Teaching Kids Manners Before They Embarrass Themselves (And You)

March 7, 2017

In an era of modern conveniences and instant communication and gratification, it seems manners often go by the wayside. George Washington lived by rules of civility. Why can’t we? The rules he modeled his life after were created for a different era, but we can easily modernize them for our own seemingly uncivilized world.

teaching kids manners


Modernizing George Washington’s Rules of Civility

I used to make treats every week for my husband’s Sunday School class.

He taught a group of a dozen or so pre-teens. When my husband reluctantly started relaying to me the things some of them would do or say if they didn’t like what I made, I immediately stopped baking them anything.

The behavior ranged from spitting out what they didn’t like in the garbage can in front of the entire class to even complaining about something I didn’t make them.

While this might leave you wondering about the quality of my baked goods… I can assure you they were all tried and true. So, I honestly wasn’t offended by the fact that they didn’t like what I made (you don’t like almond flavoring in your chocolate swig cookies… fine, more for me); What really upset me was the fact that they were so blatantly rude and so vocally ungrateful toward the person who took time out of their busy schedule to make something for them.

I wondered what their mothers would think. I never told them, though I’m sure they would have been embarrassed at their child’s behavior. I’ve often thought all those kids could benefit greatly from a Manners 101 course.

What ever happened to manners anyway? Social graces? Niceties? Tact? Etiquette? Whatever you want to call them, I am certain we can all agree that they are immensely lacking these days.

If you were to ask our nation’s first president, George Washington, about how to keep these kids from embarrassing themselves (and their parents too), he would undoubtedly have some ideas up his sleeve. The man had a stalwart reputation for his good manners.

His gentleman-like behavior is attributed to some basic rules of civility he came across as a teenager and tried earnestly to live by. The guidelines were from a book called The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. The book lists 110 rules of the proper social graces of his time period. As a youngster, Washington copied every single one of them by hand in a book of personal notes.

The Rules guided Washington’s intentional actions, pronounced speech, civility to those of lower ranks, and respect for his superiors.

They include things like, “Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present,” and “In the Presence of Others Sing not to yourself with a humming Noise, nor Drum with your Fingers or Feet.” You can find a list of all those rules here.

Washington applied The Rules to various aspects of his life, according to historians at Mount Vernon (his estate):

“During his military years, Washington expected a high level of decorum and cleanliness from his troops, referenced in Rule 51. He also promoted rules to his family, advising his stepgrandson, George Washington Parke Curtis that, ‘while a courteous behavior is due to all, select the most deserving only for your friendships,’ directly corresponding to Rule 56 which stated, ‘Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation.'”

If George Washington lived by rules of civility, why can’t we?

Where Did Manners Go?

What’s happened since that manner-driven era? How did social graces suddenly become so overlooked?

There are many factors at play, according to experts. Here are a few reasons why manners have gone out the window. They may help you cut back on some humiliating moments…

Teaching manners has become reactionary instead of purposeful

We often don’t think to teach our kids social niceties until it’s been brought to our attention that our kid did something embarrassing. We asked manners expert Monica Irvine, the owner of the Etiquette Factory, based in Knoxville, Tennessee, why she thinks manners are lacking in our society.

“Typically, parents teach manners when they are correcting, thus it tends to be negative and it tends to be at a time when children’s hearts are not softened, but defensive,” she said. “I teach parents that the optimal time to teach is when no one is in trouble.”

Before your kids head out to play with friends, it might be a good time to remind them to be kind, to share, to include others.

If they’re heading somewhere where food might be served, remind them to say “please” and “thank you,” and if they don’t like something, to keep their comments to themselves and politely decline if necessary.

It might be better to issue these reminders beforehand than to scold them with those tips afterward.

Technology Kicks Manners to the Curb

Is this really a surprise? Technology seems to be the answer to everything these days, the good and the bad.

Years ago I was on a dinner date, and my date probably spent a good half of the evening texting. It was a bad date, obviously. It’s one of those “funny” dating stories I have in my well-stashed archives now, but at the time I was totally bugged. Here was a grown man (we were in our late twenties at the time) who had such little social etiquette.

At one point, he received a text from his mother and he willingly read it outloud, “My mom told me to stop checking my phone and pay attention to my date.” Thanks buddy.

When we bury our noses in our phones or tablets we’re essentially ignoring our kids and sending them a clear message about what’s important. Clearly, this is a cross-generational issue.

Furthermore, when we get into uncivil dialogue on social media, what kind of lessons are we sending to our kids? That it’s okay for them to speak their mind freely, tact excluded, on social mediums?

“Texting and tweeting encourage brief communications, which can lead to a lack of clarity, nuance, and sensitivity, in other words, bad manners. Relating through electronic devices creates a breeding ground for rudeness since it’s easier to be rude anonymously or remotely; you get less practice for ‘real’ relationships; and, for most people, brief written communications are more likely than face-to-face interactions to lead to rude, insensitive, or misinterpreted remarks. In the same way that the automobile introduced a myriad of new opportunities for rudeness, so do today’s new electronic devices, social media, and communication methods,” Alex Packer told the Observer.

We have a whole bunch of tips here for keeping your cool online.

To help with this technology overload, try putting your phones away during meal time. When you’re out and about, make your kids put their devices away too. Sometimes it’s nice for their eyes to be out observing how society functions from time to time, instead of staring at a screen.

Pop culture

From movies to music to video games, our kids mimic the behavior (or lyrics) they see and hear. This seems so obvious, but what messages are our kids receiving through the things we allow them to watch, or the things they’re viewing with friends?

Pop culture doesn’t always portray the best example of the lives we want our kids to model theirs after. Are they into anything you should be concerned about? Furthermore, what are we watching or listening to when we’re with our kids? It’s important to realize what impact our own media consumption is having on those around us too.

It might be a good topic for discussion at the dinner table. What are they watching when we’re not around? What music do they listen to when they’re alone or with friends? Who do they view as role models? Talk about why those artists, TV genres or games might be questionable.

Trying to be our kid’s friend instead of their parent 

In his book How Rude! The Teen Guide to Good Manners, Proper Behavior, and Not Grossing People Out , Alex Packer discusses how good manners must be taught, discussed, and practiced. “A lot of parents would rather be their child’s friend than their parent,” he says. “So kids get mixed messages and etiquette instruction falls by the wayside.”

Are we so concerned with being our kid’s BFF that we stop disciplining and miss out on teaching valuable lessons? As parents, it is our job to mold and teach these shapeable youngsters into responsible, polite, and kind functioning members of society. When we’re in the friend zone, we’re making it hard, if not impossible, to set limits on inappropriate behavior. If your friend tried doing that to you, how would you respond? Probably not favorably.

If we want to teach manners, we have to be the teacher and ditch the BFF role. Set boundaries. They’ll thank you later.

George Washington’s Rules of Civility were written for those who lived centuries ago. But, if we’re looking for guidelines for our children (or even ourselves) we can easily put a modern spin on those rules and make them into rules that work for us too.

Stay tuned for future posts where we’ll take a look at all these rules individually and learn how we can apply them to our own lives and maybe refine our kids (and ourselves) just a bit. Some may seem outdated, but there’s a whole lot of common sense behind them if we modernize them just a bit.

Showing respect to those around us helps others to respect us in return. It’s as simple as that. George Washington knew this mantra well. It may have even saved him from a few embarrassing moments.


What manners are most important to you to teach your children? How do you teach them? What specific manners do you notice are absent these days? We’d love to hear from you!

Author: Andrea

Former news reporter and Capitol Hill press guru, wife, mom, and pastry addict.

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1 Comment

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    […] point you to one of my new favorites, The American Moms. The post I read this morning is called Teaching Kids Manners Before They Embarrass Themselves (And You) and it looks to be the beginning of a series of posts on the how-to of teaching your little, and […]

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