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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.

Marjorie Ingall
January 04, 2013
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock)

(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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Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is the author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.