Children And Manners

21/12/2014 22:32 | Updated 20 May 2015

Manners in children

My 1970s and 80s childhood was mired in manners and etiquette, as was the case in most families of the time.

The list of dos and don'ts covered everything from addressing grown-ups as Mr or Mrs or, if they were more familiar, Auntie and Uncle (even when we weren't related to them) to handing over our seat on the bus or at a party if a perfectly able-bodied adult didn't have one. Then there was the minefield of dining etiquette which at least provided a distraction from the awfulness of British food in the pre-Jamie and Heston era.

Today's children, by contrast, aren't usually expected to be anywhere near as deferential to their elders. Rules have relaxed significantly with much less worrying about whether someone's elbows are on the table or they're holding their napkin (not serviette - see I learned that in the 1980s) the 'right' way.


Yet good manners do still matter: teachers appreciate courteous pupils, waiters will smile at a polite order in a restaurant. Perhaps most crucially future employers will know that their clients or customers will not be put off by an ill-mannered staff member.


As a parent, having a well-mannered child is a joy, bringing glowing compliments and the assurance that you can pretty much 'take them anywhere' without too much concern that they will spoil things for other people along the way.

If you don't want your offspring to be 'that child' it does take a lot of leading by example and a fair amount of reinforcement. Manners don't just happen automatically and as parents we need to commit to instilling them. It's easier not to bother when you're tired or busy or fearing they'll kick off if you insist on them saying thank you. It's quicker to make an excuse – "Oh, they're just children being children" or "20 minutes is a long time for her to sit still on a train [whilst the six-year-old concerned runs up and down the carriage colliding with commuters]".

The issue facing the modern parent is getting the balance right so that our kids aren't overwhelmed by endless outdated etiquette and can focus on the things that really make a difference to others – that are about being considerate rather than making statements about being a particular class or boasting superior social status.

So here is the New Old-fashioned Parent's suggested list of modern manners for kids. Let us know if you agree with it...


Saying please and thank you.

Looking people in the eye appropriately when chatting (it shows you're listening!).

Greeting and paying attention to guests when they visit (rather than staying on the Xbox/ Wii/ in front of the telly the whole time...).

Not always saying what you think - not declaring "I hate Barbies" when grandma gives them a Barbie for Christmas, or "Mum, that man is so fat!" in the supermarket.

Not using gadgets during meals, face-to-face conversation or when being served in a shop (yes, that counts for us parents too!).

Queuing properly, with no pushing in or elbowing of others, even if the most exciting thing ever awaits.

Not talking over people (adults or other children) or interrupting just because you think that what you've got to say is more important (unless it really is an emergency) or at least adding an "excuse me" if it can't be helped.

Not leaving litter around and taking rubbish home if you can't find a bin

Keeping noise levels appropriate to where you are – understanding that quiet-ish is required in the GP's waiting room or a hotel corridor at 6.30am but noisy is fine in the park playground. The difference needs to be learned so that older children can ascertain what fits where for themselves.

Not running around rampaging when it will annoy people – especially in restaurants, cafes and busy places such as train stations.

Apologising if you accidentally hurt someone/ bump into them/ damage something.

Knowing that sofas and chairs are for sitting on not putting feet on (bottoms not feet is a useful maxim) – especially no climbing over sofas or standing on chairs.

Bodily manners

Not discussing bodily functions, unless it's relevant, particularly when someone is eating. This includes knowing how to ask to go to the loo in a polite way beyond the potty training stage when it's largely still excusable to say, "Mummy I need a poo now".

Not farting (or pretending to do so) in public but apologising if it does happen.

Not wiping snotty noses on sleeves or sniffing excessively – grab a tissue for goodness sake!

Covering mouths when sneezing, coughing and yawning.

Table manners

Eating with mouths closed and not talking with a mouth full of food on show.

Not grabbing food from someone else's plate or leaning across their meal.

Other than for the youngest children, only eating certain foods with fingers (sandwiches, burgers etc.) and using a knife and fork at least vaguely correctly for everything else.

Not licking plates or knives, taking far too large chomps to fit in your mouth and no spitting food out.

The New Old-fashioned Parenting rules on manners (or how to get them to behave with a little decorum):

Lead by example – there's no use harping on at your children to request things politely but then being rude to every shop assistant or waiter you ever encounter.

Explain exactly why specific manners make a difference to other people around them – saying thank you acknowledges what someone has done for you, eating nicely means the person opposite won't be put off their own food. Actively encourage empathy.

Have realistic but not too low expectations of your children. For most children, most of the time, at least half decent behaviour and manners are achievable with a bit of parental effort. Saying "Oh they're just being kids" as they tear around Starbucks shouting at 100 decibels is entertaining for them but you can bet it won't be for everyone else in there.

Good manners and fun aren't incompatible. If young children are going to have to sit still and be quiet-ish during a wedding ceremony, meal or school play, pack a small bag of things for them to do and give them a run around in a nearby park beforehand to burn off excess energy. It won't guarantee they will stay in one place but might help. And if they don't, be prepared to whisk them outside even if it's inconvenient for you.

Old old-fashioned parents (OOPs) versus new old-fashioned parents (NOPs) versus Modern Flakies – which are you?

OOPs enforce a range of rules so rigid it's like being back in a Swiss finishing school circa 1952.

NOFPs help their kids understand the reasons why a particular rule matters and reinforce consideration for others. They stick with manners that count and don't worry too much about endless old-style etiquette for a family meal down the local Pizza Hut.

Modern Flakies are too busy looking at their phones and shouting loudly to notice or care what their kids are up to in a public place. And when they do mess up, well, saying sorry is a sign of weakness don't you know?

Do you think manners matter? How do you want your children to behave with other people?

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