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The rebirth of etiquette: Are manners dead, or have they simply been repurposed for a new generation

POSTED June 28, 2017 12:31 p.m.
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Eliana Bonati’s son was having a tough time making friends. Diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, he struggled initiating conversations with his peers.

When looking around for books and classes to help him, Bonati started in an unlikely place: She turned to manners.

In her mind, manners are how kids learn to express themselves and communicate appropriately. Once he had the skills, Bonati’s son started to improve his relationships in a dramatic fashion. She realized she had stumbled upon a tool lacking for many young kids.

This inspired her to start Etiquette is 4 Me, a company in Provo geared toward teaching children manners in a fun and engaging way. Through themes like pirates, cowboys, princes and princesses, Bonati brings etiquette to life for church groups or birthday parties.

“People think etiquette is just how to eat, how to use the fork and knife," she said. "But the manners I am teaching are more about respect: how to respect themselves, develop self-esteem and grow.”

And children are almost never too young.

“From age 2 and up,” said Bonati, “they are able to learn manners.”

However, Bonati is concerned that parents don’t give a high enough value to manners. The feeling she gets from fellow parents is that they would rather buy their kids a new toy than pay for a class on etiquette.

Are manners extinct? Is it an uphill battle to try to teach children and teens against the litany of bad examples? As Bonati points out, there are people in visible positions of power, both in government and the wider workforce, who don’t have good manners.

Has etiquette gone the way of fish forks?

Not according to Debra Lassiter, founder and CEO of the Etiquette and Leadership Institute in Athens, Georgia.

Built from scratch 32 years ago, Lassiter’s company trains hundreds of kids and adults from elementary up through college each year. What she teaches has not altered, she’s just repackaged it.

“Communication and leadership are not dead,” she said. “We take what you and I know as manners and etiquette, and we spin it into leadership and communication. We make it fun. Then it has a different appeal to parents and students.”

In fact, according to Lassiter, enrollment and interest in her institute is at an all-time high.

“We strongly believe children and young adults want guidelines," she said. "They want to be disciplined. They want to do the right thing, but as adults we have to teach it, model it and expect it. Children may not always get it right, but if they are always trying and seeking to get better, then we are moving in the right direction.”

The institute, which trains leaders to take their curriculum all over the world, emphasizes good communication skills. The classes begin with something as simple as eye contact. Kids have to wear a paper bag over their heads and try to have a discussion with the person across the table. This reinforces the idea that you can’t talk to someone effectively if you can’t see them.

One of the most powerful things Lassiter uses in her training is to teach kids the value of a name. They learn how to call each other by name, to remember names and to use them properly.

Lassiter asserts that if you learn someone’s name, and learn how to say it to their face, you’re not going to be calling people hurtful names. Bullying of that nature ceases to exist.

Her view on where that will take the next generation of leaders is hopeful.

“I would say that good manners are going to save our world,” she said.

Joe Jensen, principal of Timpanogos High School in north Orem, believes that better relationships are already happening. For him, good behavior starts with modeling from the adults in charge, whether that’s in the home or in the classroom.

“The same principles that exist in the home exist in the school," he said. "When there’s abuse of any kind, whether verbal or physical, you’re going to have issues with kids and manners. If there’s a teacher or coach treating kids poorly, it’s going to be reflected.”

Jensen said that how he, as an administrator, treats the teachers and faculty has the greatest impact on school behavior. Beyond that, Timpanogos High has a strong culture of shared values, which, as in the case of Lassiter’s Leadership Institute, sound like good manners repackaged for a new generation of kids.

The school values, a bulleted list of 14 behaviors and attitudes such as “develop and maintain a ‘growth’ mind-set,” “communicate effectively” and “move as a ‘team,’” are posted in each classroom.

As someone who seems to exude one of the school values, “to see the cup half full,” Jensen has an optimistic view of where manners are headed, especially in schools. He sees the relationship among students and with teachers as something that continues to get better.

“Twenty years ago, the teachers were viewed as authoritarian. That’s changed significantly. It really does need to be a learning community,” he said.

That community is one created through deliberate choices. Beyond just posting the school values, Jensen said the teachers and staff refer to them constantly.

“As you’re interacting with human beings all day long, there’s going to be conflict and tension," Jensen said. "We very explicitly and deliberately teach those (values). It’s both a skill and an art.”

As someone who has been in education for 22 years, Jensen has seen the massive cumulative effect of these marginal gains.

“You’re just improving a tiny, tiny bit over time," he said. "That’s very real with kids that have good manners. Just like when you’re teaching your kids at home through consistency, nurture and correction.

"You have a couple of opportunities a day to correct them. You do that twice a day over a year, that’s more than 700 slight course corrections. That kid is going to be different than if you’d never done it.”


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