In one of my favourite books by Enid Blyton, ‘The Children At Green Meadows’, the little girl’s grandmother tells her of the time when she, herself, was a child. She says every time she forgot to say P or T, her Nanny would pin a cut out of the alphabet to her dress. Every time she remembered to use the P and T words, an alphabet would be taken off from her dress! The girl listening to the story is absolutely thrilled with this idea and begs her grandmother to implement the same. The old lady is completely horror struck with this attitude and says it was a punishment, not a privilege!
Today, of course, we would not dream of humiliating our children with methods used in a stiff upper lip British society in the early 20th century but the fact remains that teaching children manners is important. They are ingrained in a child, not automatically, but by the parents and by other care givers. Dorothy Law Nolte famously said, ‘Children Learn What They Live.’ And one of the areas where this is most apparent is in the vast realm of etiquette.
It starts with a simple Please and a Thank You. As any parent will tell you, easier said than done! Remember that in a normal scenario your child begins to hear long before he or she is born. And then continues listening intently to you and other family members for a great many months more till the first word is finally uttered. So the more Ps and Ts you bring in into your speech, the easier it is going to be for you to train your child.
And it starts with thanking the lift man while exiting the lift as you wheel your toddler’s pram out, it continues with thanking the house help for picking up the spoon your baby flung on the floor and it moves on to asking the salesperson in the toy shop to please show you and your child that big bear you always wanted to buy! And so your child learns that good manners are not something to be flashed around only when their social peers are in the picture but are an integral part of speech, no matter who you may be addressing.
Once they have mastered the art of saying please when they need something that they are unable to access themselves and a thank you whenever they receive what they needed, be it another chapatti or a gift from a friend, it is time to introduce the ‘May I’. Every time my son, who began speaking really early, started a sentence with ‘I want…’ I would say I want many things but you can see I don’t always get them. This was his cue to use the very polite ‘May I have…’ and I had him well trained in no time! It helped, of course, that he had a little Miss Manners for an older sister.
Around the time he turned three and started school, we stumbled upon a wonderful book in Tanzania’s National Library. Yes, that’s where we lived then. It talked about Magic Words and how they opened many doors. These magic words were please, thank you and sorry. Since then that became our code word for being polite. Sometimes in a rush to get things done I would say, for example, ‘Give me that book quickly.’ My tiny tot would politely remind me that I had forgotten the Magic Word. And so I had to quickly work in a ‘please’ in my original sentence but I used to be very pleased because I knew my lessons had taken firm root!
In the school environment too, children with good manners stand out and shine bright. A teacher is quick to notice a polite child, yes, even in India, where we usually have at least fifty children in a class, even in the best of schools. All your efforts to inculcate good manners will have paid off multi fold when the term end report of a well mannered kindergartener or elementary school child has at least a couple of lines extolling the child’s manners!
The true test of manners comes when a child is in difficult circumstances. As we all know, it is easy to be nice when the going is good. What happens when the tide is flowing against the child? When my children were much younger, there were a handful of occasions when they could not get to the bathroom in time and threw up in bed. An apology, when I least expected it, always popped up! A little voice used to pipe up and say, ‘Sorry Mom, I spoilt the sheets and now you will have to change them!’ I, of course, used to say it did not matter but I felt glad to see that illness did not root out manners.
As a two and a half year old, my daughter fell against a stool in our drawing room and had an inch deep cut over her eyebrow. As I picked up my sobbing baby, the blood flowed out freely and soon the shoulder of my Kurta was drenched in blood even as I carried her to the bathroom to wash the wound. As we got into the car to drive to the clinic to get the wound stitched, what did I hear? ‘Sorry Mom, you had to change your Kurta because of the blood!’
So if your child’s manners can withstand sickness, pain and fear, know that it is now second nature to them and they are set for life as far as etiquette is concerned! Other social skills like thanking people for inviting them for a party, praising food that someone has slaved in the kitchen to cook, politely requesting people to give or show them what they need, apologizing graciously when they are in the wrong (or even when others feel they are in the wrong) and genuinely complimenting people without undue flattery, will develop quickly once the basic foundation is firmly in place.
The fact remains that we, as parents have to mind our Ps and Ts and not hesitate to say S if we genuinely want to raise polite little paragons, who are sadly disappearing rapidly in this ultra modern world!
Meet Anupama – An archaeologist by qualification, an educational entrepreneur by profession, a linguist by inclination, a writer by vocation! I am a mother of an eleven year old son and a seventeen year old daughter. Currently based in Kenya due to my husband’s job, I manage my Academy in my home town Pune from across the ocean and continue teaching on Skype. To know about my life in Nairobi, memories from India and anything and everything that touches a chord with me, do read my blog:www.kenyankronikals.blogspot.com