In the not-too-distant past, the daily family dinner served the dual purpose of feeding and connecting with the family. It was also an important teaching moment -- the time and place where moms and dads modeled and taught basic social skills (how to eat, how to hold a conversation, how to listen, etc.) to their children.
Today, many of our family conversations are sabotaged by the technology we’ve all come to rely on -- television, cell phones, and computers -- and take up time that used to be spent enjoying the family. Ironically, these same devices have contributed, in my opinion, to the erosion of our society’s manners and social skills.
I say ironically because I believe social graces/manners are primarily about connecting with others in a positive way. All of a sudden, we have a multitude of ways to communicate with others, but often we don’t do a very good job of connecting.
Because of this disconnect, I often start my etiquette classes and summer camps by teaching the basics of how to properly introduce oneself to others, whether on the phone, in person or online. Here is an outline of the skills I work to impart in my summer camps:
How To Properly Address Adults and Authority Figures
1. Never address adults by their first name, unless given permission to do so.
2. “Yes, Ma’am” and “No, Sir” are regional traditions. In the Northern states, these forms of addressing adults are considered sassy. In the Southern states, they are considered the highest form of a courteous response. Children should use the form appropriate to their location.
How To Be A Good Guest
Whether it is staying with relatives during the holidays or simply visiting with a friend, children can be taught how to be good guests, which is a polite way of ensuring that the visit is enjoyable for both parties.
For example, have you ever been invited to a friend’s house for dinner, sat down for the family meal and begun nibbling on the bread, only to look up and see their heads bowed to bless the food? Teach your campers to always wait until the host/hostess is seated and takes the first bite of food before they begin to eat. Not only is it polite but it also avoids embarrassment.
Other good rules to follow include:
1. Wear appropriate clothing
2. Do not go through refrigerators and drawers
3. Clean one’s own mess before leaving (also a good rule at home)
4. Thank both the child and adult hosts before leaving the home
How To Be A Good Host
Like being a good guest, being a good host is a matter of thinking more about your visitor than yourself. This is something that can be taught at a young age because, ultimately, it comes down to a little planning and lots of sharing.
We have our campers practice planning and preparing for guests by asking them to think about what their guests might need (food, games, etc.) and writing those things down.
If we’re working with particularly young children, we know they will tend to be single-minded about playing what they want to play instead of what their guests might want to play. So, we work on teaching them, in advance, about the importance of taking turns and fairness.
Proper Telephone Etiquette -- When Your Camper Is Placing The Call
Have you ever had someone call you, begin talking, and you did not know the caller’s name? Teach your campers to identify themselves, using the first and last name. For example: “Hi, this is Christopher Barrett. May I please speak with Michael?” Other common-sense rules to consider include:
1. Do not call too late. Children should not phone a friend’s home after 9 p.m. unless given permission to do so.
2. Do not to call too often. Kids have to practice patience in waiting for a return call.
Proper Telephone Etiquette -- When Your Camper Is Answering
There are many ways to answer the telephone -- some proper, some improper. The worst way, at least in my opinion, is to answer by saying “Yeah” instead of a simple “Hello.”
When we teach telephone manners, we instruct our campers to always answer the phone by saying hello at the beginning and good-bye when they are ready to hang up. I know it seems simple, but it’s shocking how often it doesn’t happen.
Other rules we teach include:
1. Answer the telephone within three rings
2. Don’t listen in on telephone calls
Common-Sense On-Line Rules
Are your campers safe on the Internet? We’ve all seen the well-documented safety concerns posed by sites such as MySpace.com, but there are other, not-so-well documented risks as well.
For example, it is now common for employers, coaches and even university admissions directors to research an applicant by visiting an online profile. They know that how an applicant interacts with his or her peers online will tell them more about one’s personality than anything in an admissions essay, which is all the more reason for your campers to be kind to others on these sites, and to keep their communications wholesome.
Other tips to consider:
• If teenage campers are looking for employment, they should not use sexy names as an e-mail address. A professional choosing someone for a job will not take that type of address as seriously as one with a more conservative and traditional address. For example, email@example.com. is not as professional as firstname.lastname@example.org.
• If a certain behavior is inappropriate in person, it is inappropriate on the Internet. Encourage your kids not to post jokes or opinions on the Internet that they wouldn’t express in person.
Interacting with Peers
Perhaps the greatest skills for any child to develop are empathy and discernment. Empathy is the ability to understand how another person might feel in a given situation. Discernment is the ability to understand cause and effect and apply it to difficult situations.
Empathy is tough to teach, but one way we try is by encouraging campers to volunteer their time and energy to help someone. While this is happening, we talk about the volunteer effort and ask them to contemplate how that person they helped must feel.
Discernment typically develops as a child matures and faces difficult situations. For example, “If I keep making fun of Zack, he might not want to be my friend anymore. Maybe I can find other ways to be funny that might not hurt someone else.”
Some tips on teaching empathy and discernment include:
1. Teach your camper that if he or she hears someone saying something negative about a friend, the conversation should be redirected with a short positive statement about that person. If the offending party continues, encourage your camper to leave the conversation. Example: “I am unsure where you are getting your information, but I know that Blake is an honest person.”
2. Teach your camper that, if he or she is stuck in a conversation and unsure what to say, one should ask the other person at least three personal questions: “Who is your favorite singer? What is your favorite game? Why did you decide to play baseball? Where is your family originally from?” If your camper is stuck about what to ask, teach them to use the w’s: Who? What? When? Where? Why?
Model Good Behavior
A camper’s manners will develop in stages. After all, a three-year-old’s motor skills are not developed enough to hold dining utensils properly, and a five-year-old may not have learned his last name. Be patient. Be a broken record. Repeat the rules with love and firmness, and the results will be rewarding.
And remember, repeating the rules are not all it takes to get desired results. Your camper’s strongest learning tools are role models. Your best assurance for success is to exhibit the behaviors that you most want in your campers.
Gigi Lewis is the founder of Club Etiquette in Houston. She teaches etiquette, personal development and Cotillion at over 20 locations in the Houston area and runs a series of summer camps. Visit her at www.clubetiquette.com.