Learning manners is nothing to play around with.
By Christopher Byrne
When I was growing up, we got our training in manners from our parents and grandparents and virtually every other adult in our life. Elbows did not go on the table. Talking with the mouth full was verboten. If you didn’t utter “please” or “thank you,” you might as well not have spoken. It was strict and consistent, and yet it never seemed difficult. If your elbows were shoved off the table enough times, you tended to get the idea. And since all our friends were being trained in more or less the same martial style, the result was a lot of little kids who knew how to behave at the table.
Among the training, though, we also had a mother with a wonderful sense of humor, and she regaled us with the famous 1900 Gelett Burgess poem from “The Goops and How to Be One:”
The Goops they lick their fingers, And the Goops they lick their knives; They spill their broth on the tablecloth — Oh, they lead disgusting lives!
The Goops they talk while eating, And loud and fast they chew; And that is why I’m glad that I Am not a Goop — Are you?
The Goops are gluttonous and rude, They gug and gumble with their food; They throw their crumbs upon the floor, And at dessert they tease for more.
They will not eat their soup and bread but like to gobble sweets, instead, And this is why I oft decline, When I am asked to stay and dine!
We learned through our amusement at the revolting Goops that this kind of behavior was exactly not what we were supposed to do, and we could laugh at them – and feel like we were better people. And don’t think that dinner was a stiff and cold affair, like the Von Trapps before Fraulein Maria showed up from the abbey. Mealtimes were full of conversation and laughter, and the correction or advice on manners flowed naturally in the process.
We also challenged the rules. (Of course, we were kids.) If one brother said, “pass me a roll,” it would sometimes go in an imperfect spiral down the table. We were reminded, “pass the whole bread basket,” and dinner went on.
Speaking of having fun with this, another verse that was recited around our house ad nauseum but to our constant amusement was:
I eat my peas with honey.
I’ve done it all my life.
It does taste rather funny,
But it keeps them on the knife.
To the 7-year-old sensibility, this is high comedy. There is the silliness of peas and honey together (ick) and the image of eating peas off a knife, which we knew was rude. It was funny precisely because we knew it challenged boundaries.
We also repeated another one, particularly when correcting one another:
Mabel, Mable, if you’re able
Take your elbows of the table.
This is not a horse’s stable.
Learning manners was part of our daily lives. Our family ate together every night, and there was plenty of reinforcement for good behavior, and reminders when we slipped.
More importantly, what was reinforced for us and out contemporaries was that this is how grown-ups behave, and that’s very powerful. Admission to the grown-up world and privileges was something we all wanted, and if putting the napkin in one’s lap and learning to say “No, thank you.” Instead of “I hate lima beans!” was the key, we were going to do it. We saw the immediate impact of our actions in the real world.
No matter how casual things have become, and how much the family dinner has become an antique custom, manners still matter. So a bunch of well-meaning people have taken it on themselves to make board games that purported to teach manners. The games are earnest and come from a good place, but they’re ineffective. And, most importantly, they’re not fun.
The Goops, are a riot because they’re bad. Unfortunately, I’ve talked to a bunch of teachers and they steer away from Gelett Burgess because they’re afraid that The Goops, instead of being a cautionary tale, are actually modeling behavior.
This is terrible, but then we’ve lost a sense of humor about so many things, and the diminished capacity for abstract thought in our species is approaching epidemic proportions. Plus, we don’t respect children’s capacity for humor and for meeting clearly stated expectations, but that’s a topic for another day.
But here’s why the manners games can’t work by themselves. A board game is an isolated experience that has very little relation to what’s happening outside the game experience. The transference of what one does in a game to the real world is impossible unless there’s a context to support it. A child can learn how to say “please” and “thank you” to win a game, but if the real world application of it is not modeled for him or her on a daily basis, it’s not going to become ingrained behavior.
Today’s parents have a huge challenge, and keeping elbows off the table is small, compared with rules about cell phones or Nintendos at the dinner table—not to mention mom and dad’s Blackberry devices. Still, if you want your kids to be well-mannered, you’ve got to invest the time, and not leave it to, literally, a roll of the dice.
Why should you care? Well, whatever you think about formality and structure, manners still matter. They are the social practices that show respect for others, consideration and separate us from the herd of leopards ripping into a fallen gnu at the waterhole, where “please” and “thank you” are seldom heard.
Also, I talked to some headhunters who were interviewing people for high stakes jobs, and they say part of an interview process for a high level job often includes a meal, not just to get to know the candidate, but to understand how he or she comports himself in public. Bad table manners have scuttled more than a few jobs.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I love games. Games teach great things like taking turns, being a good winner or loser, dealing with chance. There are games that foster deductive reasoning, memorization of geography or math, color identification, object permanence and a slew of other important skills—and they do it in ways that are fun and that kids want to repeat.
Life skills, on the other hand, can only be learned and practiced in life. Save the game time for fun and the learning that’s organic to board games. For teaching manners, set a good example, reinforce, have a sense of humor – and repeat, repeat, repeat.