Kids learn manners by example

February 22, 2000|By Susan Reimer

POOR Peter Post. Emily's great-grandson has co-authored a book on etiquette in the business world, but everywhere he goes, people just want to ask how they can reform their ill-mannered teen-agers.

Apparently the office workers of the world are also the parents of kids who can't be bothered to carry their dishes to the sink.

"That's the first thing they ask," said Post. " `Are teen-agers more rude than they were before, and what can we do about it?' "

The question is not only off-topic -- the man is trying to promote a book on the modern rules of engagement in the office, not the family kitchen -- but it is a little late to be asking it.

"Realistically speaking, if a person is at this point with their teen, the behaviors that lead to rudeness started years ago," said Post. We spoke at Bookmania! in Stuart, Fla., where he was discussing his book, "The Etiquette Advantage in Business," and the first thing I asked him was how I could reform my ill-mannered teen-agers.

Post said, quite correctly, that the long process of civilizing children begins in toddlerhood, and if parents find they are behind schedule at age 12, a sudden, roaring confrontation about poor manners isn't going to get it done.

"The danger is that parents will yell or threaten them with the loss of their allowance, or whatever," said Post. "We know enough about teen-agers to know that the only way to change their behavior is to change our response to their behavior."

Post, the father of two daughters just emerging from their teen years, is not talking about teens who use the wrong fork at a wedding reception, and neither are any of the anxious parents who question him.

"It shows up in their respect for the house and their unwillingness to take care of the common places, the kitchen, the family room. Parents are frustrated and angry when the house looks a shambles. It is inconsiderate and the opposite of civil behavior and manners."

Manners are about respect and consideration, not which fork you use, and manners are the lubricant in relationships, Post said: both family relationships and business relationships. It's a clear connection between the book he has written and the one everybody wishes he had.

The children who never learned to clean up their own snack dishes grow up to be co-workers who dump their dishes in the lunchroom sink and walk away.

The children who never learned how to greet an adult with a handshake, a smile, eye contact and an audible "Hello!" grow up to be business people who put off potential clients.

The children who say mean things behind the backs of their friends are the ones who will be caught writing something unkind in an e-mail.

The children who are never required to accept responsibility, gracefully and humbly, for their failures are the ones who grow up to respond to a business crisis by saying, "Hey, it's not my problem."

"We hear it from employers all the time," said Post, who owns his own advertising agency in Vermont and works with family members in the Emily Post Institute.

"Young people don't have the personal skills to go along with the job skills. They are real good at their jobs, but they don't know how to interact with clients.

"The same is true for businesses. If there are three or four businesses that can do the job, the one that has the people skills is the one that will get the contract."

Post is unwilling to put the responsibility for turning out polite children solely on the shoulders of their parents. It is the job of everyone who interacts with children to expect from them the consideration and the respect from which good manners flow almost unconsciously.

"The teacher, the shopkeeper, the policeman on the beat," said Post. "Parents are the prime movers, but this is society's responsibility."

Adults often treat teens like the shopkeepers treated Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman," Post said: You don't belong here and you'd better leave. And children too often see their parents treating clerks and waitresses as if they were invisible. Our behavior toward teens and our example in front of them are much more effective teaching tools than barking at them about their table manners.

After all, today's teen-agers are tomorrow's business people. If Post had written the book all those parents are asking him for, he might never have had to write the one he did.

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