Etiquette rules are a sign of the times and a mark of a culture. Around the world and throughout history, etiquette for children has been established, torn down and rewritten hundreds of times. It is important to remember that different cultures have extremely different etiquette rules for children, and even each individual family may have its own variety of proper behavior. Setting basic rules about etiquette for children is generally intended to make them appreciative and kind people who think about others as well as themselves.
Some rules have gone the way of the dodo bird in most parts of the world; asking an American child to be seen and not heard is likely to be met with incredulity in the 21st century. The basis for most rules of etiquette for children remains the same, however, despite modern interpretations: generally, people believe it is important that children adapt to the rules of their society in order to do well within it. An unruly or poorly mannered child may have a tough time getting along in the family, at school, and in life.
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Sometimes, etiquette for children involves affirming a hierarchy of social structure. Thus, teachers or authority figures are addressed by a formal name, such as “Mr. Jones.” Older relatives are generally called by relationship-names, such as “Mom” or “Aunt Clara,” as an indication of respect for the title. Teaching children to refer to adults by formalized names can help affirm their place in society. Not all people believe this is an advisable or fair rule of etiquette, however, as it certainly conveys the concept of a social hierarchy rather than a society of equals.
Much of etiquette for children deals with stemming ego or selfishness. Children tend to exist in self-centered worlds by nature; in this developmental stage, they are discovering who they are as a means of understanding the world. Many etiquette experts feel that the most important value to instill is that of selflessness or thoughtfulness. Acknowledging gifts with thanks or learning how to share politely are examples of this type of etiquette.
Fair play is another type of etiquette for children that may help them function better in society. Many adult affairs involve working in a team or being a competitor for something. When thousands of people lose money in an investment fraud,or an Olympic team has medals taken away because one member is convicted of doping, the adult world gets a clear image of the ripple effect of unfair or cheating behavior. Instilling a love and appreciation of fairness in a child may not only help him or her gain respect and friends throughout life, but may also prevent harm done to others.
It is important to remember that children are not born with a sense of etiquette. Young children tend to pick up on the predominant behavior in their immediate environment, particular in the family home. It is patently unfair to require manners from a child that his or her authority figures do not consistently display. Setting a good model of behavior from the beginning is often the best way to ensure that etiquette is learned easily.