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How To Civilize Your Kids

Don’t pay someone else to teach your children etiquette. Just start early—and make them write thank-you notes.

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock)

Last week, the New York Times ran its semi-annual story about consultants who give lessons to children about manners. This piece was well-timed, since I’m hearing lots of post-Hanukkah muttering from bubbes and child-free humans nationwide about children’s failures to send thank-you notes for gifts. The Times piece is essentially the same as every other bemoaning-the-death-of-manners piece the newspaper has run since the dawn of time. (Here’s one on the lack of manners at bar and bat mitzvahs! Here’s one on Petit Protocol classes at the Hotel Pierre! Here’s one on don’t-shriek-when-presented-with-asparagus-soup classes at a New Jersey hotel! Here’s one on some darling African-American children at a charter school who begin every class with Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” and this article is not at all anthropologically wide-eyed and condescending—oh wait, yes it is!) All these stories are really about parents falling down on the job, neglecting to teach civility, and outsourcing the task to strangers—some of whom charge hundreds of dollars for the privilege.

Put away your checkbooks. I will now teach you to civilize your little heathens for free.

You know those Hanukkah presents your children received? They have to say thank you. If they are old enough to hold a crayon, they are old enough to write a thank-you note. You say, “Let’s make a picture for Auntie Sophie! She sent you that fabulous plastic dreidel full of chocolate you ate in a nanosecond, remember?” If the kid is too young to write anything, you write the note on the picture and tell the kid what you’re doing. Believe me, children absorb things the way a latke absorbs oil, especially when these lessons are consistent. If the kid can write his name, have him sign the note. If the kid is physically capable of writing her own note, force her. If the child is hesitant, withhold food. Withhold affection. Our ancestors survived repeated attempts at annihilation; their descendants will survive being made to write thank-you notes.

My mother, a tolerant and modern person, says that a phone call or email is perfectly acceptable. But I prefer to make my children suffer with writing implements, because I am an old-school crone.

Now let us move on to table manners. Last year during the holiday season I received a DVD called, semi-grammatically, The Mrs. McVeigh’s Magnificent Manners Show DVD. Produced by an etiquette expert from Texas who has taught manners classes since 2003 and was the etiquette consultant to Barbie Princess Charm School, the DVD addresses (among other mannerly topics) how to behave during a meal, how to conduct oneself in a restaurant, and how to set a table. Maxine, age 8, walked in as I was watching it, studied it silently for a few minutes, and then walked out, announcing, “This is not so funny to me.” Perhaps if you tie your child to a chair he or she will get more out of it than mine did.

In case you are short of rope, I’ll tell you the key things that Mrs. McVeigh wants to teach your children: Do not sit at the table until invited to do so. Promptly put your napkin on your lap. Do not take your first bite until the hostess has taken hers. Do not snark at the food you are served.

Some of these tidbits seem frankly kind of advanced to me. I think most parents would be gobsmacked by a child who was attuned to who the hostess was, let alone whether she’d taken her first bite. Sadly, I think a lot of kids need more fundamental help. Sit. On your butt. Do not throw things. Do not shriek. (And yes, do not snark at the food you are served.)

When you start early, this isn’t hard. People have to pay etiquette consultants and get written up in the New York Times because they haven’t started early. They want to be friends, rather than authority figures, with their kids. They’re tired because they work hard, and they don’t want to get into power struggles.

Can I tell you what my single best bit of parenting advice is? It is this: Puppies like the crate. We’re so worried about seeming punitive or crushing our children’s personhood or stifling their creative spirits or making them feel bad that we do not set limits. But just as dogs feel secure when you put them in the crate while you’re training them, children want limits. They know that becoming civilized isn’t easy. They want to be taught, and they want to feel proud of themselves for doing what’s right.

So, the secret is to start when your children are wee and tell them what’s right, and tell them what the consequences will be: If you do not comport yourself with age-appropriate correctness, you are exiled to your room. If you throw things, you are punished. If you criticize the cooking, you are corrected when you’re 3 and excused when you are 7. See, basic!

Honestly, I have very low standards; I’m really not qualified to lecture anyone on how children should behave properly at the table (which, you notice, is not stopping me): My kids can be irksomely picky eaters, we do not have family dinner every night, and I have been known to let my children play on iPhones in a restaurant when we’re out with grown-up friends and want to talk about Homeland.

All I feel qualified to do is talk about basic non-disruptive, non-cruel, kind-to-other-people behavior. I don’t want to talk about getting into power struggles around food; that’s a whole other megillah (one I am wrestling with in my own household; so, believe me, I’m sympathetic). Right now, I only want to focus on a much easier subject: how children should behave politely but in a way that acknowledges their age and meets reasonable expectations. I don’t expect a 3-year-old to make it through an entire adult-paced meal; I do not want the parents of that 3-year-old to bring him to a fancy restaurant and let him run around like a tiny drone missile aimed at waiters’ knees. Take your kid to family-friendly restaurants starting when they’re young. Go early, before people are there on dates. Consider every meal a teachable moment. Insist the child stay seated. Hustle the kid out if she has a tantrum. Compliment good behavior. Express dismay at bad behavior. If bad behavior continues, punish it. This is not rocket science, people.

And saying thank-you is essential. Yes, it is irksome to have to keep track of who sent what and noodge your kid to respond. Tough noogies. It is in the parental job description. So, stop outsourcing this basic responsibility and paying someone else to civilize your kids; teach them how to behave, and they’ll learn how to behave. Someday they might even write you a thank-you note.

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We agree completely! In fact, we created cute Hanukkah Thank You Notes just to help little ones learn to show appreciation — good for them, good for the recipients.

I find this idea more complex than stated here, without going into a Talmudic argument ;) there is a saying ‘the giver is beholden to the receiver’, when we give a gift that is not a regular gift, (different to saying thankyou when Mum places a meal she’s cooked in front of you, ie, she HAS to feed you!), then I think that the child receiving the one off gift has no obligation to say thankyou for it. First of all, the person giving the gift WANTED to give the gift, they didn’t have to, this was something they DESIRED to do, so therefore the child shouldn’t have to go out of ihis or her way to thank the person for giving it. Another example is when a gift is given and the child doesn’t like it… Why would the child have to write a thankyou note? I know this playing Devils Advocate here but perhaps we should be thinking more about our egotistical desire to WANT to be thanked for giving something we WANTED to give!! It would be much better to teach our children to give selflessly without the reward of a THANKYOU!! Give without hooks!

Ruth Horowitz says:

Thank you thank you thank you. And when it comes to keeping everyone happy during those long adult-restaurant dinners, there’s nothing wrong with bringing along quiet, kid-appropriate entertainment.

marjorie says:

Answer from Josie, age 11: “Even if you don’t like something, someone gave it to you because they thought you WOULD like it! And they spent money on you! And it’s unfair to them and hurts their feelings if you don’t write a thank-you note.” OUT OF THE MOUTHS OF BABES, KIM.

You say: “When you start early, this isn’t hard.” This IS very hard. I started with my kids at age 1. After their bar and bat mitzvahs, I agreed to address and stamp the envelopes so they would only have to write the note. Now they’re both in their 20s and they still do not write thank you notes. And plenty of other kids who were raised by parents who taught them manners are having the same experience. My nephew is turning 40 and I never got a thank-you note from him after giving two presents for his new baby. Is it bad form to send a gift for a child and include a self-addressed stamped envelop and note card? Help!

I’m about to turn 30 and I’ve struggled with thank you notes since childhood. I hated doing them as it was one more thing to remember to do in my crazy busy mind (I have ADD). I’d like to think I’m better with such things, but this is not the case. I try to send notes, and at least sent them to people and relatives out of state. Thank you for reminding me how shamefully easy it is to send a thank you note, and that I should know better.

My children were not allowed to use or spend a gift until a thank you note was written. Hand written. No emails. When they were little, I showed them what I did, and I let them draw a picture or some such thing. As Marjorie says,
“If they can hold a crayon…” At 15 and 11, I still have to remind them, but they never balk at the responsibility. Thank you notes are part of the parenting job. We must teach it.

oh, look, I’m just as guilty of not sending thank-you cards for new-baby presents. Whenever it was possible, I Immediately took a picture of the baby with the gift and emailed a thanks ,but I mean — “new baby.” Maybe he gets a little leeway there.

I don’t think a “thank you” is a reward so much as an acknowledgement! Sometimes a person just wants to know their gift was actually received. I don’t see how someone WANTING to do something somehow negates the necessity of thanking that person. Both things can be true.

Thank goodness, now that my youngest is 2 I’m finally developing the presence of mind to get from keeping a list to actually mailing the thank-you cards in a decent amount of time. I’m very embarrassed to say that when I went to write the 4 year old’s thank you cards this year, I found a stack of thank-you cards from her 3rd birthday in the box. I AM THE BEST.

To her credit, the child is smarter and better than me and sits down to “write” thank you cards whenever we get something in the mail from Grandma.

A parent can acknowledge on behalf of the child if they so choose. If a child spontananously ‘thanks’ the person for the gift then it is from the heart – Quite often in society these days children become another commodity, part of the big machine of ‘belonging to someone’. If society really thought about what a ‘gift’ means we wouldn’t be in the mess we are presently in! It does require a new way of thinking, but then any paradigm shift, change in conciousness does. Again, I am playing devils advocate here, its worth thinking outside the box sometimes. Once upon a time, articles like this would never have need to be written, so something is clearly wrong with society.

Well Josie, it’s also about understanding human nature and where society is going wrong, thank-you for taking the time to reply! Lets look at this another way, do you think being honest with someone is correct? If we were all honest with each other we wouldn’t need to do things that go against our nature. If we were a more ‘honest’ society we wouldn’t have so many people with say ‘drug problems’, do you think there would be so many people needing help? It’s the bigger picture here. Sometimes it good to think and debate about the opposite viewpoint – without a balanced viewpoint we don’t learn! Josie, at one time, when I was your age, articles like this didn’t need to be written, we didn’t need to be told how to look after our children, so something is wrong. The term ‘out of the mouth of babes’ is exactely my point, children tell the truth and then adults spend the rest of their lives showing children how to lie. It’s worth thinking about. The ‘thanking’ a person should always be up to the person receiving it, it shouldn’t be forced upon them – we don’t live honestly, this is the problem. :)

Simon Says says:

“Withhold food. Withhold affection”…? :S

themotherinlawskitchen says:

I agree that children should be guided to be grateful for the things that they receive, be they gifts or even basic every day items, such as the food they eat. It may also be useful for them to think about provenance and how things are made, where things come from and who/what is involved in their making. I think it’s up to us, as parents, to help this learning process along. However, may I pose a thought: the more children receive the harder it might be for them to recognise the worth of gifts, and perhaps objects in general. Too much money is spent on buying new things for children and not enough time is spent making, repairing and recycling. We could teach our children (and their imaginations and manners) much more if we stopped buying cheap, redundant goodies made in sweatshops and stopped to reflect on what ‘giving’ and ‘receiving’ really means.

themotherinlawskitchen says:

I’m hoping the author’s joking here, right? Right?

“Do not snark at the food you are served.” I know a number of adults who need to take this one to heart. We have a relative who is always vocal about how she doesn’t like x,y,z items at a meal. Even if we’re at a restaurant and those items are on someone else’s plate!

Buhmann says:

The idea is not complicated at all! its about manners, no matter if the gift is liked or not., desired or not, even if you have to feed your kid – it dosn’t matter.
There are already to many spoiled brats and grown-ups who don’t value anything
because they seem to feel being entitled to “regular” or “irregular” gifts , services or lifestyle. Its nothing wrong or “egoistic” about expecting a “thankyou”

Buhmann says:

What a great kid! ..and compliments to the parents who raised her to act so…because she probably wasn”t born with decent manners

A clarification of terms is in order here, after not getting through to two people in the comments below. We are talking about the difference between a genuine response to a ‘gift’ and a ‘conditioned’ response to a gift. A conditioned response has all the validity and humanness of a vending machine – you put coins in (the gift) and out pops a response (thank-you letter), no cogitation, no feeling, no growth. Because we only see ‘giving’ in terms of receiving and by implication reward, we respond to reception in like manner. We try to give. But the recipiant of the gift is not simply seen as a return to sender argument but rsther as a inner wish to give, not to return. Therefore, giving and receiving must be seen by the child as demonstrations of altruism and not economic transaction. We need people to give freely for love alone because I and the receiver are the same. When you give to charity you don’t expect a thankyou letter, you give freely without hope of reward, only The Creator knows what you have done in secret. So, if one day your child gives money to a homeless person, would they expect a thankyou letter back (conditioned behaviour) Teach the children to give and receive without hooks! A good example is, think about your giving – say you bought someone a house, would you rather receive a thankyou note and they didn’t use the house it went to ruin or would it feel much better to you as the giver to not receive a thankyou note but see the house used and become a place for families to grow, surely the use of the house is what you intended when you gave the gift. Children need to learn to correctly receive and use their gifts rather than respond to them by writing notes.

I have read the article a couple of times and I don’t see the “withholding food,withhold affection” passage. Could you please enlighten me?

For Christmas, I sent a beautiful sterling silver necklace, a woven shirt, and other items from our recent trip to Greece, as well as an amusing mug, to my brother and sister-in-law. They sent me an e-thankyou that said, ” Thank you for the funny and nice gifts.” I have never received a thank you note of any kind from them before or from their two children who are now in their twenties. They are all nice people, but it has always struck a negative chord in me that I never hear about the lovely gifts I have sent. I do it because I want to, in spite of the boorishness, but keep thinking I should stop since they don’t seem to appreciate it.

Simon Says says:

Yip: 3rd line from the end in 3rd paragraph (the one beginning with, “You know those Hanukkah presents”)

ok, thanks. Don’t know how I missed it. Because of the general tone, I think it is most likely meant to be funny.

Manners, by definition, are a conditioned social response aimed at reducing friction between members of a family or society. Knowing what action is expected in a given situation is important to maintaining good social relations. One only has to look around to see examples of conflicts or misunderstandings caused by the lack of this skill.

On the other hand, most pre-teens are only intermittently capable of altruism. (Frankly, most adults find it beyond their nature.) It wouldn’t be a bad idea for little Tenzin or Julian to acquire some manners to see him or her through the period before enlightenment arrives.

marjorie says:

Yes.

Signed, The Author.

Rebecca Klempner says:

Definitely supposed to be funny.

Rebecca Klempner says:

I found it hard to write thank you notes in any large volume as a kid, such as after my bat mitzvah, but with my own children, I figured out a trick–if my kids (and frankly, I’m just another kid in this way) don’t enjoy writing them, make art projects or the like instead. It’s more fun, and still teaches gratitude. Then we deliver them to the mailbox or to a neighbor’s door together, like it’s an outing. If you make a pretty card, or offer cookies or the like, it makes the person feel great.

In what way is saying thank you, or even teaching our children to say thank you, dishonest? Because they may not like the gift? As my almost 12 year old son says, “If someone does something nice for you, you say thank you.” How is that dishonest? It’s not about whether you like or use the gift. The receiver is thanking the giver for taking time and thought to think of her.

This is a popular meme in the co-op preschool we decided not to have our daughter attend. They had a policy of not requiring children to say “I’m sorry” when they hurt someone else but, rather, DISCUSSING the whole event until they reached a RESOLUTION in an effort to ingrain the actual feeling of remorse rather than a rote delivery of an apology that might be entirely empty.

Having watched my stepkids insist they don’t need to apologize because it was an accident, or they didn’t mean to do anything, or they don’t understand why they would be apologizing, I’ve come to the conclusion that a rote response is better than no response, though a deeply felt response is better still.

Oh no, you “failed to get through” to me again. Ah well.

In fact, Kim, if my daughter didn’t like a gift, she should be able to tactfully and diplomatically say something other than “no, I hated it.” She can say “It was such a thoughtful gift,” if it was an addition to a collection that wasn’t to her taste. She can say “I got a big kick out of it” without pointing out that she was guffawing at it. But the bottom line is that someone else went to the trouble and should be acknowledged, and I cannot for the life of me imagine why you think that encouraging a child NOT to do that would somehow make that child appreciate the gift more. This isn’t about honesty, which frankly is an overrated virtue — no, actually, I don’t think “letting it all hang out” is good for society — but about remembering you’re not the center of the universe and your pleasure isn’t the only thing that matters. Sometimes someone else’s efforts matter just as much.

rachel says:

Sending thank you notes is about discipline. Many, many years ago, when I was getting married, my father suggested that I address an envelope for every positive rsvp to my wedding. His logic was that almost everyone who attends the wedding will send a gift. If they don’t, you can still thank them for joining on the celebration. I took the gift list and thank you notes with me on our month long honeymoon. I wrote all the thank you notes in the first week while I was still dealing with jet lag. The ordeal was over with and hubby and I enjoyed our trip and returned to the USA ready to start our lives! I have been following my father’s advice and sharing it with others. Just him of writing thank you notes just as you brush and floss your teeth. And it’s not hard to teach to your children. My children, ages 29-17, now all write thank you notes without any prompting.

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How To Civilize Your Kids

Don’t pay someone else to teach your children etiquette. Just start early—and make them write thank-you notes.

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