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Manners and Kids: Social Skills Still Matter

Etiquette evolves, and new technology makes it trickier. Yet it helps kids foster stronger relationships and better professional prospects. Here are tips for parents to guide them.

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Ever wonder what the matriarch of manners, Ms. Emily Post, would think about the state of manners and etiquette among kids today? Her great-great grandson, Daniel Post Senning, thinks she'd likely bemoan some of the behaviors that technology too often elicits – in children and adults. Though he admits his great-great grandmother was an early adopter and would have embraced the technology trends of the past decade, she likely would have a thing or two to say about proper use of society's many techie toys.

"Cell phones present a whole range of courtesies that didn't exist 10 years ago," says Post Senning, who is manager of web development and online content for the Emily Post Institute. "But while the mechanisms for communication and social behavior may have changed, the three principles of good manners – honesty, respect and consideration – are timeless. We've been teaching children those same basic principles for the past 100 years."

Modeling the way

Caron Tolstyka of Brownstown may not pen an advice column on etiquette, but she has firsthand experience cultivating manners in children. As a mom of three, she works at it every single day with the hope that she is helping her daughters to grow into thoughtful, kind adults.

"For my husband and I, it's important to us that we lead by example," says Tolstyka, a freelance photographer. "Children don't come into the world knowing to be kind. We have to teach them what is kind and what is rude."

That is exactly the advice of those who call social-skill development their profession – people like Jacqueline M. Northrop of Detroit. Northrop works with children and young adults and increasingly observes that basic manners and social skills are lacking.

"'Please' and 'thank you' are essential, but they're just a baseline," notes Northrop, who is principal consultant at Detroit-based Scarlet Communications. "Parents need to set the tone for how they expect their children to treat others."

The Emily Post Institute calls this modeling method the "Golden Rule" of parenting: Be the parent you want your child to be.

Yet while parents may have the best of intentions, they simply may not be physically in the presence of their children for prolonged periods in which they can model and repeat the behaviors they'd like to see their children emulate. With the number of households with two working parents on the rise and the many extracurricular activities of kids creeping more and more into family time, it's more challenging now than ever to sit down for a traditional family dinner – a key time of day for families to reconnect and for parents to model social behaviors.

"A lot of schools reach out to us to teach social skills," Post Senning notes. "Many kids are now eating two meals a day at school. As a result, they don't know how to hold a utensil appropriately. These skills still matter. They're basic social skills that equip kids as people."

Left unchecked, the lack of solid social skills can have negative repercussions well into adulthood – and affect your child's ability to land a job. The Emily Post Institute regularly conducts training for corporate new hires and even C-level executives on basic matters of etiquette. Likewise, university career planning counselors are finding the first order of business for their soon-to-be graduates is not necessarily helping them to find a job but instead helping them learn how to dress appropriately for an interview, how to listen respectfully and how to communicate face-to-face – skills that are all too often lacking.

The case for being civilized

In the book The Gift of Good Manners, Post Senning's mother, Cindy Post Senning, Ed.D., and her sister-in-law, Peggy Post, refer to etiquette as a gift fundamental to a good life and a brighter future. While this may be a helpful explanation on the need for manners when talking with your teenager, it can be a challenging concept to break down for a 5- or 6-year-old. As many parents can attest, it is often the "why" for any given instruction that can go a long way in convincing a child to acquiesce.

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