We had gathered at my sister-in-law's house to open a small pile of Christmas presents.
When our three-year-old pulled his aunt's gift from the pile, she was watching his expressive little face. His pudgy hands quickly unwrapped a colorful set of markers - a thoughtful choice. He looked at the markers for a minute, then flung them decisively over his shoulder.
"I don't want those!" he declared.
Needless to say, our son received a lesson in manners very shortly. But how I wished I had thought to give him that lesson before the gift exchange!
A few years later while traveling in England, we made good use of the proactive approach. In the Lake District we visited a small church. After the service, a "little old lady" invited us to lunch later in the week.
When we learned that she was a lady with a capital "L," her husband a member of the House of Lords, my husband was reluctant to accept, since we had our children with us (then ages 6 and 9). But I was convinced that if given clear instructions, our children would behave appropriately.
As our car wound past picturesque lakes and over emerald hills, we coached our kids.
"Remember to put your napkin in your lap.... Don't start eating until Lady X does.... Take small bites.... Eat what is served to you. If you can't stand it, leave it on your plate but don't say anything about it.... In fact, don't say anything at all unless someone speaks to you."
They listened intently, sensing the importance of this lesson. We quizzed them to make sure they had assimilated our instructions, and they gave us the right answers with an eagerness that showed they thought this was fun!
We had a wonderful visit. Our host and hostess were fascinating and truly gracious. Their historic home was unforgettable. And, to our relief, the children behaved impeccably. They exceeded our expectations and seemed to enjoy doing so.
After our meal our host and hostess gave us a tour of their extensive woodland gardens, which were open to the public. Here the children romped a bit too boisterously, and although Lady X said, "That's exactly what children ought to do outdoors," I was embarrassed. Here was a lesson for me. We had coached them on dining-room manners only.
I'm not an advocate of etiquette for the sake of impressing someone. But the awareness of one's impact on others' feelings, and the consideration of others' feelings is a basic grace no one should be allowed to grow up without. I used to assume too, often that my kids would just "pick this up." Now it's dawning on me that etiquette is a language, and that children deserve to be informed of its vocabulary, even of the "archaic" usages.
It's a lot more effective (not to mention kinder) to do this prior to new or infrequent situations rather than reprimanding the child during or after the event.
This deliberate approach gives the child the opportunity to succeed. It can also avoid unexpected embarrassment!
Parents: To submit a first-person essay on your own parenting solutions, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Parenting, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115.