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By Carey Wallace
May 26, 2015

Sometimes it seems like all parents talk to kids about is manners, whether it’s prompting them to remember a “please” or “thank you,” or hurriedly informing them that it’s not polite to point out that their teacher’s new pantsuit is not overly flattering.

Manners can also be a source of conflict: some adults expect to be called “Mr. Smith,” while others offer a breezy “call me Jim!” And when kids aren’t sure what the rules are, manners can be a big source of anxiety.

But when kids understand how to handle themselves, it can give them confidence, says Elaine Swann, a nationally recognized etiquette expert, and the author of Let Crazy Be Crazy: Then Politely Get What You Want, Get Your Point Across, and Gently Put Rude People in Their Place.
That was true for Swann, who moved to the U.S. from Panama as a child, and found the assurance to make her way in a new culture by learning the etiquette.

It’s tempting to just drill elementary school kids on basic rules, Swann says. But it’s more important to help kids of any age understand that manners are about far more than obeying a set of requirements. “Manners are about putting other people at ease,” Swann says. So even at a young age, parents can encourage kids to offer kind words to others with questions like, “What kind of people do you like to be around?” followed by “How can we be more like that?”

By middle school, parents have usually hammered home the message that it’s not O.K. to talk with your mouth full. But Swann says that learning how to hold a conversation at mealtime is actually a far more important aspect of etiquette. Kids will need that skill all their lives, whether they’re interviewing for a job, or meeting prospective in-laws. And they learn best, Swann says, by doing. She encourages families to take every opportunity to sit down for a meal together, and really talk. Questions like “How was your day?” or “What do you think about the recent news?” aren’t just small talk—they’re key training to help kids get comfortable in all social settings.

High school kids can begin to think in terms of what Swann describes as the three core values of manners: respect, honesty, and consideration. A lot has changed since Swann started teaching etiquette 20 years ago, she says, in both culture and technology. But those core values remain the heart of all manners. Teaching kids to make eye contact and put away the phone at mealtimes is important. But it’s even more important, Swann says, to help them focus on what others are thinking and feeling. Parents can help kids think in these terms by asking questions like, “How do you think you would feel in that situation? How would you like to be treated?”

And at any age, Swann says, it’s important for parents to communicate that manners are not “something you turn on and off.” They are a way of life—learning how to be considerate of others, which helps kids feel confident themselves.

This article first appeared in TIME for Parents. Subscribe here!

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