Mind Over Manners

Words: Sophie Tweedale

As rewarding as parenthood can be, even the happiest moments can take a cringeworthy, nightmarish turn when your child misbehaves. Reality slammed home for us last month, at an achingly posh Sardinian resort. We had taken away two normally well-behaved boys, or so I thought. By the end of  the week, weariness from multiple late nights welded into their faces, and rather than enjoying the sunset, we were ‘that’ family – forced to scuttle off  early from dinner, hissing irritable asides to the kids, mortified at their behaviour in front of other seemingly far better behaved families.

A meltdown over ‘crispy’ pasta from the five-year-old and sulky demands for the iPad from the seven-year-old had ruined the night – it was not their finest hour. The answer for us was to swiftly retreat and let it blow over, all of us knowing that within a few hours, all would be forgiven.

But is our national barometer of ‘acceptable’ behaviour skewed? Could we have moved so far away from children being ‘seen and not heard’, that we’ve turned into our worst fear – a nation of  parents with tolerance dials notched up so high we’ve created a generation lacking the vital skills to behave properly?

As the summer holidays beckon, children’s behaviour is drawn kicking and screaming into the spotlight. Manners, or a lack of them, is the topic that refuses to be quiet.

So much so, Debrett’s – the social tape measure of British values – has created a course catering for even the most paranoid of parents. The Cygnet School is a classroom-based etiquette boot camp for ages six and upwards, although demand has been so high, course leaders say they are even coaching five-year-olds.

Under the umbrella of Debrett’s Young Achiever Programme (the Academy’s flagship course to foster social skills for those aged 12–16), Debrett’s ethos is clear – catch ’em early.

According to the slick brochure, by instilling manners and a ‘social ease’ at primary school age, we can create self-confident and empathetic children – guaranteeing they’ll be invited back to Aubyn and Aurora’s next playdate.

A recent study revealed that 57 per cent of parents feel guilty for not being able to find the time to teach their children everything they need to know. In a modern-day world of parenting, just keeping everything together on a daily basis can be challenging enough, but is sending children outside of the home to be taught manners the panacea we think it is?

Katherine Lewis, Debrett’s tutor and course leader, believes so, and that as parents we need help teaching our children manners more than ever before.

She explains: “I don’t think we are failing as parents, or that we are parenting badly, it’s just a whole lot harder to be a child these days than it used to be.

“We live in a world where there is a huge influx of information  – this constant digital bombardment – and it has become harder than ever for children to know how to navigate society. We operate our lives through all these connected digital platforms, yet we are super-disconnected from each other and how we should treat each other sometimes, and that’s rubbing off  on our children.

“Requests were coming in for us to help younger and younger children, so we thought, you know what? This is something that clearly needs tackling.”

The course is split into three parts. First Impressions teaches handshakes, eye contact and how to make the best impression on people in seven seconds through a series of games.

In Me & You, children learn their ‘elevator pitch’, looking at how to talk to adults, and breathing and listening techniques. And in Out & About, social awareness and how to be a good guest are explored through a mock dinner party, where they test their new social skills.

Detractors will, of course, cast shadows on the very idea of paying someone else to teach your children manners. To this, Lewis responds: “It is difficult these days with parents’ busy lives to make time to teach manners or ‘soft skills’ – that’s empathy, social awareness and caring about other people in our community.

“We are simply going back to the basics of what manners originally meant and children seem to embrace that. We outsource so many things these days; why not manners? They are so important. I think we all forget what a struggle it is to be a kid these days.”

Izabela Minkiewicz is founder of Blue Almonds, the luxury children’s boutique in London (and baby shop of choice for the Duchess of Cambridge, who bought a Moses basket here for Prince George).

The  Knightsbridge-based  mother  of  two,  Filip,  eight,  and Matylda-Mia, 18 months, has been one of the first through the doors of  Debrett’s to road test the course – keen to stay one step ahead of  the pack by giving her son a headstart in social skills.

She explains: “My son is a thoughtful child, but he does test the boundaries sometimes in a way all children do – from forgetting to say please when he’s in a rush to play football, or leaving the table to grab a toy without asking. I had always loved how traditionally British Debrett’s is, so when a client in my store told me about it, I was intrigued.”

Although admitting she was nervous it could all be a bit ‘too much’ for an easily distracted eight-year-old, she believes the two hours of game-based self-examination and elevator pitches was beneficial.

“I was initially worried the content may be a little too intense or he would not be able to concentrate,”  Minkiewicz  says.  “I think a fraction of the course did go over his head – but overall, it was a fabulous base to build on.

“We are already thinking about secondary schools, and I believe the experience will really help him to impress in interviews and connect when meeting new people. It’s not enough to give them knowledge of maths or chemistry these days, a skillset in manners is just as vital. I will definitely be sending my daughter when she’s old enough.”

Unsurprisingly perhaps, five-star conduct doesn’t come cheap. Located at the prestigious Debrett’s Training Academy in the heart of Mayfair, a private two-hour course starts from £650 and a group session of three–four children from £450.

Katherine adds: “The course doesn’t just help with the Ps and Qs. Parents are aware of how everyone has multiple GCSEs these days, and in order to get into a school, or do well in that 11+ interview, it’s about how you come across. A child having great manners is what can make you stand out and parents are cottoning on to this.

“There has been a lot of concern voiced about the ‘child is king culture, where children seem to be at the centre of everything and get away with everything.  Perhaps we are too liberal sometimes – there are certainly differences in the way other cultures raise their children, and it is a criticism I hear from some parents. But as a nation of parents, we really are not that bad in my opinion.

“When some children walk through the door, they are unsure what manners are. We teach them manners by  first  instilling confidence, which leads in turn to kindness and then politeness towards others.”

Far from believing the course absolves us from teaching our own children manners, Katherine firmly believes it simply “consolidates” what we can teach at home.

The concept of handing over such a deeply rooted ‘parent-child’ task to a stranger is polarising. But whatever side of the debate you stand on, the Cygnet School is not an anomaly. The briefest of online searches reveals a flourishing industry of experts and academies ready to take bad manners into their own hands. Whilst you can expect to leave several (financial) pounds lighter, according to Debrett’s, the Cygnets depart with a certificate to ‘celebrate the start of their journey’ and real techniques to put into practice.

Liat Hughes Joshi is author of New Old-Fashioned Parenting (£10.99, Vie), and believes a blend of teaching our children old and new manners is the best way for modern families.

“There are still some lovely, well-mannered children out there, but plenty who have ill-regard for others around them,” she explains. “But it’s not the children’s fault – they need to be shown and taught how to behave appropriately. It’s not going to happen automatically.

“There is something of a self-centered ‘me, me, me’ culture now, which seems to be behind a decline in manners being taught to children, but manners are what makes our society run smoothly.

“Outsourcing it to a course is better than not bothering at all, but it strikes my cynical side as perhaps taking an easy option. Is it because we don’t want to be the bad cop, who tells our child to eat properly, or send that thank you card to Grandma?

“As a parent, the key is to work out what you think matters to you and work on encouraging those things. Don’t go on at them endlessly about every tiny aspect of etiquette. Pick your battles and prioritise.

“It’s all about balance in the end. Manners are about consideration for others and that should never go out of fashion.”

The Debrett’s Cygnet School is available Monday–Friday for children aged six–10. For more information, visit debretts.com.