Teaching good manners

Rebecca Hagelin

8/18/2004 12:00:00 AM - Rebecca Hagelin

Want to know how you're doing as a parent? Check out how your children are doing when it comes to minding their manners.

I don't mean just etiquette. How you set a table properly, when to use the little fork across the top of the plate and where to seat the groom's mother at a wedding reception are only small parts of the equation.

Are your children thoughtful? Do they get up from the dinner table and offer to help with the cleanup? Are they polite and cheerful to other adults they encounter?

No, they won't absorb all the rules by age 7. But "our most important goal should be that they become courteous, honest, unselfish and well-behaved persons," Karen Santorum, wife of the junior senator from Pennsylvania, says in her recent book, "Everyday Graces." None of us is perfect, she says. But we must all strive to live decent and respectable lives and treat others by the Golden Rule ? and consistently teach our children to do so.

Santorum's book uses a variety of devices to get the message across, the most charming of which is the storytelling from some of the world's great authors. A quick flip through the book finds entries from A.A. Milne, C.S. Lewis, Robert Louis Stevenson and others.

Take the story of the pansy. Once upon a time there was a king who had a beautiful garden," it begins.

One day, he went there and found everything drooping. He asked why. The vine said it couldn't grow tall and strong like the pine tree, so it saw no use in trying. The pine tree, in turn, couldn't produce tasty fruit like the apple tree, so why bother? The apple tree produced only small, simple flowers, unlike the beautiful flowers on roses that everyone loves.

Finally, the king came upon the pansy. It had avoided this trap. The king asked how. "I am happy because I know that when you planted the seed out of which I grew, you didn't want a pine or an apple tree or a rose. You wanted a little pansy. So to please you, I am going to be the best pansy I can be."

In other words, the pansy is content and not looking for things to covet, to regret not having, to become miserable over. As Santorum points out, "a sweet-tempered child is the pansy of the home." When she comes in, she brightens the entire place. "I've seen a whole bus full of people brighten up when a pleasant-faced child comes on," Santorum writes. One can always find plenty to quarrel or complain over. But why? Why not just learn to enjoy things as they are?

Does this come under the rubric of manners? Absolutely.

The book underscores the strong correlation between good manners in all its forms and strong, attentive parenting. How would children learn to avoid quarreling and whining? It is quite natural that they do so. Where would they learn to offer someone a seat if the bus is full? How would they learn that their chores are their jobs? How would they learn to speak when spoken to by adults, to say "please," "thank you" and "you're welcome"? God doesn't put us on Earth knowing these things.

Children learn them when parents take the time to teach them and to enforce the rules. Absentee parenting, part-time parenting, parenting that says, "Go to your room, watch television, get on the computer, amuse yourself because I have neither the time nor the inclination to make you do otherwise," produces part-time results.

Karen Santorum has produced a full guidebook of the manners children should know. She covers the bases ? good manners at home and school, what to say and not say, how to act at the dinner table, how to wash and dress, caring for the elderly, sick and disabled, getting along with others, good sportsmanship, what to do at church, weddings and funerals, handling thank-you notes, and how to respect our country.

It's common-sense stuff, and other books include this information. But Santorum uses stories one can't forget to illustrate her points and point out that it's not the rules, but the underlying principles that matter. It's being considerate. It's being thoughtful. It's being helpful, generous and respectful.

In the end, that's what counts. And if your child happens to remember to use the right fork for his salad, so much the better.