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Where are your manners?

A classic fairy tale emerges as etiquette coach Lori Rogers shows the proper position of silverware on a table: Princess Spoonella is being protected by a knife guard, kept far away from Prince Fork on Napkin Island.

The 4- and 5-year-old students at Davenport Preschool in Towson catch on quickly and are rewarded for their place settings with crackers and juice boxes from Rogers, also known as Molly Manners Maryland.

“And what would you say if your mom gives you a plate of stinky green beans?” Rogers asks one little girl with long brown hair.

“Thank you, but I don’t like green beans,” she says sweetly, earning herself a Goldfish-cracker reward.

Even as social-media flippancy dominates our popular culture, and as schools forgo social-skills instruction to squeeze in more academics, etiquette experts such as Rogers are sought out by educators and parents — perhaps fresh from trying to supervise an 8-year-old writing a thank-you note or a 4-year-old at a white-tablecloth restaurant.

“I think manners are incredibly important, especially today,” says Liz Harlan, Davenport’s director.

Part of a larger unit on community, the etiquette lesson follows a story about the Golden Rule. “It ties in perfectly,” says Harlan.

There is a range of options when it comes to getting manners training: from day camps, after-school programs and private lessons. The Etiquette School of Maryland in Columbia, The International School of Protocol in Towson, and Manners for Life, Etiquette for Success in Annapolis are among the local specialty schools that teach children, teenagers (and more than a few adults) the basics of table manners, making introductions, giving and receiving gifts and more.

“These are really life skills,” says Patricia Minor, director of the Etiquette School of Maryland.

Rogers, who has an 11-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son, opened the Maryland Molly Manners location last year. Although she’d been in sales for a real estate developer, she says she’s long been passionate about manners.

“It’s always resonated with me,” says Rogers, a former nanny.

The idea is to teach children to use kind voices, to put down their electronics to greet people, to take off their shoes and to inquire about rules when they go to a friend’s house, says Rogers.

She tries to make the subject fun, such as playing “Bad Attitude Bingo” to teach appropriate responses. And she introduces the equivalent of superheroes, a band of door-opening, compliment-wielding characters with names such as Friendly Freddy, Helpful Heidi and Patient Patty.

Rogers offers her classes at local schools, the Towson Y and at Abrakadoodle in Cockeysville. She and the other manners coaches also offer private and group sessions to Scout troops and others.

While manners coaches can prepare students for a formal White House dinner, they more often cover table manners, including how to excuse oneself from the table, and the appropriate responses in social situations — in interacting with both adults and peers.

Proficiency varies by age and child, but toddlers can be taught to use polite words such as “excuse me,”  “please” and “thank you,” the experts agree.

By age 4, some children are ready to learn how to make eye contact and shake hands, says Carol Haislip, one of the directors at the International School of Protocol in Towson.

“The earlier you instill the skills, the more it becomes a natural thing,” Haislip says.

Preschoolers can have fun learning proper table manners. And by elementary school, children can master thank-you-note writing, being a good host and a good guest, and making a proper introduction, the experts agree.

Teenagers will learn how to make a good impression in summer job interviews and how to gracefully handle leadership roles.

In some of her programs, Minor teaches her students how to make a short speech. She’s had students end the exercise saying, “Ms. Minor, I’m not shy anymore.”

“It hits them like an aha moment,” Minor says. “They surprise themselves.”

Knowing what to expect and how to react gives children confidence, says Minor. “They’re at ease in social and professional circles.”

Patti Howard, who recently adopted 9-year-old twin boys, signed up for a Molly Manners extreme confidence class to help her children discern when to high-five or shake hands, and how to chat without dominating the conversation.

“We need all the help we can get, so they’re not just hearing these messages from me, and their grandparents ...” says Howard, who lives in Mount Vernon.

By watching kids their own age, and hearing another adult repeat the lessons, she says, “it sinks in.”
Reminders about manners may mean more if they come from someone other than a parent. “Our children hear us day in and day out,” says Haislip. “And we all lead very busy lives. It can be difficult to cover all the bases.”

That’s why Alyssa Thomas-Oakley signed up her 9-year-old daughter for one of Molly Manners’ two-day summer camps and another session held at Abrakadoodle. “This way it’s not just Mommy being Mommy all the time,” says the Parkville mother.

Like many parents, Thomas-Oakley wanted to make sure that in this digital, social-media age, basic manners weren’t being overlooked. “We’re working on meeting people, making eye contact,” says Thomas-Oakley, though she also was amused when her 9-year-old recently corrected her father’s table-setting.

Of course, formal training isn’t always necessary.

“A lot of it,” says Haislip, “comes down to parents modeling good manners.” 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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