By Christina VanGinkel
Teaching kids good habits and manners should be something that you do every day, not just when you suddenly realize your little pride and joy is going to be out in public at a social occasion where bad manners or no manners will be very apparent. Think of how many times you have been at a wedding, family reunion, or other large social gathering and you have seen children act out who were obviously old enough to know better, did not! Consider how many times you told yourself that would never be your children, only to suddenly realize that it possibly might be you.
It is never too late to teach children good manners, but the earlier you begin the better. When my children were small, we never went many places that our children could not attend, mostly because babysitters were outside of our budget, but also just because that was the way we were raising them. We figured we had them to be a part of a family, and a family that takes off and leaves the children with a babysitter every single time the adults went somewhere, was not much of a family. This is not to say we never left them, but that the majority of times we did not. This also means that they had a lot of social exposure from day one, as we did like to socialize, and as long as the kids were welcome, we were more apt to go.
We did some very basic things from early on, such as making sure the kids knew they had to be clean to come to the table. This meant teaching them basic hygiene habits, including washing hands. They were taught that when you sat at the table to eat, that is what you did, you sat there and ate, you did not put your food on other people's plates, you did not spit, you did not scream. In thinking back on how we conveyed these basics and other simple rules, I recall that what we strived to do was simply separate for them what was acceptable and what was not. If a child acted out in a manner that was distracting for the other people, one of use would take the child out of the room, or even leave all together. I remember once with our third child that he liked nothing more than taking off his clothes. This habit started when he was about two years old, and we dealt with it by trying to figure out for starters why he did this (he was hot), and then tried to make sure that he understood this was not acceptable behavior, especially in public. We also took partial responsibility and tried to gauge the atmosphere of where we were going to be, and always brought with lighter clothes in case we arrived somewhere that was warmer than we had thought. We strived to teach him acceptable behavior, but until he was old enough to grasp the concept, we took responsibility too for his actions.
Much of this was all brought to the forefront of my memory when we had dinner with several couples just the other day. Ages of those at the table ranged from about two years old to almost eighty. One couple had with them their three children, and I recall thinking that they looked much as we must have many times with our own three children in tow. Within a few minutes of sitting down to dinner, I was instantly thanking myself for never putting anyone through what our party was being subjected too. I am not referring to a fussy child, or a toddler that suddenly decides that it is prime time to throw a tantrum, as no parent, no matter how under control they think their kids are, can control; things like that. I am referring to a seven year old screaming at the top of her lungs because her brother, about five, was spitting food onto her plate. This was occurring as their youngest child, about three, was crawling out of the mother's lap, across the table. The biggest thing about the scenario is that the parents just sat there. They did not tell the little boy to quit, though they did tell their daughter to shut up. They commented that boys would be boys, and let me also tell you that I know that the oldest girl and the boy are considered gifted. The parents feel that allowing them to express themselves in any way they choose is good for the growth of their brain. How telling a child to shut up is good for them is not something I would agree with.
While this was an extreme case, my point is that simply teaching children fundamentals of decent behavior will make those times you bring your children to social functions much more pleasant for them, you, and all the other people in attendance. If you do this and you wind up with a tantrum being thrown (my children did this on more than one occasion), remove them from the gathering, tuck it away as an experience, and know that it will not be the first time a child has thrown a tantrum in public, nor is it the last. Know also, that every other parent in attendance can most likely relate. You will go away from it knowing that at least your child has the learning grounds for how to act in public, and you will never have to be the parent who just sits there while your child spits food at another!