Summaryby Ginny Seuffert | Theme 4: Repeated exercises in the forms of good manners and politeness. Gatto’s fourth theme is that elite private boarding schools offer their students repeated exercises in the practice of good manners and courtesy based on the utter truth that politeness and civility are the foundations of all future relationships and the key of access to places a person might want to go.
This is the 4th article in the series How to Get an Elite Prep School Education on a Homeschool Budget.
Award-winning teacher John Taylor Gatto has identified fourteen themes that are common to elite private boarding schools—prep schools where children from wealthy and influential families are groomed to assume powerful positions in society.
If we hope to have any say in the future direction of our nation, practicing Catholics need to prepare our children to assume leadership positions as well, and not surrender them to an elite group that might not share our values.
Thankfully, homeschooling offers us an opportunity to accomplish this goal by providing a prep school education at a tiny fraction of the price.
Theme 4: Repeated exercises in the forms of good manners and politeness.
Gatto’s fourth theme is that elite private boarding schools offer their students repeated exercises in the practice of good manners and courtesy based on the utter truth that politeness and civility are the foundations of all future relationships and the key of access to places a person might want to go.
Interestingly, Gatto, who taught in government schools for decades, notes that “Public schools are laboratories of rudeness and cruelty, sloppiness and coarseness,” an observation that certainly leaves an opportunity for homeschoolers.
My own experience confirms this fourth theme that polite people will go further in life.
Years ago, my eldest son attended an elite private military academy near our home. Gabe was a day student, but most of his classmates were boarders, so our house became a popular weekend destination.
The cadets were not allowed to keep civilian clothes at school so they would arrive at our house in uniform, and displayed simply lovely military manners. Every meal brought, “Thank you, Ma’am; that was delicious.”
When my husband came home from work, our visitors would immediately hop to their feet, shake his hand, and say, “Thanks for having us, Sir. We appreciate the hospitality.”
I recall being charmed at the time, and thinking that these manners would take them far in life.
Since then, I worked in human resources, and can assure you that the job applicant who greets the interviewer with a firm handshake, sits straight, speaks politely, and sends a thank you note, certainly has a leg up for the job.
Here’s what you can do to give your children this advantage.
1. Practice the Magic Words until they become automatic.
As soon as they learn to speak, children should be prompted to add “please” to any request, and say “thank you” for any favor granted. Every family member should politely greet or say farewell to others when they enter or leave a room.
Children should be taught to make introductions. “Mom, this is my friend Karen, Karen this is my mom. Everyone calls her Miss Betty.”
Conversation in your home should be filled with phrases that show concern for others. “Would it be too much trouble?” “Do you mind?” “I’m sorry to be a bother.”
2. Practice table manners at every meal.
This has a particular significance for Catholics as we remember that Our Blessed Lord gave us His Body and Blood at a meal with his friends.
We should try to have as many meals as possible sitting at a table together allowing children to practice their table manners until they become second nature.
Everybody waits for the food server to sit and the family says grace together before anyone chows down.
Plates should be passed and anyone old enough to use utensils should use them. While no one will every really notice that a person uses a dinner fork to eat salad, everyone must learn how to properly use knives, forks and spoons.
I am surprised at the number of educated people who spear their meat vertically with a fork, as if they needed to kill it before they cut it.
Every family member should thank the cook and offer to help with clean up. Express appreciation for a delicious meal, but remember that children’s likes and dislikes are not appropriate table talk. The only thing to say when presented with a less appetizing selection is “No, thank you.”
It goes without saying that no one should chew with an open mouth or do anything else that might ruin the appetite of others.
3. Learn the Basics of Hospitality.
As they get older, teach your children to welcome guests in your home, “It’s so nice to see you again, Mrs. Smith. Have a seat and I’ll get Mom.”
Have them offer refreshments, even if it’s just a glass of water. Let them learn how to make polite small talk if you will not be available right away.
4. If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all.
The best way to teach this particular courtesy is for parents to practice it at every available opportunity. Avoid gossip like the plague that it is.
Instruct children to speak nicely about others and do not tolerate name-calling. When my children tattled on others, I would remind them to “Worry about your own thoughts and deeds. That should keep you busy.”
Sometimes negative talk cannot be avoided entirely due to circumstances, but still can be framed in a way that avoids speaking ill of others.
For example, if the children ask about neighbors who are getting divorced, it is not necessary to share details you may know.
Instead you can focus on how sad it is when people get divorced and encourage your children to pray for them.
5. Dress appropriately for the occasion.
Americans have turned casual into an art form and this is most evident in the way we dress. (This does vary among regions. As a native New Yorker, I was very surprised by how casual Midwesterners dress for business and in restaurants.)
When we dress appropriately, we show respect for those around us. When we dress elegantly for Sunday Mass, we are especially showing respect for Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.
You would be shocked at how many job applicants show up for an interview in jeans, sporting multiple piercings, pastel hair color, or who are just unkempt.
Needless to say, they are never hired. Encourage your children to dress well for social occasions.
6. Be Polite in Public
Insist that your children greet people they know politely and by name, shake a hand that is offered, and answer any questions in a clear voice.
This can be really tough for a shy child, but formal manners are the answer to that problem. Knowing the correct thing to say helps the tongue-tied.
Have your children hold the door for elders, and allow others to go first though a door. It is incredibly rude for young people to play electronics games or text their friends in restaurants or in the company of others.
Some of you may consider all of this to be excessively formal and wish to keep your home life more casual, but John Gatto believes, as do I, that the opposite is true.
By insisting on good manners all the time, courtesy becomes easygoing and a way of life.
Most importantly, lovely manners show an authentic Christian concern for others, and will open up many doors in your children’s future.