Teaching manners is an uphill road
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
When my second son was born, my older sister sent me a book on teaching children manners. Maybe she was trying to tell me something.
Either way, Elbows Off the Table, Napkins in the Lap, No Video Games During Dinner was a treasury. As it posited, manners are more broadly about consideration, as much about not embarrassing or hurting others as waiting for someone else to eat first. Which right there was not going to happen naturally.
The manners quest started as anyone’s does, with Mike and me pestering the boys to say thanks as soon as they could muster up a “danks,” or in Roy’s case, “Dank do.” But that was only a step in a long, bumpy road.
I remember previewing manners all the way to a nice dinner at the home of our brave host Randi, when Roy was 3 and Teddy 6, and over the evening we heard dutiful thanks, and the boys cleared their plates. And then Roy hit Teddy in the face with a metal flashlight, and we bolted amid chaos.
I’ve always been draconian about thank-you notes, as was my mother, to acknowledge the kindness of others. The book gave us a great idea: that the boys collect postcards for the purpose. Whenever a note was due, they carefully spread all the cards across the floor to choose. The trouble was that Roy at the time would not send his selections; but clutched them, glowering, shouting, “Mine!”
I stuck with the thank-you notes, backed by Mike, who really enjoyed the carefully scribed and unintentionally entertaining thank-yous from his young nephews.
Here is one of ours from that era, sent to a friend, Jim, in Wyoming.
Dear Jim McCarthy, Thank you for the gun that has ten bullets, and the lightsaber that makes noise and lights up in the dark. You are really special to me. Thank you for everything that you do for us, because you are a really nice man. I’m glad that we met you. I love you,
Dear Jimacarthy, Thank you for this lightsaber right here and I love you and you are special to me and don’t give any presents to another guy.
Recently Roy and I stayed at my friend Charlotte’s home in Telluride, and he appreciated it, and when I told him to write a note he sat down and zipped it out, with the fillip of a little cartoon drawing of Charlotte’s avalanche dog, Max, whom Roy loves.
Charlotte’s reply was a talisman to any pestering parent, an outside affirmation to wield: “I cannot tell you how touched I was by the heartfelt and personal thank you note that I just received! You are both always welcome here.”
Table manners remain the toughest issue. The boys are always ravenous, impatient; they think I am crazy, hopelessly picky. Over the years I’ve given up on a few items: it’s hard to scold them to remove hats at the table when Dad is sitting there in his ball cap. My compromise decree was not to wear hats at the tables of others. Other tenets replay endlessly: elbows off, sit up straight, don’t gobble/ take small bites; and it’s generally considered more aesthetic to bring your food up to your mouth than your head down to the plate.
At one roar of “Why?” I finally said, perhaps two years ago, “You know, you’re getting closer to the age when you start having dinner over at girls’ houses, and you’ll need manners.”
Teddy, then 15, snorted: “Mom, nobody does that any more!”
“You might,” I said.
“It’s different now!” he said.
“I’m not so sure,” I said.
“You don’t know anything!” he said. (Teenagers say these things.)
And then last year appeared a girlfriend, the fair Taylor, and one day Teddy texted Mike asking to stay for dinner at her house. Mike texted his assent, and added, “Good manners!” Even Teddy had to laugh. I just hope he took off his hat.
– Alison Osius lives in Carbondale.
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