Manners for minors: Children cultivate aplomb

Breaking bread - and old habits - kids learn etiquette, with class

On a brisk November afternoon, 14 girls pile into the sun-speckled dining room of Skipjack's seafood restaurant in suburban Newton, Mass., peeling out of bright coats and scarves to reveal velvet dresses, bangle bracelets, and hair pulled back in gaudy barrettes. Though you'd never know it from their shy smiles, they're here for manners class - a four-course tutorial lunch that will impart the most sophisticated styles of soup-sipping and bread-breaking, and teach them handshakes to last a lifetime.

As the girls sit down on either side of a long table laid with silver, they tug at white linen, their faces a mixture of boredom and concern. For most of them, manners class is the unbidden brainchild of tenacious parents.

But by the end of the meal, they're loathe to miss a minute - or decorous enough to make it seem that way. As etiquette impresario Jeanne Comeau teaches dainty consumption of hot apple crisp, the girls become such fans of formal dining that they summon their waiter when dessert spoons aren't quite the proper size.

Debutante training may be out of reach and finishing school a thing of the past. But with the holidays looming, manners can seem more important - and more elusive - than ever. Full of sugar and spunk, clamoring for attention in houses packed with relatives, children face more pressure to be mannerly - and more potential for etiquette faux pas.

An information technology professional for 20 years, Ms. Comeau was looking for a retirement business when she hit upon etiquette consulting. "We're a John Wayne society in the way we treat each other," she says.

On the wild frontier of children's manners, Comeau set out to be a civilizing force. She started with a class for 8- to-12 year-olds in October 2000, thinking they'd be an easy audience, oblivious to her own early foibles. But soon, adults were asking for a course of their own. So Comeau now offers workshops, lectures, and tutorial dinners for her greater-Boston clients from age 4 up.

To attend the four-hour workshops, girls must wear skirts, and boys don jackets and ties - and leave parents at home. "A child needs to develop his own presence, and he can't do it with his parents there," she says.

Trim and impeccably groomed in a crisp black suit, Comeau strides around the table, launching the class with a lesson in leadership.

"Who can tell me what a leader is?" she asks. Two cautious hands creep up. Good manners, she promises, are central to leadership, and to the opportunities that follow.

After a summons to self-esteem, Comeau delves into introductions, urging the girls to use first and last names, hold eye contact as voices trail off and gazes drift down, and shake hands with two swift pumps. "None of us," she vows, "will be bone-crushers or fingertip-holders."

The fourth of nine children, Comeau grew up in a home heavy on manners. Her mother, single and a waitress, had dinner on the table at 4:30 every day - squeezed in between her lunch and evening shifts - and no one started eating until every child was present. "My mother would use that time to impart wisdom," Comeau recalls. "You always had to ask, 'May I please be excused?' "

Her decorum, she says, comes from her mother, but part of her skill is intuition. "I can sense what people need to know. I make every person I meet feel great, regardless of their stature."

She finds such civility sadly absent in daily life. "I don't see people taking the time to make eye contact and smile," she says. "When you hear your name, you feel special; when someone takes the time to say 'good morning,' it really will be a good morning."

Ten-year-old Jamie Doyle approaches manners with a mix of intrigue and despair. "My mom is, like, a manners freak," she says. "But I know I needed to come."

Victoria Young, also 10, resisted her parents' etiquette entreaties, but finally gave in: "For a couple of years, they've said as a threat, 'We'll send you to etiquette class.' I didn't think they were serious."

Though 11-year-old Ashley Hutson says she dreaded the workshop, her mother didn't give her a choice. Linda Hutson believes manners are especially important for minorities, and points out that Ashley is the only African-American child there. "Living in a dominantly white society, I want her to feel confident that she can have a conversation with anyone," says Ms. Hutson.

While most of the girls insist they'll practice their new manners, many will do so selectively. Victoria, for instance, says the napkin etiquette she learned with white linen won't apply to paper napkins at home.

Stephanie Bushey says she'll try being polite on the playground, but isn't sure manners can win over the third-grade bully. She pushes mashed potatoes around her plate, arching her wrist as Comeau taught her. "I'd rather have Papa Gino's pizza," she sighs, "and not use a fork and knife."

"Boys are far more receptive," says Comeau. The all-girl audience at Skipjack's is unusual; typically, Comeau draws an equal gender balance. She favors 12-year-old boys. "They sense they'll be going on in the world. They want to walk out feeling like young men." Comeau insists that boys seat ladies at meals, and hold the door. "I tell them, 'Gentlemen, I would love to think you'll be seating your mom at the dinner table' - and they're all smiles."

Though Comeau advocates equal rights, she's a firm believer in traditional roles. "Women should be respected and revered," she insists. "A woman is more delicate; she's more emotional, but she's also stronger."

The most challenging clients are teens, who resist instruction - until she gets to dating etiquette. "They're all ears when I teach how a man should seat a woman and open her car door, and how a woman should sit in the car like a lady," she says. But she's "amazed" at their propensity to eat with mouths agape and cram in food.

For all ages, common mistakes include clutching silverware "like barbarians" and sawing at meat.

Though clients come from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, it can be hard for some to justify Comeau's $115-per-class price tag. She plans to apply for grants to finance scholarships - and dismisses the notion that etiquette is a trapping of the social elite. "In some respects, my programs belong [in low-income environments] a lot more, because the kids have such a barrier," she says.

For Comeau, manners are all about breaking through that barrier, to a more confident sense of oneself.

"These kids walk out on clouds," she says. "I'd like to think that later in life, one or two will think back to Miss Comeau, who taught them to shake hands well."

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