Thankfully, we've moved on from the days when people thought children should be seen but not heard, but no parent wants their child to be considered to be rude, so how can you teach children to mind their Ps and Qs, without becoming a nagging schoolmarm?
This is an issue close to author Liat Hughes Joshi's heart. She has written a brilliant book New Old-Fashioned Parenting on how to get the balance right between contemporary and traditional child rearing methods.
Here's an extract she wrote exclusively for HuffPost UK Lifestyle:
The code of manners and etiquette many of today’s parents grew up with has eased off considerably. Our young are no longer expected to stand when adults enter the room and few bat an eyelid if an elbow creeps onto the table or they haven’t quite mastered proper cutlery holding positions by the age of three.
Other than with their teachers, they’re largely on first-name terms with their elders - the days of everyone being a Mr or Mrs whatever, or Auntie or Uncle (when they weren't even a relative) are over.
Some of the change in standards for children’s manners has been due to a shift in their 'place' in society. Today's kids are viewed very much as our equals and the automatic ‘respect your elders’ line rarely applies. In fact, never mind equals, in some families you’d be forgiven for thinking the children are now actually more important than the grown-ups.
Meanwhile, instilling manners and values into our offspring involves what can seem like relentless effort. If you’re busy, tired or distracted – as most parents feel they are nowadays – it’s simpler and quicker not to bother and just hand over what they want minus a ‘please’ or to turn a blind eye to that nose picking, mouth-full-of-food talking or whatever.
The challenge for the modern parent is treading the rather tricky fine line between the relaxed informality that is now the norm (and hurray to that) and raising an ill-mannered, rude child, who turns into an ill-mannered, rude adult.
Why does all this matter? Well the fact is that our children’s manners will be judged throughout their lives. Saying thank you at the end of that job interview in years to come might not make up for a lack of essential qualifications but employers want to hire people who reflect well on their organisation in front of clients and customers, be it with decent eye contact or managing to hold a knife and fork vaguely properly during a business lunch. More broadly, who doesn't prefer spending time parenting, playing with, teaching and working with courteous and thoughtful people?
Being considerate is often (although, sadly, not always…) repaid in kind too. It can make an individual feel good about themselves and boost their self-esteem; it might even become self-perpetuating when they see they receive a better response from others as a result. Manners generally can underpin a considerate approach and the realisation for a child that they need to think about people’s needs and feelings rather than just their own.
For all these reasons, teaching our children manners should be firmly back in style.
How to teach children manners the new old-fashioned way
1) Be a role model.
As philosopher Adam Smith said, ‘Kindness is the parent of kindness,’ and that’s quite literally the case. Children learn most by copying their parents. If you’re rude to others or glued to your smartphone every mealtime, chances are that they will be too.
Old-fashioned parenting sometimes fell down on this, with double standards where, for example, parents were allowed to swear ‘because we’re grown-ups’, while children weren't to utter as much as a damn or blast, thus creating a somewhat confusing situation. Never let those words ‘do as I say not as I do’ leave your mouth again… the kids won’t fall for it.
2) Start early by encouraging age-appropriate etiquette.
Commence your manners campaign as soon as it becomes relevant. Please and thank you can be introduced from when children start asking for things with words. Three- and four-year-olds can be encouraged to use an undemanding tone of voice in a request by getting them to ask again ‘using a nicer voice’ and not responding until they do so.
2b)…but you’ll need to commit to this for the long haul.
This stuff can take many years. Sometimes you think you’ve cracked it and then they forget. Gentle but regular reminders will be needed, even when you feel you will scream if you have to ask them not to talk with their mouth full for the tenth time that day (believe me, I speak from bitter experience on that one).
3) Don’t just nag, explain.
Blindly enforcing etiquette because it’s the done thing is much less effective than explaining why something matters and impacts others. So ‘please look me in the eye when we are talking so I know that you are listening’ is preferable to merely ‘can you look at me when I’m talking?’
4) Be realistic rather than expecting etiquette ‘perfection’.
This is about balance: being considerate to others but without completely knocking the spirit out of children. Trying to enforce 1950s Swiss finishing school-style table manners will be overwhelming for them and tiresome for you. Start off with the essentials - the things most people expect and appreciate. Once the basics are mastered, perhaps add in some more sophisticated ideas should you want to.
5) Work on building awareness of the needs of others – there is a time and a place.
Children don’t always naturally think of other people and need their impact explained to them at times such as when they’re hurtling round a café or doctor’s waiting room being unduly noisy. This doesn’t mean putting a stop to all fun and enjoyment ever, rather teaching that there’s a time, a place and a suitable level of volume – and the sooner they can learn to spot that for themselves, the better.
6) Teach your children the maxim ‘treat others as you would like to be treated’.
Whenever they’re unsure of how to behave towards someone else, this classic phrase is as useful a starting point as any.
From New Old-fashioned Parenting by Liat Hughes Joshi is author of New Old-fashioned Parenting, published by Summersdale/ Vie, price £7.69. Follow Liat on Twitter: @liathughesjoshi