Years ago, I was talking to an acquaintance who told me about someone who, "didn't know the difference between one fish fork and the other" at a dinner. He ended by adding, "Can you imagine such a thing?" Not only could I image such a "thing", I realized that I was never inviting him over to my house for dinner. I only knew about one fish fork, the tiny one used for shellfish.

While he may have taken table manners to an extreme, it's true that people are judged by their manners. To prove the point, I made a judgment about him when he made that statement. That he was the one with bad manners. And even worse, he seemed clueless about the kind of manners that are much more valuable than proper silverware usage. He lacked the critically important manners that provide us with the "how to" guide for interacting thoughtfully, respectfully, and empathically with others in almost every personal and professional situation imaginable on a daily basis.

And please, don't make the mistake of thinking that the more educated, wealthy, or worldly have better manners. I've been in places overflowing with highly paid professionals who hold positions of great authority, only to be shocked when they rush into an opening elevator with the speed and agility of an NFL lineman, nearly tackling anyone blocking their way.  And I've been in public places with tough looking teenagers who were not only street smart, but apparently manners smart, too. They took the few extra seconds to hold a door open for someone, leaving me smiling and feeling much more positive about the future of America's youth.

What is clear is that manners really do matter, and children should be learning them at home and school right alongside reading, writing, math and all the other essential subjects needed for living a productive and satisfying life.

Just how important are manners? It's a topic that receives serious attention from experts as diverse as Pier Forni, PhD, co-founder of the Civility Project at Johns Hopkins University, which examines the significance of civility, manners, and politeness in contemporary society; and Dr. Berry Brazelton, noted pediatrician, author, and director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center at Boston Children's Hospital.

Forni states, "The rules of good manners are the traffic lights of human interaction. They make it so that we don't crash into one another in everyday behavior."

Our distant ancestors developed behaviors to show others respect, fairness and kindness. Those have evolved into today's manners. "You cannot have any kind of community if there are not some rules," Forni said.

Brazelton echoes Forni's comments adding that, "In past generations, teaching a child manners was an important part of early training." He also says, "manners still matter, but children today may be cheated of the opportunities to think generously about others. We are in a hurry, and most families are stressed. Manners may be left out or forgotten. This is unfortunate. I always urge parents to start in early childhood to teach manners and to demonstrate respect for each other."

Brazelton is right, children and parents alike are over-booked, over-burdened, constantly rushing from one place to another – school, work, and all the "extras": sports, dance, music, religious school. How can families possibly add one more thing to their "to do lists?"  It's easier than you think.

Learning Manners Starts at Home

  • Just like most important life lessons; children learn best by example, by observing and listening to the adults in their in their lives. You don't need a copy of the latest Emily Post book to teach this, but you do need to mind your own manners.

Expect respect

  • The root of good manners is respect for another person.

Start young  

  • Even two-year-olds can get into the habit of saying, "please" and "thank you."

Model good manners

  • Let your child hear you using polite words and see you demonstrating consideration for others during your daily interactions. Simple exchanges like thanking the cashier when given your change at the market or leaving your table at a self-serve restaurant clean and ready for the next diner teaches them that manners count in their family, that they are expected, and valued.

Manners are a two way street

  • Treat your child with the same politeness you do an adult. Let them experience the good feelings of being on the receiving side of courtesy, respect and appreciation.

Practice doesn't make perfect

  • Expect manners meltdowns. There will be times when even the most polite child forgets her manners, or even worst is downright rude. This is especially true as the child becomes older and more independent. Correct them privately and calmly, but firmly. Turn it into a learning experience and not an opportunity to humiliate.

Most of all, remember unlike that "extra" fish fork; manners shouldn't be reserved only for company or special occasions. Manners should be part of every single day.

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