Thursday, June 11, 2009

Raising Well Mannered Children

'They're not from around here - Can't be, those children are so well behaved, such good manners, definitely not from New South Wales' - These were some of the comments I was overhearing from a conversation between a group of elderly ladies sitting at the next table in a restaurant where my family was enjoying a meal. My husband and I soon realized that the ladies were discussing our children. We tried hard to keep a straight face as the group then started to work out which state in Australia we were from. They were certain we were not from New South Wales or Queensland and were putting their money on Tasmania when one lady could not resist and leaned across and asked 'Excuse me, we were just wondering where you are from?' We told her we had just moved to the area from New Zealand. 'We knew it!' she exclaimed and turned back to her friends.
On our trip home we discussed this incident and the fact that people watch others, especially families and take notice when they see something out of the ordinary and this was the sad fact, our children who knew how to behave in a restaurant were a rarity - children who stayed in their seats and did not run around, who sat quietly, said please and thank you and finished all the food on their plates, made these ladies sit up and take notice. I asked my husband why they thought we were not locals and at that precise moment a missile hit the windscreen of our car. My husband braked and pulled over without incident thankfully and went to investigate. The missile was a firework thrown by a boy in a group of children standing on the pavement outside a house.. their own it turned out, they thought it was 'hysterical' and were oblivious to the potential for causing a serious accident as a result of their anti-social behaviour. 'There's my answer' I remarked to my husband as he returned to the car shaking his head.
Since that first restaurant incident we have been approached by many people and complimented on our children 's behaviour and friendly nature. It soon became apparent that Australians are naturally forthcoming and far less reserved than Kiwis. In the bank manager's office we were informed that our children were the best behaved children he had ever had in his office. In stores and at the farmer's markets, it seemed wherever we went, people wanted to let us know that they were impressed by our family.
I'm not sharing these stories to boast or proclaim perfection, for my children are not perfect and there are times when they let us and themselves down and they especially need to be reminded that it is just as important to be kind and courteous to one another at home, as it is, when they are out in public. However, the comments and approaches from strangers, have been a great source of encouragement to me as a mother who has desired to teach her children well and has stressed to them from an early age, that they are 'ambassadors' who represent our family and their Lord, wherever they go, whatever they do - how they speak to people and how they present themselves, in dress and appearance and facial expression, reflects their inner attitude and sends a message to others, and of course how they conduct themselves - manners matter!

A smiling happy face!
Encourage your children to smile!
Frowning, scowling faces turn others away
A loving, joyous atmosphere in your home and knowing that they are loved and accepted will enable smiles to come naturally

We talked about being family ambassadors in depth around our family meal table this year, as we had made the decision to allow our three older children to travel to New Zealand by themselves for a holiday with their grandparents. We would drive them to Sydney to 'see them' on the plane and they would be met at Auckland airport but for two weeks we would not be around to supervise them, to remind them of any matter or to sort out any disputes. I was of course a little anxious but we told them that we trusted them and we prayed for them before they boarded the plane. They are at the gate in this photograph, the two older ones saying 'Hurry up mum and take the picture!' and the younger daughter is giddy with excitement!

I am pleased to report that that were excellent ambassadors, they were kind, courteous and helpful. One relative let me know that our beautiful children were a credit to us - more encouragement for the heart of a mother! And they had a wonderful time, fishing, boating, eating ice cream and all those things you get to do at the beach!

But courteous well mannered children do not happen overnight. There are children who are quieter and those who are more spirited but whatever your child's personality, it is possible to raise well mannered children, who stand out from the crowd for all the right reasons.

Now, please bear with me. I do understand that some parents face more challenges than others. Sometimes, an underlying disorder can result in undesirable behaviour. I used to work with people with challenging behaviours and I know what it is like when out in public, the stares and rude comments from those who did not realize that these able bodied people who appeared relatively 'normal' had severe social limitations, often as a result of years of institutionalization. However, this didn't stop us from taking our clients into the community. We gave careful consideration to the environments we would visit - noisy, crowded places caused some individuals considerable distress and over stimulated others, so we chose quieter cafes, art galleries and shops and found that being in a natural environment had a calming effect so we often incorporated forest walks and strolls along the riverbank into our community skills programme. With lots of positive encouragement and a calm approach we saw dramatic improvements in behaviour. And it was often the case that the people I worked with were friendlier and more respectful than many members of the general public we encountered!
Whether your children have limitations or not, I think that giving consideration to the environment and how you speak to your children is important; snapping angrily, barking orders and nagging do not help you gain cooperation and are doing you no favours and later on I will describe how changing where and when I shopped transformed my supermarket shopping experience with young children.

Having worked with people who were unpredictable and having dealt with outbursts and sometimes episodes of physical violence, I have to say my child's first tantrum was a non-event in comparison but nevertheless, we were determined as parents, not to allow tantrums, unruly or disrespectful behaviour to become the norm, viewed as 'just a phase' or excused as 'it's just boys being boys'. We wanted to raise well mannered children! And so we set boundaries and reinforced appropriate behaviour. These are some of the ideas and practical advice for specific situations which worked for us and I hope you find them helpful.

At the shops Where you are most likely to see children behaving badly and yes we can blame the stores for setting out chocolate and candy at child height or we can take responsibility and teach our children how to behave in a store. I rarely shop alone. My children usually accompany me. You could leave them at home with dad and shop in the evening and I realize this must save the sanity of some mothers but if you leave them behind, they are not receiving the opportunity to learn how one behaves in a supermarket. I see this as a chance to teach my children how to shop and I encourage them to help, the younger children fetch items for me. They know exactly what we buy and the uncomplicated layout at the store we shop at (Aldi) makes a big difference. The older children are still learning about shopping too, I encourage them to read labels for me and work out savings on quantities. Not only are they helping me and saving us time but also learning about budgeting and food additives as we strive to make the best choices for the sake of our health.

What transformed my shopping experience with children was changing where I shopped and the time of day I chose to do our weekly grocery shop. I now shop at Aldi on a Saturday morning at 8am as soon as the store opens. There are less people, the shelves have been restocked and there are virtually no queues. I use trolley bags which attach to the trolley so there is little time spent packing bags which is a time when children can become bored and distracted. I used to shop at a bigger chain following gymnastics lessons at 5pm on a weekday. There was more traffic, the store was crowded, queues long and children tired and hungry. You get the picture... stressed mum, stressed children arriving home late and causing dad stress. Today, my shopping is a pleasant experience and it doesn't phase me at all. It only takes me 20 minutes! So plan your shop well and take a list and if you meet a friend resist the temptation to start a long conversation in the aisle... these are the times when children can become distracted. Be a mum on a mission! The goal - a smooth, stress free shopping experience even with toddlers! It is possible! And when you arrive home, have everyone help unpack and put away the groceries. It is a team effort in this household and helping around the house is encouraged from an early age as this picture shows!

Twin sinks for twin helpers!

Let your no be no but sometimes say yes!
At the checkout, the whole family helps unload from the trolley, which has to be done quickly at Aldi. There are no chocolate bars at child height but the younger children sometimes ask for treats such as chocolate or ice cream (frozen yogurt). They understand if mum says no, not this week but on other weeks I surprise them and say 'Your sister is making her special chocolate mocha pudding tonight, shall we buy a chocolate bar and we might need ice cream to go with it!' They cheer and return home bursting through the door to tell dad 'Mocha tonight!'
A little angel! Not always of course, but teaching my children to be helpful at home and when out and about, means I can refute those comments such as 'Oh double trouble!' and 'You've got your hands full' to which I can reply 'I have a lot of extra hands to help!'

Another 'angel' who brings the blessings of heaven into my life!

Set a good example I love Aldi's approach which allows the person behind you with only a few items to go in front of you. We live in a selfish society where people have grown accustomed to being served and the 'I was here first' notion prevails. I am very aware that if I start to voice my frustration and 'whinge' because the queue is long or the service poor, my children will be likely to pick up on this and develop the same negative' everyone is against me' attitude. So I encourage them to look out for ways in which they can serve others... simple acts of kindness such as picking up the coins someone has dropped and handing them back, passing a bag for the fruit to the person waiting behind you, smiling at the checkout operator and showing genuine interest if she starts to tell you about her day. The most touching act of kindness I encountered at the checkout was carried out by my dear husband who once paid for a young man's groceries who did not have enough cash and was going to have to return some items from his basket. The checkout girl's mouth fell open and the young man was so appreciative, saying he would never forget this, as he went on his way and best of all, our children were watching, learning a lesson from their dad in how to treat others.

Table manners Start by teaching table manners at home and yes you do need to sit around the table with the television turned off! Simple rules apply and they are not hard to reinforce. Wait for grace, Do not talk with your mouth full, Use your knife and fork Don't shovel food into your mouth, Chew properly and of course Say please and thank you and ask for permission to leave the table.
We have always required our children to finish what is on their plate. Sometimes young children have 'eyes bigger than their tummies' so hand out smaller helpings and tell them they can have more if they finish the first portion. This rule especially applies to Weetbix at breakfast time! If vegetables or salad accompanies the meal, everyone is expected to have some on their plate.
Of course we make allowances for likes and dislikes but within reason. One daughter is not fond of pineapple but the rest of the family enjoy it on their pizza, she is not allowed to scrape it off. Most of the family do not like mushrooms (I love them!) so I do not use them in my dishes very often. However, if we visit someone's home for dinner and mushrooms are in the lasagne, we expect everyone to eat them.
These guidelines reinforced at home mean we can expect our children to apply them when out of the home, at restaurants and church functions where food is served.

Eating Out The fast food industry has certainly directed its advertising at families with its 'eat quickly, using your hands from paper wrappers and move on' approach. The playgrounds at these venues also mean that children become accustomed to leaving the table and are often exposed to overly boisterous behaviour as older children with no regard for the 'littlies' shove past and climb over younger children. I am not saying you should never visit a fast food restaurant or allow your children into the adventure playground but if you only ever eat out at these type of outlets I would encourage you to consider some alternatives. Perhaps you could visit the fast food outlet on a less regular basis and have a family fund for special trips to family restaurants where you can sit down to eat meals served on plates with waitress service, it may cost a little more but the menu options will be a lot healthier. Many of these bistro style restaurants have special lunchtime and 'children eat free' deals.
When I had two young children and had to spend a full day in town running errands for the dairy farm we operated, the fast food outlet was the easiest option especially during winter. And then one day I discovered a lovely little cafe tucked away down a side alley. Its menu was a lot healthier and the prices were reasonable. There was room to park the stroller and it had waitress service. I decided to take my children here for lunch, usually once a month; on warmer days we would take a picnic to the park. I used this trip to the cafe as a teaching opportunity. I would choose food from the menu which was not too messy to eat such as toasted sandwiches and as I sat with my toddlers I would whisper instructions 'Chew your food' Eat the crusts too' 'Don't shuffle in your seat'. Eating lunch here became an enjoyable experience and the children did not miss the playground!

At Church Our children sit with us at church rather than being allowed to go and sit with friends as most children are allowed to. They don't pick up inappropriate behaviors such as chatting and giggling during the worship and text messaging during the sermon. I take a few quiet toys for the twins such as a dolly to cuddle, board books and threading puzzles but I do not give them snacks such as crackers or biscuits which create crumbs. I used to take a few grapes but found they would drop them and want to retrieve them from under the seats causing a distraction. Our church serves fruit, crackers, cheese and dips after the service so now the girls wait until then. A table is usually set out for the children but if this does not happen we teach our children to wait, to let adults go first, to only take one item at a time and not to make multiple return trips. You may be thinking 'what strict parents!' but I am saddened to say that some of the most selfish, gluttonous behaviour we have observed has been at church events where food is served buffet style, as hoardes of children descend on the tables grabbing handfuls of food and stuffing their mouths. Our 'after church' lunch experience at the first church we attended as a newly married couple was like this, we used to call it 'feeding time at the zoo', often there was not enough food left for the adults and we vowed then, that when we had children we would not allow them to behave in this way.
I'm pleased we were 'strict' in enforcing this, it means we can take our children to weddings and other formal events with the reassurance that they will conduct themselves in a worthy manner. And this is what people take note of - it is what the elderly ladies in the restaurant observed which gave them cause to debate our 'state of origin'. And by the way, I realize these ladies were being somewhat discriminatory, (we think they had one too many glasses of wine!) as I don't believe that where you come from, affects your behaviour, it is how you are raised!

It takes time, it takes tons of patience and sometimes you will be disappointed when they 'drop the ball' and forget what they have been taught but the rewards of instilling good manners and appropriate behaviour will bring you many rewards. It is not a case of raising 'meek and mild' children who are seen and not heard. My children are lively and talkative (some more than others!) and they interact with others in a positive, mature manner which is always so well received and sometimes they simply amaze me, as my 11 year old daughter did one day when she remembered that some stall holders at the market had recently returned from New Zealand. She asked them if they had enjoyed their holiday and they were so thrilled to be asked by a child who was genuinely interested to hear about their experience of her birth country. They had obviously had a wonderful time and they proceeded to tell us all about their trip. I later told my daughter that I was delighted to see that she had been so pleasant and friendly to this couple who were usually very quiet and reserved.
And sometimes no words are needed. As my teenage son helped me unload groceries at the checkout one day, a lady came to me close to tears 'You have made my day' she said 'To see a teenage boy helping his mother in this day and age, it has restored my faith in the younger generation'

Can I encourage you to go and restore some faith and spread some hope. Our world certainly needs it. We desperately need young people who see beyond themselves, responsible, compassionate, caring individuals who will contribute in positive ways to the society in which they live. Starting with teaching manners and showing your children how to respect others, will go a long way as you take your children on the journey from childhood, through adolescence to adulthood.

I finish this post with some inspiration from my favourite author Louisa May Alcott who describes the influence of Jo upon the tribe of boisterous boys that she and her husband had taken in at their home 'Plumfield' in the book 'Little Men'. This book although a work of fiction has inspired me to follow Jo's example, as I raise my own children.

- 'because she carefully fostered in him gentle manners, love of children, respect for women, old and young and helpful ways about the house.'

- the natural refinement which nothing but home influence can teach gave him sweet and simple manners; his mother had cherished an innocent and loving heart in him, his father had watched over the physical growth of his boy and kept the little body straight and strong on wholesome food and exercise and sleep.'

Until next time,
With love and joy,


A Bite of Country Cupcakes said...

Wow! That post is very full and informative.
I think parents often think They have laid bad tracks so best to not worry rather than turning behaviours around.
Change takes time though It is not instant!

I was and am still thrilled when people comment on my independant happy kids.
Mine are the noisy chatty variety but so confident with ven adults.
It does make you feel good.
I want my kids to grow up into great community members.
It all starts here.

Ana Degenaar said...

what a nice post! thank you so much, this is very helpful, my daughter is only 1 but I definitely will treasure this! Blessings,

Chookie said...

I am similar to you in what I do -- not quite as strict, but my aims are pretty much the same. I'd like to add one point. The MAIN fault I see in respectable middle-class parents atm is a failure to keep their word. If a child is warned that misbehaviour will lead to a punishment, and they misbehave, they need to be given that punishment. Failure to follow through is the most common thing I see where children are badly-behaved. And I'm from NSW...
BTW, whingeing at the child is not a punishment; it's background noise. I've seen that too!

Ann at eightacresofeden said...

I agree with Chookie, the failure to follow through is something I see all the time too. And giving in to demands where a parent has said no but changes their mind to 'keep the peace'. And yes, whingeing directed at the child is not a punishment, it's not flattering in any context, I think!

Suzanne said...

What a lovely post Ann--and I do love the term "ambassador". I think I will use that one:-)

Becca said...

A great post. I found that children want to know their limitations and are happier for it. They are so whingey and unhappy when allowed to do whatever they like. Just a little consistency goes a long, long way.

Catherine (Alecat Music) said...

Following through ... urgh!
It reminds me of a most embarassing situation I was in where one child wouldn't listen and it escalated to the need for correction.
We were visiting a recent widow at the time, a very dear friend, and I was so glad she was understanding and let me take the time to 'follow through' in her home. Yes, I really wish it didn't have to happen, but thankfully the child learnt the lesson (recovering quite quickly, I may add!) and I was able to receive more wisdom from a dear lady. :)


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