Lorelei Rollings says that her family rarely has time for a relaxed dinner. If she doesn’t have to drop off her son, Bennett, 11, at acting, computer programming or French lessons, her nine-year-old daughter Georgia has piano and voice lessons to attend. Her husband, Richard, does media relations for a government agency so he’s on call 24/7. And while Lorelei describes her workday as “more contained” (she works for the Federal government in London, Ont.), she feels “a draw to be well-rounded.” That means extra curricular activities, like book club and yoga, eat up a lot of her free time.
With all the comings and goings, family dinners are often rushed.
“We’re always so busy,” says Lorelei. “I’m worried because as parents we weren’t really teaching [our kids] about dinner etiquette and we probably didn’t have enough confidence in our own skills about the more formal protocols.”
So when Lorelei came across an online ad for children’s etiquette classes, she enrolled both of her kids. And she isn’t the only one. In the past year and a half, etiquette experts say they’ve noticed more and more parents signing up their kids for classes to learn proper table manners.
Prices vary depending on location. A two and a half hour session with The Etiquette Ladies in Toronto, Ont. can set parents back $60, while a seven hour “day camp” that includes a section on table manners costs about $75 at The Canadian School of Protocol in London, Ont. At these rates, parents are signing up their children, some as young as four-years-old, to learn the basics, including: how to set up cutlery, how to make small talk, and how to serve yourself and be served in a restaurant.
One hundred years ago, these skills were a way to distinguish one’s self as belonging to a higher social class, says the director of The Etiquette Ladies Louise Fox. But today, etiquette is more about blending in and being respectful.
“You want to know how to conduct yourself properly,” says Fox. “That empowers you and gives you confidence.”
Some parents hope that developing good manners at an early age will pay off down the road when their children enter the workforce. Increasingly, recruiters meet potential employees at cocktail parties and networking events before conducting a formal job interview. The way young people carry themselves could mean the difference between getting hired and loosing out to other equally qualified twentysomethings.
“We live in a competitive world,” says Lorelei. “Etiquette is the one thing in our whole buffet of enrichment that we can offer our children that’s not all that common and yet really important.”
This point was illustrated at a recent cocktail party hosted by the Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario. Last week, 220 undergraduate business students were mingling with representatives from top firms, including Target, Manulife and General Electric. Despite being told not to, some students were hovering around the food servers and snatching the hors d’oeuvres, says Sharon Irwin-Foulon, director of career management at Ivey.
“It’s not a good way to differentiate yourself to a potential employer,” she adds.
Top four ‘don’ts’ for children at the dinner table:
- Don’t bring anything to the dinner table that doesn’t need to be there. This includes electronics, toys, backpacks – all of it is distracting and takes away from what should be the primary focus, the people in front of you.
- Don’t start eating until everyone’s seated and served
- Don’t grab food or reach across the table for a bowl, ask for someone to pass it to you
- Don’t chew your food with your mouth open
In a globalized economy, young people can’t afford to be ill-mannered. Recent graduates aren’t just competing against their classmates or kids from other Canadian universities for jobs. They’re competing against students from China and the Middle East, where Wendy Mencel, director of the Canadian School of Protocol and Etiquette, says demand for classes on Western etiquette (continental style) is “huge.”
Even amoungst Asian and Middle Eastern communities in Canada, proper behavior is highly valued. Fox estimates that more than 50 per cent of her students are from one of these backgrounds.
“They’re tremendously keen, more so than North American born and bread students,” she says.
If your kid deadpan’s at the slightest mention of etiquette it might have something to do with your approach. One of the most common mistakes parents make, according to Fox, is that they wait until they go out for dinner and then start “nagging” their kids. “Nobody likes to be embarrassed in public,” she adds.
Mencel suggests making etiquette a positive experience by incorporating games, stickers or interesting historical facts behind the traditions. Doing so can be especially helpful when trying to engage young boys, who she says are her toughest audience. During a class last November, Mencel explained why the sharp edge of the knife faces inward, towards the plate: in ancient Rome you only used your knives to eat. There were no forks and if you didn’t like the way the guy next to you looked, you could cut their head off. So a law was passed stating that the sharp side of the knife can’t face outwards; it’s a sign of hostility.
“Boys love that,” she says. Including Lorelei’s son Bennett, who was partaking in the session.
Lorelei admits that initially, Bennett “didn’t have very high expectations.” Ok, she basically made him go. But he quickly warmed up to the classes. When she picked him up after the session, she recalls him saying, “It was great.”
Now, Bennett clears the table every day without her asking and says please and thank you more often.
“Their manners are nicer and we respond in kind,” says Lorelei. “The whole household seems to have improved.”