Taking a mannerly approach with kids

Family: With the holidays approaching, etiquette classes promise instruction in all things right and proper.

November 14, 1999|By Linda Siemon | Linda Siemon,Special to the Sun

Food fights. Making animal noises during dinner. Finger smudges on the tablecloth.

It's one thing for young children to behave this way at home. But unmannerly deeds can lead to embarrassing moments during holiday gatherings. What's an anxious parent to do? Many are turning to etiquette experts, who have started tailoring sessions specifically to helping little ones mind their Ps and Qs during the holidays.

Deana Evans, who recently enrolled her 6-year-old son Tyler in a class taught at the Carrolltown Library, has modest goals. "Just get him to not burp at the table," says the Sykesville mother. "That's always a plus."

Society, it seems, is starting to pay more attention to politeness, and the class that Tyler attended, by Manners, Inc., in Eldersburg, represents one of many opportunities for children to brush up on their good behavior.

Today's training doesn't resemble the stodgy classes that parents may remember.

Jenny Felbinger, director of Manners, Inc., says she has some not-so-fond memories of childhood charm school.

"It was very hoity-toity. Learning how to serve tea, learning how to walk," says Felbinger. She and her partner, Loren Blake, say they don't want to be perceived as a finishing school. Their methods involve more practical lessons, including which fork to use and the art of writing a thank-you note.

Dr. P.M. Forni, a Johns Hopkins University professor who specializes in civility, says, "Manners and etiquette are not trivial, because training in manners is a training in sensitivity. We know that those trained are less likely to become abusive and violent. ... The holidays are good opportunities for practice because we have more formal meals and practice social skills."

Carol Haislip, director of the International School of Protocol, an etiquette school in Phoenix, says "Having a nonparent teach these skills is more effective. Parents are teaching so much it tends to go in one ear and out the other."

At a recent class for 4- to 9-year-olds sponsored by Manners, Inc., Blake asks young students for examples of good manners. Eager hands shoot into the air and there's a unanimous response: remembering to say please and thank you. During the next hour, these children will be perfecting their table manners in anticipation of Thanksgiving. With the class split in half, one group paints a white cloth napkin (as well as some of their own hands) with red, yellow and brown leaf designs. The other half of the class learns to set the proper place setting with paper magnets and a magnetic board.

Five-year-old Grace Fansler of Sykesville already has had a taste of etiquette at Thanksgiving dinners, which she usually has at her grandmother's. "We sit in her dining room," she says. "You can't wear shoes because they're dirty and it's so pretty."

During the holiday season, Manners, Inc. will be offering 90-minute sessions called Happy Holidays. The $15 course covers thank-you note writing as well as how to graciously receive any gift, even if it didn't make it to the top of the wish list.

At My Lady's Manor, a division of the International School of Protocol, students have a four-hour lesson in formal dining that includes a four-course meal. The cost is $75.

Janis Encapera, founder of Eti-Kit, a Bel Air-based school, tries to remind her students to respect different cultures, especially around the holidays. "I try to tell them ... everyone has different beliefs. You have to respect how different cultures celebrate traditions," she says.

Encapera also plans to offer an etiquette class designed for Jewish children in December. The session will include a four-course kosher meal.

Whether a child will be celebrating Christmas or Hanukkah, experts agree that sending thank-you notes for gifts received is a must. But the pros also know that these notes can be one of the most dreaded tasks a child has during the holidays.

But Brittany Perry, 9, of Pikesville, understands that thank-you notes are important, not just for gifts received but also to show appreciation. "If someone helps you with something and it takes up their time, I might write them a thank-you note and they might feel really good inside," she says.

Attempting to make thank-you notes an easier task, Encapera has a mock birthday party with real cake and ice cream during her classes. At the party, the children receive small gifts they get to take home, such as gift-wrapped candy bars. But they must write thank-you notes.

These interactive settings are popular among schools of protocol. "Anyone could go and teach a class on etiquette, but No. 1 to me is that you need to know how to present the information so they can learn it," says Encapera.

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