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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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"Explain to children why we say 'please' and 'thank you,'" says Faye Rogaski, founder of SocialSklz, a New York City-based social skills youth training program. "You can ask your child to put himself in another's shoes. If a friend did something nice for him, and he didn't say 'thank you,' how would that make his friend feel? Empathy is the foundation of great social skills."

Rogaski notes that more times than not, parents are in corrective mode when it comes to manners.

"Parents tend to correct a manner mishap rather than proactively sitting down for a manners lesson or discussion with their children," she says. "Just as kids learn anything else, whether it be tennis or ballet, they consciously need to learn about manners. I tell parents to sit down and invest the time in teaching great social skills."

Long-term, the benefits of developing social skills at a young age are many. They can enhance friendships and teacher and family relationships, Rogaski notes. And if that's not reason enough, studies, including one published in the February 2011 issue of Child Development, have shown that children who have early exposure to social and emotional learning programs tend to perform better academically and to demonstrate improved behavior and attitudes.

The technology twist

With the proliferation of cell phones and other mobile devices and the popularity of social networking, basic manners stand to be tried and tested even further. According to Daniel Post Senning, the average age a child receives his or her first cell phone is 12 years old.

"It used to be that getting your driver's license was the big, liberating event in a child's life," Post Senning notes. "Now, in the tween years, the first mobile device is the new rite of passage. Parents absolutely need to manage that for and with their child."

Northrop sees social networking and text messaging as two major hurdles to social skills development. The ability for young people to communicate with friends, teachers, family members and others through these technologies has detrimentally impacted how they communicate face-to-face, she maintains.

"Basic communication skills are being compromised," Northrop asserts. "Kids don't know how to give eye contact or how to start a conversation. Grammar is poor. Kids think it's acceptable to talk in acronyms. 'LOL' is not a response for in-person communication – and 'LMAO' actually has a curse word in it!"

Derschaun Sharpley is president and CEO of Helping Individuals Succeed in Southfield. She works with area youth on soft-skills development.

"It's easier for kids to text," she notes. "They can hide behind the technology. I ask the kids I work with if they think employees at Ford Motor Company walk around texting each other. No: In real life, you don't run a corporation like that."

The Emily Post Institute recommends parents work with their children to create a "digital diet."

"Just as you eat from each of the four different food groups, you should take advantage of each of the different means of communicating," Daniel Post Senning says. "No one communication tool should dominate your life."

While he acknowledges computer and technology skills are absolutely necessary for kids in this day and age, the usage needs to be managed.

"Children need to know how to give a proper handshake and how to look someone in the eye," he says, noting that they aren't likely to get that from an iPhone.

It was the appalling lack of formality and respect in emails that she received from college students she was teaching in a PR course at New York University that prompted Rogaski to launch SocialSklz.

"I'd receive emails from students that simply said, 'Hey, whtz the homework for tom?'" she recalls. "It's absolutely not appropriate to send your professor an email like that. You need a proper open and a proper close and, overall, to be more formal."

It's for this very reason that Rogaski includes an exercise about writing a proper email in the training programs she runs.

"I have my students write an email to a teacher or someone with whom they are just starting a relationship," she says. "We go over subject lines, opens and closes, etc."

Bringing in reinforcements

Without a doubt, a parent or primary caregiver is the first point of contact for introducing and modeling appropriate social behaviors. But children will come across many other adults who model behaviors – good and bad – throughout their day, starting when they are infants.

Wanda Olugbala of Detroit is mom to 5-year-old Langston. When she sought out daycare options for her son when he was still an infant, she looked for a program that would meet her son's needs socially and emotionally, not just intellectually.

"As a social worker, I am a big stickler for character development," says Olugbala, who works at Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies in Detroit. "I'm cognizant of the types of people who care for my son. If he was ever in an environment that was not speaking to my values and morals, we would quickly exit."

Katie Bugbee, managing editor at Care.com and a mother of two, encourages parents to observe how care providers at potential daycare centers manage the situation when kids aren't sharing. She also encourages them to watch how the children behave overall to see if the center or group daycare they are considering will help foster positive social behavior.

In the case of nannies, Bugbee indicates it's imperative during the interview process to lay out what's important to you and your spouse when it comes to manners and the type of child you're looking to raise.

"Often nannies are on their second or third family by the time you meet them," says Bugbee. "Call their references to see how they were able to help instill manners in those parents' kids.

"We also recommend a nanny contract. In this document, you can clearly lay out expectations – like that saying 'please' and 'thank you' is a priority for you. You can also create a list of goals. Chances are, with their experience, they have their own tricks up their sleeves to help instill good manners."

An opportunity for distinction

Despite the rapid changes in technology and a new generation of youngsters coming of age not knowing life before cable TV and the Internet, traditional manners continue to be relevant, asserts Daniel Post Senning.

"It's a truism that every generation believes they have witnessed a change in manners that occurred over their lifetime and think that manners are disappearing," he says. "The truth is that traditional manners continue to function generation after generation."

He notes that while many people may feel like manners have disappeared, it's more likely that it's the expectation for traditional manners that has disappeared – or at least lessened. That's where a child can shine.

"The person who meets that opportunity – who holds a chair for someone – will stand out," he says. "Most people aren't expecting those traditional manners. It's amazing the impact you can have when you make people feel good."

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