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Mama Said: Why children + manners = a minefield

When it comes to children having good manners, everyone has a deal breaker, writes Emily Martin

Teaching children manners is a minefield, says Mama Said's Emily Martin (54050809)
Teaching children manners is a minefield, says Mama Said's Emily Martin (54050809)

So many times over Christmas I had to remind my children to “Say ‘thank you’” as they tore open yet another thing and then smiled silently while we, the adults, watched and waited for the reaction. “WHAT DO YOU SAY?!” I was literally yelling at them by the end of December, a frazzled director in a play of good manners, trying to instruct two completely hopeless actors.

I don’t think not saying a nice, loud and sincere “Thank you” is necessarily bad mannered (maybe except for the child I heard say: “Thank you, I GUESS”). I think being slow off the gratitude mark can just be a mixture of shyness and downright inertia at the sheer number of gifts that modern children open that prevents them from ever showing true gratefulness for the things they’re presented with. Which I hate so much.

No amount of reminding them that some children have nothing seems to make their comparative good fortune sink in. They just call for more and more batteries and you search for tiny screwdrivers in drawers until your fingers are actually bleeding. As an aside, why do all toys have to be screwed shut? In the 80s I remember things being much looser. Even the boxes are screwed shut now.

Anyway, the mass gift-opening goes on while grandparents smile from the sofa and remind us all that when they were small, on a gift giving day, they’d typically only get a medium-size orange. And maybe that was to share with one of their 11 siblings. And do you know what? They’d be delighted with that.

The other bad-manners pitfall for children is the whole arriving to and leaving from other people’s homes etiquette. Refusing to kiss grandma goodbye or not saying, “Thank you for having me” to an adult who’s just done a shift. Tut tut. “It’s OK, don’t make him,” the adult will say as your greedy child heads towards the car with armfuls of goodwill and not even a backwards glance.

Table manners can often be a bit of a failure. A couple of times a week at my house we’ll sit together for a meal, like a cooked breakfast at the weekend or a random roast maybe, but on a normal day we, the adults, will eat later than the children (or else there’s nothing to look forward to when they’re finally in bed, right?) and so they often. . . umm. . . *read this bit really fast*. . . they just eattheirdinnerinthelivingroomwatchingtv. Anyway let’s breeze past that.

Consequently, when they do have to sit at a table in front of other people, the table manners can be hit and miss. My daughter is actually pretty good at maintaining a presentable facade, although I do have to remind her to use cutlery sometimes with a sort of eye bulge/eyebrow raise I’ve developed. She’ll look at me, slowly put down the roast potato cupped in her hand and then stab it with a fork. And my son will typically just get down from the table and leave. Or cry because his carrots have been cooked when he prefers not. Or he’ll just simply say, “No I don’t want this” as his food is set before him. Having elbows off the table or asking “Please may I leave the table?” seem like advanced skills we’re yet to cover.

I remember twiddling my hair at my grandma’s once after dinner. Just twisting a strand round and round in a thin rope and staring up at it cross-eyed and tongue out while the grown-ups chatted away. And then suddenly my usually sweet and soft, powdery grandma went beserk, jolting me from my twiddling and shouting that she would “NOT have a child TWIDDLING at her table thank you very much, Emily!”. All adults seem to have random limits on what they can tolerate.

One of my personal manners deal-breakers is when people enthusiastically say to children “How are you?” and they just reply, “Good”. I hate it so much. I watch the children’s little self-absorbed faces soaking in all of the enquirer’s kindness and just giving absolutely zero back. When my children do it I say to them afterwards, “You’re meant to say, ‘I’m very well thank you and how are YOU?’ You’re meant to care about other people and remember details from their lives to ask about!” Although I am aware if any of us were actually asked how we are by a small child, that would be unnerving.

Having said all this though, sometimes the children surprise me. I was so proud of my daughter over Christmas when she received the same gift twice but, to spare the feelings of the person who gave her the item for the second time, rather than doing what I expected her to do, which was go “I’ve already got this!” and chuck it, she instead pretended to be thrilled and said an excellent and sincere “Thank you”. When I asked her later why she did that, she said, “Well, it would have been rude to say I already had it and they’d have felt bad.” Huh. So they do understand.

And my son, my sweet Valentine, wrapped up for a gift a watermelon stress-ball, covered with bits of grime and carpet hairs (he’d won it last summer from a slot machine in Blackpool). He’d tried to write “Mummy” on the paper and presented it to me with such reverence, love and ceremony it was truly the best thing I opened all year.


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