Charm School for Tots
Time-strapped parents are increasingly turning to kids’ etiquette classes. We share secrets from the pros of proper.
MANNERS MATTER — YET SOME PARENTS ARE SO OVERWHELMED BY THE IDEA OF TEACHING KIDS SUCH SKILLS AS TABLE ETIQUETTE THAT THEY’RE SIGNING LITTLE ONES ON FOR FORMAL TRAINING.
There’s good news and bad news,” announces the black-suited woman standing at the head of a U-shaped table lined with girls in velvet dresses and boys in navy blazers. “The good news: We have french fries for lunch. The bad news: You have to eat them with a fork.”
Ten-year-old Brittany Curtis looks a little concerned. “This is a sin,” she whispers to her friend. “Eating french fries with your fingers is part of the kids’ bill of rights.”
Welcome, Brittany, to the Etiquette Revolution — or, rather, to Introduction to Basic Dining Skills. The 90-minute, $50 course is taught monthly under gilt chandeliers with white-jacketed waiters in attendance in the White and Gold Room at none other than New York’s Plaza Hotel. The purpose: to teach the Happy Meals generation how to eat a three-course meal. That includes what to do while waiting for guests (don’t eat the bread), choosing the right silverware, and using china ketchup containers (don’t dip; put the condiment on your plate with a spoon). “Etiquette is about being respectful,” says teacher Nicole DeVault. “It’s designed to make others feel comfortable.”
It’s not just the Plaza trying to perfect kids’ performance at the table. There’s been a boom in etiquette courses for children, now offered everywhere from the Las Colinas Country Club in Irving, TX, to the Four Seasons Hotel in Newport Beach, CA. Dorothea Johnson, founder and director of the Protocol School of Washington in Portland, ME, which teaches etiquette and trains instructors, says that demand for kids’ etiquette classes has tripled in the last several years. The reason? A return to formality that’s being pushed by a generation of parents who don’t have the time or energy to teach the rules it entails. “Many parents have so little time to spend with their kids,” she says. “They don’t want to waste it correcting their table manners. They’d rather have someone else do it for them.”
That’s where DeVault comes in. She walks around the room like the schoolteacher she once was, encouraging rather than intimidating. At one point, she takes one boy’s hand, spoon and all, and curves it up and out rather than directly toward his mouth. “You’ll get it,” she promises. “Holding utensils is a skill. You’ll get better as you practice.”
It’s this positive approach that makes children remember the rules of etiquette. “The most effective way to teach without nagging is to show by example,” explains Johnson. “Children are imitative, and parents need to model the right behavior.”
Three dozen parents are sitting in, observing their kids’ reactions. “I hope this sticks,” says Allyson Nuss, the mom of the boy working the spoon. DeVault says it will — with effort. “It will take eight days of reminders for 90% of the skills to be remembered for a month,” she says. “And it will take three months for them to become automatic. Repetition is the key — you can’t expect perfection the first time.”
DeVault then announces a final quiz. She takes six pieces of silver, two plates, a glass, and a napkin and scatters them on a table at the front of the room. She picks a volunteer and asks him to set a proper place setting. Matt Stroup, 11, comes close to perfection. His miss? A butter knife facing out instead of in.
His father, Matt Sr., watches from the sidelines. “He’s really taken by this class,” he says. “It’s a great opportunity for the children, and it’s something they can use for the rest of their lives.”