17 Jun 2022

The well-brought-up child

The well-brought-up child is the holy grail of every parent. The very phrase conjures up images of Victorian rectitude, a captivating mixture of demure deference and quirky charm, all wrapped in a cloak of impeccably good manners.

Alas, the reality can seem very different. Boisterous, excited, brimful of anarchic energy, our own kids tear through our lives in a barely containable blur. All too often children can seem to be little more than monstrous egos – desperate for attention, greedy for treats and attention, impatient of any attempts to contain them. They are truly a wonder of nature – but can they actually be housetrained?

Do not despair. Put the holy grail behind you and settle for a pragmatic second-best. At the very least you should be able to train your child to say please and thank you, to (more or less) do what they’re told, to close their mouths when they’re eating and use a knife and fork, to be reasonably considerate towards other children. This is the bare minimum.

Inevitably, they’ll let you down. They’ll be reduced to mumbling Neanderthals when their grandparents ask them about school… Or they’ll boast shamelessly in front of your friends… Or they’ll succumb to an additive-fuelled frenzy at the end of the children’s party and won’t put their coats on… Or they’ll arrive at your friend’s house and immediately, and repeatedly, ask “When can we go home? I’m bored.” These are the crosses that every parent has to bear, and the least you can expect is that other parents are sympathetic and supportive when your child goes rogue.

But try and retain a sense of proportion. At least they’re not psychotic bullies and delinquents. At least they have an idea of what’s expected of them. At least, some day, they’ll grow up into reasonable human beings… 

Children’s Manners Top Tips

• Teach them to mind their ps and qs. Yes, it’s very boring to have to reiterate it, but repetition really works, and for the first few years, the phrases “Say please”, “Say thank you”, “Say thank you for having me”, “What do you say to Toby’s mum?” will be constantly on your lips.

• Teach your child empathy from an early age. Keep reiterating remarks like “how would you feel if someone said that to you?”, and you’ll get your child into the habit of thinking about the impact their behaviour has on others.

• Emphasise the importance of sharing. This doesn’t come naturally, so you have to actually tell children to offer sweets around, give other kids a go on the swing etc. Again, repetition is valuable.

• Table manners are by no means natural (as will become obvious when you witness, horror-struck, the graphic scenes that accompany very young children’s mealtimes). Eventually you will introduce them to the arcane mysteries of correct cutlery usage, but for the time being concentrate on the following:

  1. Wait until everyone has started before you do; if you are specifically invited to start immediately, it is acceptable to do so.
  2. Always eat with your mouth closed.
  3. Always use cutlery (fingers are for bread, fruit and barbecues)
  4. Never reach across the table and help yourself to food; always ask for food to be passed to you (a please won’t go amiss).
  5. Eat as much as you can, then put your knife and fork together on the plate to indicate you have finished.
  6. Ask permission to leave the table, or wait until there is a general move to do so.

• Get your child into the habit of asking before they help themselves to food, snacks or drinks or switch on the television. If they follow these rules in your own house, the chances are that they will adhere to them when visiting friends’ houses – other parents may find proprietorial rummaging in the fridge or channel-hopping rude and intrusive.

• Teach your child from an early age that it’s rude to interrupt. Be aware, however, that it’s your job to strike a delicate balance between ignoring your child when they’re being pointlessly hectoring, and listening to your child when they’ve really got something important to say.

• Lead by example. No child will magically acquire good manners if they’re not seeing them displayed in their own home. So remember to phrase requests to your child politely (keep barked commands to the minimum), and, wherever possible, explain the logical rationale behind decisions – arbitrary commands from above will understandably infuriate your child.

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