Green Room

Modern parents have discovered table manners & the NYT is on it!

posted at 12:47 pm on December 28, 2012 by

One of my favorite things about reading the New York Times and other liberal publications is how they frequently present age-old ideas we’ve all known about for centuries as new trends. For instance, sustainable eating? That’s what the rest of us call a garden. Co-parenting? That’s what the rest of us know as a two-parent family. Localvore charcuterie? Where I come from, that’s always been called bacon.

Now, the NYT presents the brave new world of…teaching your children table manners. I can’t decide if it’s encouraging that parents actually want to do this or depressing that they’ve just discovered it might be a good idea and are now outsourcing it because they’re too wimpy to do it on their own. An account from a San Francisco restaurant:

The place is Chenery Park, a restaurant with low lights, cloth napkins, $24 grilled salmon and “family night” every Tuesday. Children are welcome, with a catch: They are expected to behave — and to watch their manners, or learn them. Think upscale dining with training wheels.

Chenery Park has many allies in the fight to teach manners to a new generation of children. Around the country, there are classes taught by self-appointed etiquette counselors — Emily Posts for a new age — delivering a more decentralized and less formal approach to teaching manners than in years past. A few restaurants, like Chenery Park, and high-end hotels set aside space and time for families.

These etiquette experts say that new approaches are needed because parents no longer have the stomach, time or know-how to play bad cop and teach manners. Dinnertime has become a free-for-all in many households, with packed family schedules, the television on in the background and a modern-day belief of many parents that they should simply let children be children.

What I do know is I love the owner of this restaurant and I pray he doesn’t get some litigious parent suing him over taking a harsh tone with their little snowflakes:

During a recent family night at Chenery Park, Joseph Kowal, an owner, roamed among the regulars and newcomers, saying hello and occasionally playing parental ally. He’s got a twinkle in his eye but a steely commitment to having children — even if they’re not etiquette role models — at least sit politely and not scream or throw food.

“Some parents will say, ‘Uncle Joe’s going to come up here, and he’s going to be cross with you,’ ” Mr. Kowal said. “They use that to their advantage.” He recalled one child who wouldn’t settle down, and he threatened to tape the child’s mouth. The child told him to go ahead and try.

“I went to my office, got some blue painter’s tape, came back and ripped a piece off,” he said. The kid piped down. “The parents looked at me like, ‘We’re going to try that at home.’ ”

So, Uncle Joe is what used to be known as a normal parent. The NYT goes on to wrestle with what it is about Uncle Joe’s restaurant that helps children behave. The reporter settles on a version of the broken-window theory of criminology. Basically, because the place is nice and orderly, people are more likely to behave in that setting. I’ll buy some of that— my brothers and I were certainly more likely to behave when out in public or at a friend’s house than around our rough-and-tumble table at home. But what the paper misses is that Uncle Joe’s expectations for the children, which they never get from their good-cop parents, might have something to do with it.

I’m in favor of modern parents teaching their kids this stuff in pretty much any way they’re willing to do it, but if you’re unable to play bad cop long enough to teach your kid not to throw food at a public table, you’re gonna end up outsourcing pretty much all of parenting. The teenage and adult years for said snowflakes aren’t likely to be great for the rest of us who have to be around them.

At any rate, an etiquette class can run parents between $300 and $1,200. There, your children will learn that manners aren’t about decency and respect but about building one’s toddler “brand.”

“Say the words ‘manners’ or ‘etiquette’ to kids these days, and they run the other direction,” she said. She prefers teaching the children that they are “building the brand called ‘you.’ ”

“People don’t want to eat with someone whose plate looks like a science project,” she tells the children in her workshops. “If you want to be invited back on a play date,” she explains, be polite.

Recently in the Green Room: