Mad About Manners and another series for those ages eight to 12 called Proud to Be Polite. Both two-hour sessions use interactive activities and crafts to cover the importance of first impressions and behaviour at social functions. A dining tutorial is also included in these sessions, which are capped at 10 kids. Confidence Is Cool and Backpack to Briefcase are two courses for older kids and teens that cover dress and decorum and dive into social, event and dining etiquette to instill confidence in kids that are heading to post-secondary school and beyond.
I found Manousos through the Etiquette Ladies. They offer classes in the Toronto area and have independent affiliates throughout Canada. There are sessions available for different ages and stages, and you can even book a manners party. It may be less exciting than a bouncy castle for your child’s next birthday, but the parents of your kid’s friends will be thrilled!
Corinne McDermott is mom to Megan and Riley and founder of Have Baby Will Travel.