Here’s the scene: You’re hosting family for the holidays. Parents, siblings, in-laws, aunts and uncles, everyone within a 200-mile radius is gathered in your home. The kids have endured the meal and are eagerly opening gifts. Your son rips into the package from Aunt Louise and sees a paint-by-numbers kit of a clown. He declares in a loud, disapproving voice, “I don’t want this!” All conversation stops while attention turns to your frowning child holding the kit high in his hand.
Teaching manners is something parents are constantly working on. Please and thank-you come early in life. Holiday gatherings, however, present social situations kids don’t encounter on a regular basis. These situations require manners they may not have practiced for some time. Fortunately, many of these manners can be reviewed in the days and weeks before the holidays.
Manners parents are concerned about for holiday gatherings include receiving gifts graciously, appropriate greetings and conversations, especially with family members kids don’t see often and don’t know well. There are others—just ask any kid who is trying to remember them all—but we will focus on the three mentioned.
First a word about why manners are important. Manners help kids get along with others and know how to act in new situations. The underlying principles of all good manners include being respectful, honest (within reason) and considerate of others. Having mastery over these social skills helps kids feel confident and builds empathy for others.
Greeting scene to avoid: Grandma has just entered the house and is giving hugs and kisses to the grandkids. Your daughter has her head buried in her iPod Touch, she mumbles a “hello” and shuffles back to the couch. Polite greetings can be easily reviewed. Let children know who they will be greeting and some basic tips:
1. Smile, make eye contact and say the person’s name: “Hi, Aunt Nicole.”
2. Have a follow-up: “How are you?”or “How was your drive?”
Tell children if they are likely to receive a handshake or a hug. Either can be startling if unexpected. A little trivia on the history of the handshake: According to the Emily Post Institute, “In olden days, knights extended a hand to show it did not hold a weapon and they were approaching as friends, not enemies. The other person responded showing he didn’t have a weapon either. The handshake was a gesture of friendship in the olden days and still is today.”
Dinner conversation scene to avoid: You are enjoying your meal when you notice Uncle Hank has a strange look on his face. You tune into the conversation between Uncle Hank and your son to overhear, “Now that Mom makes more money than Dad, we’re finally gonna get some bills paid off. Except Mom’s boss is such a jerk, she’s not sure she can take it.”
Social conversation is referred to as “the art of conversation” for a reason. It takes practice. Give kids some guidelines:
1. Show interest and pay attention.
2. Look at the person who’s speaking.
3. Don’t interrupt.
4. Avoid personal family information.
It can help to give kids conversation topics. Tell them if Grandma recently visited Vermont or their cousin is starting a new school. Perhaps it goes without saying, but remind teens to be aware of their language. As David Lowry states in a 2011 Parents magazine article on manners, “Never use foul language in front of adults. Grown-ups already know all those words, and they find them boring and unpleasant.” Language that is OK when teens are with their friends or even at home may not be appropriate for a family holiday gathering.
Gift scene to avoid (the paint-by-numbers clown): Knowing how to receive a gift graciously is well worth discussing with children and may save you some embarrassment. In their lifetime, they will inevitably receive something out of sync with their age, likes or even gender. When kids receive a gift they don’t like, the trick is to focus on the positives. Find something positive about the gift and comment on that, i.e., “Thanks! Red is my favorite color!” or “Those rainbow-colored toe socks look nice and warm.” Remind kids that although the gift giver may have missed the mark, the person thought enough of them to spend time and money selecting a gift.
Invest in the “happy” part of your holidays by reviewing expected manners with your children. Everyone will have a
Cary and Tonja Rector are married and live with their children in Manlius. Cary is a licensed mental health counselor and Tonja is a licensed marriage and family therapist. Consult your own health care provider before making decisions affecting your family’s well-being. To comment on this article, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo above: © Glenda Powers | Dreamstime.com