We have a manners problem in my family. My 9-year-old son eats alarmingly fast, often without utensils. It’s repulsive yet mesmerizing, in the same way I imagine watching a lion eat a freshly killed antelope might be. Mealtime is often given over to unpleasant, and generally unsuccessful, efforts to slow him down (while my well-mannered 12-year-old rolls her eyes), leaving little opportunity for the spirited political and philosophical conversations I’m certain we would otherwise be having. Recently two great-aunts from different sides of the family asked my son how it would look if he were to eat so fast on a date. After a brief pause to consider this dire possibility, he ate faster.
That’s not all: If a box of tissues is not in immediate reach, he blows his nose into his shirt. Not long ago, while sitting on a couch at a party, he sneezed into a frilly throw pillow. I offered lame apologies as the adults backed out of the room.
Manners are important to me, increasingly so as evidence of a technology-induced decline in civility abounds. It’s not unusual for someone to bump into me on the sidewalk or let a door close in my face because he or she is staring at a phone. I want my children to interact with the world in a considerate, engaged way, and manners are fundamental to that. Our kids were both shy when they were younger, and my husband and I worked hard to teach them to respond, with eye contact, when they were spoken to by adults. Electronic devices are forbidden during meals (even though my son’s breakneck eating speed seems in part driven by a desire to get dinner over with as quickly as possible so he can move on to his coveted screen time). We expect him to compose old-fashioned, handwritten, thank you notes for gifts, and he’s happy to do it; his sweet, goofy cards often melt my heart. And yet, and yet: He’s so proudly and stubbornly gross!
I’ve often jokingly threatened to send him to charm school without knowing whether such a thing actually exists anymore. Curious, I looked around and found that there are still some traditional etiquette schools, but there are updated programs, too, responding to cultural shifts including the ubiquity of digital technology and the decline of the nightly family dinner. Faye de Muyshondt founded Socialsklz, a modern etiquette company based in New York City, after teaching marketing and public relations at New York University. “I started out teaching looking at my students’ eyes, and it turned into looking at the back of computer screens,” she told me. “Even with their peers it’s easier for kids to express feelings in a text than in person. We’re losing out on a lot of social skills that are taught as we go through life because kids aren’t experiencing the same face-to-face interaction they did in the past.”
In addition to dealing with contemporary etiquette problems, de Muyshondt tackles the age-old ones, too, like, say, 9-year-old boys with no table manners. I asked her for advice on my son, who knows the rules of etiquette but is simply uninterested in following them. “It’s absolutely normal in the development of a child,” said de Muyshondt, reassuring me that he would eventually outgrow his revolting behavior. “The need to eat overtakes the manners, especially with a 9-year-old boy. They’re starving, they’re growing, they just want to get from A to B.” She recommended replacing daily nagging with a weekly “fancy dinner night” at home where kids dress nicely, set the table and eat with impeccable manners. “Meals should be enjoyable for a kid,” de Muyshondt said of taking a break from the constant haranguing. “Doing it on a weekly basis helps them master the skills.”
I also consulted Lizzie Post of the Emily Post Institute, based in Burlington, Vt. She proposed a stricter strategy, which is perhaps unsurprising given that, as a great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post, she has the blood of the leading arbiter of American etiquette coursing through her veins. “Parents today have a harder time being consistent, being diligent, taking the time, and making the effort,” she told me. “You have to hold the line. The way to make sure that your kid is developing these habits is to practice and to continually remind them and to be that broken record. The repetition is what sticks with us as adults. That is truly the way to go.”
Post’s directive to “hold the line” made me think of times my husband and I have undercut our own position by rushing the kids through meals to keep them from being late for school or piano or soccer. There are moments when we too could use a reminder to slow down and take a breath. Still, I’m heartened by the idea that with guidance, my son will stop treating each meal as preparation for a career in competitive eating. “Good manners are in all of us, no matter what,” Post insisted. “The wanting of it comes with time and growth and experience, from a kid literally feeling grossed out by seeing his friend blow his nose on his sleeve.”
I think of that party at which my son sneezed into the throw pillow. Everyone past junior high was appalled; all the kids thought it was hilarious. And I realize: This too shall pass. Before I know it (and maybe before I’m ready for it), my ill-mannered 9-year-old will be on the other side of that divide. Soon he’ll be 10.