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SIMPLY CHARMING <br> TEACHING CHILDREN THE BASICS OF PROPER LIFE HABITS -- BEING COURTEOUS, CONSIDERATE AND CULTURED

What a confusing array of tableware awaited the youngsters: a knife, a spoon, a large plate and a small one, a napkin, a glass and two forks.

The grown-ups at Susan Makai's Personal Best Manners and Modeling class in Cheektowaga expected the children to set the 10 objects in their correct places.

Marissa Wright, 6, rose to the challenge. She positioned the knife on the right of the dinner plate, sharp edge facing inward. She put the napkin, in its holder, on the left. Then she set the glass at the tip of the knife.

Emily Post, Miss Manners and Leititia Baldridge would have nodded in approval.

Meanwhile, Peter Rhine, the youngest of the group at age 4 and the only boy, was far more engrossed in the wonderful noises he could produce by humming into his glass.

Welcome to the world of Early Etiquette.

All over the country, there's an attempt to turn decades of boorishness into civility. Etiquette books sell well. Cotillion balls have been revived, especially in the South. And executives are asking questions of etiquette that apply to the workplace.

"People definitely want to know how to make life run more smoothly," said Peggy Post, the great granddaughter-in-law of Emily Post, whose 1922 book on etiquette remains the Bible for Behavior.

Over the past 76 years, that book has been revised 16 times, most recently by Peggy Post, who was interviewed by phone last week from southwest Florida.

Despite all those revisions -- meant to incorporate "Netiquette," paper plates and cell phones -- the basic rules remain unchanged, Post said. The first commandment, in Emily Post's own words remains: "Good manners reflect something from inside -- an innate sense of consideration for others and respect for self."

That's why Peggy Post was delighted to hear a New Orleans inner city teenager say recently, "I think it's about being kind to other people."

"Having good manners gives a child a jump start," said Post, who is working on a new book, "Etiquette for Children," due out fall 2001 and who writes monthly etiquette columns for Parents and Good Housekeeping magazines. "These aren't just boring old rules. For one, you are doing a child a favor in helping them learn how to greet an adult. It makes the adult feel good."

Post thinks the pendulum is swinging back to gentility because people want order and civility in their lives along with wanting to feel comfortable in social situations.

"We've become so rushed and crowded that we forget some of the niceties," Post said. "We want to turn the tables so we can get along.

"And maybe there's some nostalgia for the turn of the century," she added.

Locally, modern day manners have been taught for 11 years at Personal Best by Susan Makai, a local television personality and image consultant, who oversees classes focused on personal development, including modeling and performance.

New on the scene is the Buffalo Charm School, founded by Joanne Wnuk, who owns an advertising agency. It held its first class when girls in pretty dresses and boys in pressed shirts gathered a week ago at the Amherst Community Church.

Candy Younger, of North Buffalo, said she enrolled Meredith, 10, and Tommy, 8, to reinforce what she does at home. "But they're now at the age when the TV repairman knows something, but I know nothing," she said.

Wnuk and teacher Kelly Gregory used skits, role playing of crude behavior, a videotape and classroom style instructions to make their points.

The three-hour class, a first effort, didn't reflect the silver and china of a former era. This was the Year 2000 version: children spooned chicken soup from foam cups and ate salad out of plastic take-out containers.

The first dining lesson came from Gregory, who also teaches Art Attack for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

"The proper way to butter bread is to break a piece off first," said Gregory. "How weird is that?"

Next lesson: Wnuk, wearing a baggy sweat shirt and way-too-short-cut-off jeans, stood up, stuffed food into her mouth and talked while she ate, demonstrating mealtime "no nos."

Still, even at charm school, lessons don't always go as planned.

Just after Will Pelham, 8, answered a question by saying that it's impolite to make faces if you are served something that you don't like, Lauren Wnuk, 3, Joanne's daughter, announced loudly: "Mommy, I don't like the soup."

Wnuk countered with this rule: "If you don't like something, you may simply say you are allergic to it or you are vegetarian."

Not only were the youngsters willing to answer questions and participate, it was obvious that they'd had grounding in the social graces.

"If the soup is clear then you put the spoon in this way," said Tommy Younger.

And a 5-year-old boy knew this Buffalo variation to proper table manners: "You can eat chicken wings with your hands."

This renewed interest in manners extends from preschoolers to executives, said Makai, who advises college students and the corporate world on the intricacies of a business lunch.

Makai started offering such help in 1989 when it became evident that even well-educated people weren't sure how to conduct themselves.

"In this country, we are experts at doing everything on the fly," she said.

But formal events catch up to everyone, Makai points out: a wedding invitation, lunch with a prospective client, a visit to a funeral home.

At one time, children were groomed on the finer points of greeting adults, answering the telephone and speaking when spoken to.

Wnuk, for one, remembers attending "finishing school" at the AM&As store in Southgate Plaza when she was growing up.

"I had to walk with a book on my head," she said.

But good manners demand more than a straight spine and the right fork, etiquette experts say.

"We want children to know that they affect others by how they act," said Buffalo Charm School's Gregory. "Just by changing a few things like saying 'please' and 'thank you,' it will help."

When children learn social norms as a natural part of growing, they are more likely to be confident rather than to stumble and mumble their way through situations, experts say.

At Personal Best, even those as young as 5, with some prompting, walked up to a stranger to shake hands, announce their names and say: "It's nice to meet you."

When these young diners later sat at their places, they encountered brightly colored napkins and tableware and the Big Question: What do we do first?

"I try to do it at home, but she listens better here," said Carmella Marinaccio of her daughter, Philomena, 4. "And, truthfully, I'm not so sure I know exactly how to set a table properly."

Hint from teacher Catherine Brooks: unfold your napkin and place it on your lap. Then she leads them through a simple dining experience: passing a platter of cookies.

"If you saw cookies on a plate, would you just grab them?" she asks.

All answer with a resounding "no" and Megan Pellien, 5, adds: "Because that wouldn't be fair to the other person."

Brooks also revealed the great secret about salt and pepper shakers: "Remember, they are married," she said. "They always stay together and then you know where they are."

Though the youngsters at Personal Best politely paid attention to the teacher's dictums, it was clear they live by their own code of conduct.

As one youngster passed the platter, she announced that there is only one way to dispatch a cut-out cookie: "I eat the head first."