Teaching your child to use the right fork or fold his or her napkin properly may seem like a nice afterthought in today's world, but modern etiquette experts say proper social graces can affect your child's future.
These days, etiquette classes teach children not only impeccable table manners but how to develop skills that will help them network, socialize and interact with others as they grow.
"It's an advantage to learn good manners while you are young, because you take that with you your whole life," says Elena Brouwer, director and founder of the International Etiquette Centre in Hollywood. "As you get older, whether you are going on a date or on a business lunch, you need to know not only how to hold your silverware, but how to interact with others."
Etiquette lessons have evolved over the years, Brouwer says, into a series of life skills that arm young people for a successful future.
"Some people think of etiquette as a young girl carrying a book on her head, but that's a very old-fashioned view," she says. "We are getting people ready for real life."
Here are modern etiquette tips for parents from experts:
Ban electronics from the dinner table
Placating your child with a Nintendo DS while you dine out may ensure a peaceful meal, but it's rude to the other diners and deprives children of social interaction they need to succeed in the real world.
"Kids are not getting any practice interacting with others face-to-face," Brouwer says.
Teach by example
Don't tell your kids not to bring their portable video games to the table, then spend the whole meal checking your Blackberry. When it's dinner time, devote your attention to the people at the table.
"Children don't learn by what the parents say, they learn by what they do," Brouwer says.
Don't text in front of others
Texting one person while carrying on a conversation with another is rude. It is like telling the person in front of you that the other is more important, Brouwer says. Teach your kids to give their full attention.
Set rules for your kids
The biggest manners offense kids commit today is ignoring their parents or talking back to them, Brouwer says. The solution? "Parents should stop saying they want to be their kids' best friend," she says. "Parents should be in control, and there should be consequences for children who do not follow rules."
Children who grow up without boundaries may have trouble adhering to rules in the workplace and respecting authority.
Practice good manners
Tell the kids:
- Make sure your face and hands are clean before you sit down.
- Put your napkin in your lap.
- Use your napkin to wipe your face, not the back of your hand.
- Start eating when everyone else does.
- Sit upright.
- Keep elbows off the table.
- Chew with your mouth closed.
- Say "please," and ask, instead of reaching.
- Ask to be excused and say "thank you."
- Offer to help clear the table.
Source: Emily Post Institute
"There are people who always know what to say and how to act. That doesn't happen in a vacuum. It takes years of trying," Brouwer says. "You don't go to two guitar lessons and know how to play a guitar."
Use proper phone manners
Teach your kids how to identify themselves and greet the caller when phoning a friend. Make sure your child knows the phone rules in your household. How late can they call out? How late can their friends call? Should they ask you before exchanging numbers with a friend? Show them how to take a complete phone message.
"Tell them to smile when they're talking to a phone answering machine. It makes all the difference," says Lovely Payoute, president of Etiquette Miami in North Miami Beach.
Send proper thanks
Buy a box of thank-you notes for your kids. Teach them to write a thank you note within two days of receiving a gift, even if they thanked the giver verbally at the party, Payoute says. In the note, mention the gift, and if it was monetary, mention what you plan to do with it. But don't mention the dollar amount.
Make a good first impression
Teach kids to show respect for adults by standing and making eye contact. Tell your kids which hand to extend for a handshake (some kids don't know) and how to make a firm grip. "A proper handshake shows you belong there and have confidence," Payoute says.
Make nice at the table
Often a child's first meal out without parents is at a friend's house. Teach them to follow the host family's lead. If everyone serves themselves, do the same. If everyone helps clear the table, then help.
And if they don't like something they're served? "Eat the other items on your plate. Don't say, 'Ewww' and make a big deal out of it. It's one meal on one evening. You'll survive," Payoute says.