Jenna Wylie* was at the office when her six-year-old son called to have a quick after-school chat. When the conversation wrapped up, he simply hung up, without even saying “bye.” Wylie was shocked at her son’s lack of manners—until it occurred to her that she’d never actually taught him how to conclude a phone call.
By age six, your kids probably have an arsenal of basic social graces at their disposal: saying “hi” when they see someone they know, saying “please” and “thank you,” and so on. Those skills were taught. But, as Wylie learned, as your kid gets older, there are a number of others that need to be explicitly taught as well—and that job falls to parents. Here’s what school-agers should know.
Kids learn a lot from observing their parents’ behaviour—and we don’t do as much talking on the phone as we used to. Jillian Roberts, a child psychologist based in Victoria, says that when Wylie was young, she probably watched her parents converse on a land line in the kitchen. Today, most of us have a cordless phone or cellphone, meaning we leave the room to talk or silently respond to a text, says Roberts. “There’s not the same opportunity to learn through observation.” Give your kids a chance to practise polite phone conversation by asking their grandparents to call them.
Rebecca Stein* has taught her seven-year-old son, Ben, to not only say hello when he sees an adult he knows, but also to look them in the eyes and follow up with, “How are you?” The reaction, says Stein, has been rewarding. “People are super impressed that a little kid answers that way,” she says.
Toronto etiquette instructor Tina Manousos suggests role-playing to perfect this skill. “It can be fun, just for a few minutes, three times a week or so.” She recommends kids also learn to politely greet house guests when they arrive and say goodbye when they leave, and suggests coaching during the car ride on how to greet adults when you arrive at a friend’s house.
Pardon the interruption
Kids aren’t exactly known for their patience, so when they have something to say to you, they’ll usually say it immediately, even if you’re in the middle of a conversation. School has conditioned kids to raise their hands to ask a question, and Roberts says that while you can use that tactic at home, a more subtle strategy would be to teach them to put one hand on your arm to signal that they have something to say. You can also instruct them to wait for a natural pause in the conversation and then ask, “May I interrupt?”
When a preschooler picks up his chicken with his fingers, many parents will turn a blind eye. But most school-agers should be comfortable with, and make regular use of, a fork and even a knife. Older kids can also be taught to wait until everyone is seated before they begin to eat, and to say “please” and “thank you” when passing dishes around. “A lot of this teaching has to be done at home, and the dinner table is the best place to do that,” says Manousos. “I find that families that eat at the table together have better overall manners.”
Most kids are better behaved when their parents aren’t around—but they should still be taught general playdate rules. “One of my kid’s friends helps himself to food in my fridge, and I hate it,” says Wylie. Manousos has a suggestion: “Kids should always ask if they want something like a drink, even if they’re at their best friend’s house.” Teach them to take their shoes off at the door, hang up their coat, only eat or drink where they’ve been told they can and, more than anything else, listen to and respect the kid’s parents.
Be aware that when kids get their first smartphones, their social skills could take a hit. “Excessive texting might be robbing our children of the opportunity to learn and practise essential social communication skills,” says Halifax psychologist Marc Blumberg. Texting robs kids of chances to learn and study the facial, body and tonal messages we give off during an in-person conversation.
*Names have been changed
A version of this article appeared in our Summer 2016 issue with the headline, Mind your manners, p. 58.