Emily Post was a famous writer, most prominently known for her books and articles related to etiquette. One biographer dubbed her, “Mistress of American Manners,” and her influence still remains broad through her family website and business ventures.
Though I probably never heard the term etiquette used formally in my home, I do have many sweet memories of my grandmother and mother teaching and training my sister and I in the area of manners.
My grandparents lived with us each summer, which provided a wonderful setting for daily outings and activities. When they took us to our favorite restaurant, we were always reminded about saying “please” and “thank you,” chewing with our mouths closed, and sitting in our seat throughout the meal.
At home, my mother and grandmother often made home-cooked meals, which gave plenty of time for training us in the basics of setting a table, extending hospitality and cleaning up after ourselves.
My grandmother often took us to the same activities she did with her friends, teaching us how to interact with adults, looking them in the eye and responding to their greetings. We often had visitors joining us in my grandparents’ dining room for a warm meal and fellowship. She wrote letters frequently, encouraging her friends with her thoughtful words. Whenever she wrote me, or sent me a gift, my mom promptly instructed me to sit down and write her back.
What is etiquette?
Etiquette, by definition, refers to the ways in which we behave according to common social expectations. It’s easy in this modern age to forgo traditional etiquette. With cell phones, social media, schedules that are busier than ever before – who has time to focus on training their children the art of letter writing or the proper way to set a table?
Etiquette is something we want to be a normal part of our family’s everyday life. However, we sometimes notice it more than ever at the holidays. Maybe we start to see the self-absorbed and materialistic tendencies in our children more as we approach Christmas. We become embarrassed or frustrated by the seeming lack of gratitude, which can be more pronounced during the weeks surrounding the holiday season. Or maybe we take note of our own selfish hearts when we don’t get what we want, or our holiday meal doesn’t turn out as we had planned.
At emilypost.com, a recent article written by Cindy Post Senning, entitled, “5-Day Manners Makeover for the Holidays,” offers five helpful suggestions for frustrated parents who wonder where they went wrong in training their children on proper etiquette. While the five steps outlined in the article provide practical and attainable goals in teaching manners to young ones, I would like to do a running comparison of it, adding in some biblical insights. We must recognize that etiquette is to be used for God’s glory, as is everything in the Christian’s life. So, here goes!
1. Table Manners
First, Cindy covers the basics of meal manners – washing hands, using napkins, saying “please” and “thank you,” chewing small bites with mouths closed, etc.
These are great suggestions to build on for the Christian parent. To apply the same principles, but with an intentional motive toward faith, all we have to do is ask, “Why?” in response to these tips. Why do we say “please” and “thank you”? Because it expresses a grateful heart. What if my child is not actually grateful? Then teaching them to make such statements calls their minds to gratitude, and Lord-willing, slowly cultivates a heart attitude.
2. Table Conversation
Next, the author delves into table conversation, giving suggestions on things like volume, making small talk, asking appropriate questions, and getting to know others.
Again, by asking why we do something, we can get to the spiritual virtue behind it. Why do we make conversation and try to get to know others? Because as Christians, we desire to build relationships in which we can encourage others, find out what needs they might have, and share Christ with them. Conversation also provides a distinct opportunity to take our eyes off of ourselves and place them onto others, a quality exemplified in the life of Christ.
3. Gifts We Don’t Wrap
In this section, Cindy refers to kindness, consideration and helping out – she maintains that by preparing for company, decorating, and cleaning, children learn these virtues and thereby “gift” them to others. Here would be an excellent opportunity to train your children in the giver of such gifts – the Spirit!
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23)
We cannot possibly carry out these tasks without the help of the Spirit. Oh, we can physically make preparations, decorate, cook and clean – yet, our hearts may be far from kindness. Our motives may be to impress others or because we feel like we didn’t have a choice. Here we must teach our children, and cultivate in ourselves, an attitude of selflessness, remembering that even when Christ was tired and circumstances weren't ideal, he gave of himself.
4. Greetings and Handshakes
Again, the basics are covered in the original piece, reminding children to look people in the eye, expressing a warm greeting, shaking hands or hugging when appropriate. These are all good traits to develop, but what spiritual value can we look to when teaching them to our children?
Consider what it conveys when we don’t do such things. If you come upon someone in the hallway and they completely ignore you or avoid looking in your eyes, what do you think? Maybe they don’t like you, they are shy or nervous, maybe they are upset about something – or maybe you think no one ever taught them to have good manners! No matter the reason, such habits wreak of selfishness. Even being shy or nervous comes from a heart absorbed with self. Karen Andreola, in her book Beautiful Girlhood, says this: “The great foe of these years is selfishness.” During this season of parties, family gatherings and church celebrations, we have extended opportunities to train our children to look away from themselves and to focus on others.
5. Gift Giving and Receiving
Finally, Cindy Post Senning devotes attention to the practice of giving gifts. She encourages family shopping in which the children participate in picking out and purchasing gifts for others, as well as making gifts. She then asserts that three things ought to take place directly when a child gives a gift:
- Look at the person and smile.
- Hand them the gift and say clearly, “This is for you. I hope you like it.” Or “Here, I made this especially for you.” Help your kids with the language of giving.
- Watch the person open their gift and feel the delight that comes with giving.
She concludes by outlining what should take place when a child receives a gift:
- Look at the person giving you the gift and smile.
- Focus on the person and the the gift – not something you opened just before.
- Thank you, thank you, thank you. We don’t express our appreciation enough and you can’t stress it enough with your children! If you can’t thank the giver in person send a note right away!
- If they don’t like the gift, teach them the positive thing they can say, to say it, and then to say thank you.
These are excellent principles, ones which you probably already spend a great deal of time trying to reinforce in your home. Sometimes we get so caught up in training and modifying behavior that we neglect to explain the motivations behind it to our children. Etiquette, for the Christian, is being mindful of how your attitudes, habits and actions affect those around you and how they reflect your the gospel.
Ultimately, it’s about the glory of God – not as some abstract theological element. But, as a practical daily overflow of the gratitude and praise that comes from a heart that loves God. While we can teach and practice manners every day, the best way for our children to learn this is to see it modeled by us. When we visibly and regularly express the thankfulness of our own hearts as we receive the blessings of breath, a warm home, food on the table, church family and thoughtful friends, then our children witness God’s glory manifested in and toward His people. They see the benefits that come from living in relationship with a God who not only provides for his people, but exceeds our needs and expectations. He is the giver of all good gifts, the One who gave the greatest gift of all to those most undeserving!
Resources used & recommended:
Beautiful Girlhood by Karen Andreola
The Young Ladies Guide to the Harmonious Development of Christian Character by Harvey Newcomb