PARENTS

Do Manners Still Matter?

25/05/2012 09:54 | Updated 22 May 2015
Do manners still matter?Rex

David Cameron has said that children should stand up when a teacher - or even their parent - enters the room, prompting widespread debate.

Where do you stand on teaching children traditional manners? Are they fusty and unrealistic, or are we in dire need of bringing them back?

And how do your child's manners reflect on you as a parent?

We could be seeing a resurgence of popularity when it comes to old-fashioned manners. The cult parenting books du jour - French Children Don't Throw Food and French Kids Eat Everything - both explain why it is that French children are so well-behaved.

For one thing, they are taught from a very young age to say 'Bonjour Monsieur' or 'Bonjour Madame' on greeting any adult (not just visitors, but also shop assistants, for instance) - it's a mark of civilisation to recognise other people as human beings worthy of a respectful greeting, first and foremost. And unlike many British children, French kids are given normal grown-up food to eat. In short, much more is expected of French children, it seems.

Like many parents today, I was brought up in the late 70s and early 80s - an especially liberal era of British child rearing - but back then, traditional good manners like saying 'please' and 'thank you' were taken for granted.

I was expected to say "Thank you for having me" to friends' parents on leaving their home. No matter how deep my hatred of cauliflower cheese and ravioli, I had to eat everything on my plate, and was not allowed to leave the table without asking: "May I get down, please?"

Mum made sure I thanked any present-givers promptly (this was so deeply engrained in me that in adulthood, when some wedding guests sent gifts months before my wedding, I made sure they had a thank you card from my husband and me long before we actually married, even though the convention is to thank guests after your honeymoon).

Although unlike my mother's generation, we no longer routinely stood up for teachers or adults, we were taught to stand up to greet people in general (just as polite adults do). And we held doors open, gave up our seats for others, and didn't watch TV or talk on the phone in company.

Don't get me wrong - I was no angel - these were just the basic rules of civilisation most children I knew were taught. And I remember how my parents disapproved of the upbringing of children who thought it was OK to come to our house and run riot breaking things, or who insisted on watching TV and wouldn't look up from the screen when spoken to.

Today, it seems some parents don't teach children traditional good manners anymore, while others find this disgraceful. Take my friend Annie, a mother of two boys, aged seven and 10. She recently recounted how a friend of her younger son's told her the tea she had cooked them was 'disgusting' - she sent him straight home. The other week, a boy from another school swore at her 10-year-old using foul, racist language. Her well-brought-up son refused to fight back, but when my friend called on the attacker's parents that evening, expecting them to make him apologise, they refused and said they couldn't see what he'd done that was so wrong. After all, boys will be boys.

To top it all off, occasionally even adults don't seem to appreciate her children's politeness. When her son asked courteously at Starbucks if he could please have a cookie, the barrista laughed at him and mocked his politeness, making him feel like a sissy.

Another friend, Sophie, says: "I've always been quite old-fashioned about manners, as has my husband. We both spent a lot of time with our grandmothers when we were young and that may have influenced our approach. I have insisted on thank you letters after parties and for presents, even when it meant laborious hours with much complaining.

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I have nagged and nagged about thinking about others, standing back to let others past, not interrupting, not making a racket in public and generally being considerate to other people.

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"We have an absolute ban on phones at the table and also darting off to look something up online - even to settle an argument - until everyone's finished eating. I refuse to engage in conversation with my children if they're tapping simultaneously as I hate that half-there kind of response. I would be horrified if my children ever displayed the behaviour I've observed in other children, especially at the table."

Sam, a mum of four girls, felt she had to take them out of their local first school because manners were so poor. She explains: '"Probably one in six children we had for tea would say 'Thank you for having me' when I dropped them home; with most I didn't even get a 'Goodbye'.

"One eight-year-old would routinely greet his teacher with a middle finger. I used to be knocked out of the way several times by children running into school shouting 'Out the way....' or 'Coming through...' and barging us.

"It seemed to stem from home - maybe school can help to reinforce the need for good manners, but if Mum and Dad don't use them then it might not become habit for the child.

"The day I took my girls out of that school, we went to visit the one they go to now. A small boy held the door open for us to go into one classroom, and two girls saw us and said to the head: 'Good morning Mrs O - how are you?'. I stepped aside to let a girl on a bike past and she said 'Thank you very much' and smiled. Stark contrast."

Where do you draw the line, though, between instilling good values and being OTT?

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Old-fashioned ideas like children rising when their parent enters the room, children being seen but not heard, or standing with their hands neatly behind their backs, seem far too restrictive from today's perspective.

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And there is plenty of disagreement about what good manners are.

Take my friend Anne's main rudeness bugbear: "people who let small children have seats to themselves on the train or bus when others are standing. I was always made to give up my seat and sit on a parent's lap and I didn't like it, but I think my parents were absolutely right."

But mother-of-two Catherine thinks that children shouldn't be expected to give up their seats. "Yes, a child should give up their seat to somebody old, pregnant or infirm, but it can be very uncomfortable and annoying to sit with an unwilling three-year-old on your lap for any length of time."

Dad Adam agrees with her: "It's a pretty exceptional circumstance in which the entire bus is filled with OAPs, children or the disabled. Because otherwise, parents with young children are exactly those who one should stand up for."

Mum Lynda adds: "When on earth did simply being an 'adult' make you more entitled to a seat? Why is it that you should sit while a nine-year-old stands?"

Sophie admits: "I occasionally worry that I've been too strict," but ultimately, she reflects: "My children's good manners have been remarked upon by many parents and teachers and I'm really glad about that.

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The most important thing is that they are nice, kind people who think about other people's feelings, which is the essence of good manners.

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What manners do you think children should have - and what's now out-of-date, if anything?

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