Building a Solid Foundation--Part 2

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Building a Solid Foundation--Part 2

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In last month’s article on child rearing we learned there is a way to lay a solid foundation that will benefit our family and our children now, in the future and on into the wonderful world tomorrow. The very first step is to take charge of the very young child, to be consistent in our expectations of what their behavior should be, and to regard unacceptable behavior as unacceptable at any age. But, we may ask, how can we find time to teach our growing children respect, responsibility and restraint in our busy daily routine? Playtime and dinnertime are perfectly suited for teaching these important concepts.

According to The Emily Post Book of Etiquette for Young People, etiquette is useful “in order to make a home a livable place… Teaching us to respect the rights and the individualism of each member of the family can serve to improve the unity of the whole.”

We don’t want just blind obedience; we want children who learn to reflect on the consequences of their actions before they act.

In The Disappearance of Childhood Neil Postman asserts that homogenization of dress, action and language is blurring the roles of children and adults. In particular; dirty words are shared and freely used by both. Some may think, “So what?” But, according to Dr. Postman, this backlash leads to “the erosion of a traditional distinction between children and adults…also significant because it represents a loss in the concept of manners. Indeed, as language, clothing, taste, eating habits, etc., become increasingly homogenized there is a corresponding decline in both the practice and meaning of ‘civility.’”

We can offset these trends by using good English ourselves, restricting television, monitoring our children’s friends and reestablishing some civility in our lives.

Teaching manners at the dinner table

Civility comes from the word civilized, meaning “a society that has come to a high level of cultural refinement, including proper dress, manners and behavior.” Civility was, for the most part, taught and practiced at the dinner table or other social events revolving around eating. Now, it seems, priorities have changed, and etiquette has taken a backseat.

Instead of allowing a free-for-all or eating separately, we can use the dinner hour not only as a pleasant social gathering, but also as a valuable tool to teach our children.

But learning good manners around the dinner table goes way beyond just being able to take your children out. It teaches habits of respect, responsibility and restraint. Children who are taught to speak at the table, with parents constructively guiding the conversation, are more likely to know how and when to converse in private and public situations. They will learn to respect others’ input; they will learn their contribution is important; and they will also learn self-restraint. These habits will hold them in good stead growing up and as an adult in any social situation.

I know we live busy lives now, but instead of allowing a free-for-all or eating separately, we can use the dinner hour not only as a pleasant social gathering, but also as a valuable tool to teach our children priceless and long-lasting lessons of life. Start by having them wash their hands and face, comb their hair, sit quietly, say please and thank you and take turns talking.

Nomi Samson of Port Alberni, British Columbia, says teaching manners at home pays off. “The waitresses swarm around me when I take my two young boys to the restaurant. They make a fuss over my children and remark how well they behave in comparison to others.”

Dinner used to be a formal occasion—a special time of the day. The table settings and atmosphere were carefully prepared. One’s place at the table was always the same. Children, as well as parents, freshened themselves up from the labor of the day. Many of us today look back at the formality, the decorum, the rules and regulations of the dinner table and reject them as being old-fashioned or too time consuming. Certainly some families were overly rigid in this regard, but the pendulum has now swung to the opposite extreme.

Play helps children learn social skills, sharing, problem solving and allows them to work through difficulties.

Robert Aller, an 83-year-old Canadian artist, remembers his childhood dinners as a time to practice listening: “Father was the only one to speak at the table. He told stories. .…But the children were not to speak unless spoken to. And we knew that. And actually, I did not feel curbed at all because I chatted like a chatterbox and everyone else chattered as they wanted to, apart from the table, and because father told stories. If there was something that we wanted, more food, or whatever it was, a bowl further on down the table that we couldn’t reach, then we would ask ‘please may I have the potatoes,’ and when it was given to you, you said, ‘thank you’—and you never missed the please and you never missed the thank you.”

I’m not suggesting children need to be silent at the table, but it is still good to teach listening and taking turns talking.

Mr. Aller also remembers being taught as a child to “never correct adults, but just listen. I corrected them in my mind. But that was OK because it taught me not to call anyone down, especially someone older than myself.” He says that remains a valuable lesson to this day. “If you tell someone where to go, you have just canceled off a possible friend.”

Teaching etiquette at an early age offers both children and adults freedom—freedom to enjoy each other’s company. Not only will we enjoy our meals, but we will also grow in love toward each other.

Life lessons, not blind obedience

We don’t want just blind obedience; we want children who learn to reflect on the consequences of their actions before they act. I think it’s useful to examine the importance of why children listen and obey and how it may help them commit to good behavior later. The developing child should be told why a particular action is desired—for example, why he should tell the truth, not hurt another person, show respect for the elderly, or not take others’ belongings—as soon as he is able to understand. Over time, these principles must be internalized so the child will take personal responsibility for his choices rather than simply responding to reward or punishment.

However, it’s becoming common practice to hear parents sweet talk, coax, plead, cajole, warn and promise their children, until finally they find themselves yelling uncontrollably at their children in order to be heard and obeyed. Social psychologist Dr. Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion notes, “We accept inner responsibility for a behavior when we think we have chosen to perform it in the absence of strong outside pressures.” Rewards and preachy stories, exhortations to be good and attempts to instill certain habits may work for a while, but they won’t get the child to accept responsibility for his actions, good or bad. On the other hand, if we have established a solid foundation, parents should not have to promise rewards or strong threats.

Play is the work of the young

Play also should not be overlooked as a tool for learning new physical, emotional and intellectual skills. Its main purpose, according to psychologist and teacher Dr. Catchpole, “is to slowly reduce egocentricity. Play is the work of the young.”

Play helps children learn social skills, sharing, problem solving and allows them to work through difficulties. Even the simple act of picking up toys helps teach respect and responsibility for their own possessions and others.

Tara Shulz, a mother of two, notes that play can be both positive and negative. “Three-year-old Kaleb loves to show his younger brother how to hold a stick to play floor hockey. It gives him confidence in his abilities and helps him learn to share. However, the younger one also picks up behaviors I do not approve of, such as using anything as a gun to shoot.” This is where the parents’ role is important in guiding—setting limits in some cases, being supportive in others.

Take the time and effort to teach good manners, cooperation and a sense of fair play, showing tenderness toward one another. This helps develop strong family ties and love for each other. We need to learn how to live together as one family.

Emily Post sums her book up nicely when she writes that consideration, whether at mealtime or playtime, “is the basis of etiquette—insight and understanding, self-control and discipline, loyalty, and finally a sense of justice are the timeless qualities that make life rewarding and pleasant.”

David rejoices in Psalm 133:1, telling us, “How good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”