Thursday, May 24, 2018

Teaching manners to children, 3: Earliest stages

As I mentioned in my last post, because I believe in the power of seeing various examples, I’m going to be writing about what my own family did. No family is perfect, least of all mine, and no family will be facing exactly the same circumstances yours is, but still, it’s always helpful when trying to wrap your mind around a dauntingly huge idea to see it incarnated in various ways.

Part 1: Definitions
Part 2: Basic principles

Part 3: Before I started thinking about formal training

My first child was an extraordinarily easy child in this department. If you know anything about Myers-Briggs stuff, she’s an ISTP: Introverted Thinking, Extroverted Sensing. As is typical of babies of this type, she reached all of the developmental milestones way ahead of schedule, had fantastic fine motor skills, and was very independent.

When she was an infant, if she happened to be awake during a meal, I’d lay her on a blanket nearby so she could move around to her heart’s content, but still be close enough that I could keep an eye on her. That really only lasted about three months though, because she always wanted to be up where she could see whatever was happening. She was able to sit up on her own when she was three months old, so at mealtime I started putting her in her swing, which was located where she could see most of what went on in our little, open-plan apartment.

By the time she was ten months old, Eldest Daughter was sitting at the table with us and quietly feeding herself her own bits of food, one pea at a time. If she ever made messes, I don’t remember it. She was quiet and happily occupied herself, so mealtimes were pretty effortless. Mostly, Mike and I chatted, and I’d keep an eye on her to make sure she actually got enough to eat. She was very patient, but she tired of feeding herself before she’d eaten enough to last more than an hour, so I’d casually offer her a spoonful of food every once in a while. After the meal I’d give her a bottle to make sure she was adequately cuddled and filled. (She quit nursing when she was six months old—I’m pretty sure my milk production was inadequate, but that’s another topic.)

 When #1 Son came along, I would put his baby seat on the table with us at mealtime, if he wasn’t napping then. It was important to me that he be part of our family culture, especially meals, from the earliest possible days. Looking back on it, maybe this made mealtime pleasant for the children, because they were there with us enjoying fellowship long before meals became something where correct behavior was expected of them.

For this reason I believe that there’s no such thing as a child being too young to begin training in manners and courtesy. It begins by your example long before they’re capable of anything but enjoying being with you.

Eldest Daughter was nineteen months old by then, and mealtime training wasn’t much more than trying to get her in the habit of putting her sippy cup down above her plate, so that it was well away from the edge of the table. This is an example of beginning with the end in mind. Sure, it wouldn’t be terrible if she accidentally knocked her sippy cup onto the floor, but I wanted to start early teaching her a habit that would allow her to use a grown-up cup without needing to learn new table habits.

If she forgot, I would either remind her where it belonged or move it there myself without comment, because at that stage the only rule I had was that I did NOT want there to be Issues surrounding mealtimes. But if you think about it, that was a rule for myself rather than for my children.

I want to address what I mean by “Issues surrounding mealtimes,” but I’m going to save that for the next post. First I need to say something about atmosphere, because I think this is crucial. 

My husband’s work schedule was pretty crazy in those early years. He’d work the day shift (6:00am-2:00pm) for four days, have two days off, then work the swing shift (2:00-10:00pm) for four days, have two off, then go back to the day shift, all year long, including weekends and holidays. Every once in a while he’d have to work the midnight shift.

Because Mike’s shifts were so crazy, I worked hard to have a stable routine at home. I’m a firm believer that the home is meant to be a sanctuary, and a sanctuary must be peaceful, and for there to be peace, there must be order. I’m also a lover of comfort and beauty, so I don’t mean for my emphasis on order to imply that I ran a militarily regimented household.

Believe me, it was nothing like that!

I just mean that for my own peace of mind I needed to have regular mealtimes and bedtimes, regular times for running errands and being home, regular times for chores, stories, and playing.

This turned out to be a profound blessing in raising children, because as it happens, children also desperately need this kind of predictable, peaceful environment.

So everything that I’m saying about how I did things happened in this context of peace and comfort.

This is so important that if you’re struggling with your children’s mealtime behavior, I’d encourage you to take a hard look at the rest of their day. Is it characterized by peace or by chaos? If it’s the latter, your task is going to be far more difficult than simply teaching your children to listen when the grown-ups are speaking, say please and thank you, and not make messes with their food.

To be continued . . .

Friday, May 18, 2018

Notes on reading The Faerie Queene the second time

In The Lost Tools of Writing, you arrange your Proof section first (that’s the body of the essay), then you work out your Conclusion, then you decide on your Introduction, including the Exordium, which is supposed to raise the reader’s interest and give him a clue as to the content of the essay.

While reading The Iliad with the apprenticeship this school year, I noticed that Book I serves as the Exordium for the whole work. The events in that book foreshadow the events of the whole story. Then I began noticing that the first few lines of each book serve as the exordium for that book. There’s a fractal pattern to the whole work.

When we read Book I of FQ last month, I suddenly realized that the Cantos 2-6 foreshadow what is going to happen in Books 2-6. I also noticed that Canto 1 is an exordium for the whole book, and the first few stanzas of each canto are the exordium of that canto.

Now we’re in Book II, and I’m seeing the same pattern. We just finished Canto 6, and Sir Guyon is able to disengage himself from a bad woman while maintaining a courteous demeanor. Guess what? Book VI is the story of Sir Calidore, who embodies courtesy.

Illustration by A.G. Walker in
Stories from The Faerie Queene, by Mary Macleod

This work is genius, y’all. You need to read it. More than once, too.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Teaching manners to children, 2: Basic principles

“Instruction without imitation is ineffective.”
~ Rev. Lee Gandiya

In his sermon Sunday, my pastor was preaching on the ascension of Christ, and he reminded us that Jesus did not just leave his disciples with commandments to obey, but with an example to follow. Imitation is going to be a crucial theme in this series, so don’t be surprised if I harp on it. ;-)

Last week I discussed definitions of some words I’ll be using.

Today I want to address Basic Principles.

1. Begin with the end in mind. You need to have a clear mental image of what good table manners look like so you know where to begin, and so you can tell if you’re making progress. With this in mind, do NOT encourage behavior in young children that you would have to correct in an older one.

I’m not talking about punishment here. I just mean don’t laugh and take pictures and act pleased when your ten-month-old smashes his peas and uses them as finger paint. Yes, I know it’s adorable and you want to encourage a spirit of creativity and exploration. But the dinner table isn’t the appropriate place for that, so for now just don’t call attention to the activity—he’s not doing it to please you anyway, but to satisfy his own curiosity. You’ll need to defer your excitement until a more appropriate opportunity to express it arises.

2. Knowing etiquette helps us know how to be courteous, so courtesy is the higher thing. On rare occasion you may have to set aside etiquette for the sake of courtesy, but you should never set aside courtesy for the sake of keeping rules.

3. You have to model good manners yourself. We are created in the image of God, so we are by nature imitators. Christ calls us to imitate him, and we parents need to do the same for our children.


If your children are older and have developed bad habits, don’t worry about where they “should be.” Just start where they are and move forward.

You do need to take responsibility for the way you’ve raised them so far, so if you haven’t taught them well, or you’ve been a bad role model, don’t blame them for it. But don’t beat yourself up either. Just acknowledge to yourself and to God that you’ve fallen short in this area, then move on.

Here are some questions to ask yourself: What is my vision for my family? How do I define good manners? What things am I already doing well? What is one step I can take that will make mealtimes more pleasant?

I’d love to hear your answers, if you feel comfortable sharing in the comments.

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In my next few posts I’m going to describe what meals looked like at different points in our family life, beginning when my oldest children were quite young, before I started thinking about teaching table manners in a more deliberate fashion. This is not so that you can see the One True Method of training your own children, because that doesn’t exist. But since we learn by imitation, it’s good to have examples of how it worked for particular families. I’d encourage you to look for families you admire in your own community as well, so you have several different models to draw on.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Teaching manners to children, part 1

 A couple of weeks ago I was asked to blog a bit on teaching manners to children, specifically table manners. This is such a large topic that, well . . . . You see how long it has taken me to get my thoughts in presentable order. Actually, to keep from succumbing to the perfectionist demon, this is going to wind up being a series of sorts. I’ll add to it as I’m able to and as interest in this conversation warrants it.

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First, definitions!

When we’re talking about something like table manners for children, there are lots of terms we might use that are related but don’t mean exactly the same thing. Is etiquette the same thing as manners? Are manners and courtesy the same?

I’m going to begin with Courtesy, because I think it’s the larger idea. In this context, I’m going to use courtesy to include politeness, good manners, and respect, with the overall goal of treating one another the way we ought to treat fellow bearers of the image of God. Courtesy is a demeanor and an attitude as much as an action or set of actions. In this sense, courtesy is a virtue that people in all times and places must strive to embody.

Manners are the actions we take in relation to the people we’re with and circumstances we’re in. Good manners are things we do that display the virtue of courtesy—practical ways of treating other people with respect, humility, and good humor. It is important to remember that what is considered good manners varies from one culture and even one sub-culture to another.

Etiquette is a formal or customary code that describes correct behavior in various social and business settings, and is specific to those settings. What I mean is that proper etiquette at a wedding is not necessarily the same as proper etiquette at a beach party. Proper wording of a text message is not the same as proper wording of a business letter, and neither is the same as an email to a friend.

Another word you might see around is Protocol, which is a formal set of procedures. I don’t use it often, and might not use it at all in this series, because it mostly refers to diplomacy and treaties and matters of state. When I do use it at home, it’s in an almost medical or technological sense. I have protocols for handling raw meat and fresh produce. When we had dairy goats, I had strict protocols for handling the milk because we drank it raw and I wanted to be sure it was clean.

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Now, something practical.

Because manners and etiquette are necessarily tied to culture, spend the next few days noticing what is considered good manners in your own community, including the families you and your spouse were raised in. 

There are two reasons for doing this. One is so that you can be sure that you and your kids aren’t accidentally coming off as rude when you’re at church or grandmother’s house. The other is so that you can identify differences between your community’s and your own expectations, and begin thinking about how to handle that.

Your turn!

What do you think of these definitions?

Would you alter or add to anything I’ve said here?

I haven’t even mentioned decorum, propriety, civility, and others that came to mind after I finished this. Should we talk about those ideas?

What questions do you have?

Tuesday, April 24, 2018


~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

An old man in a lodge within a park;
     The chamber walls depicted all around
     With portraitures of huntsman, hawk, and hound,
     And the hurt deer. He listeneth to the lark,
Whose song comes with the sunshine through the dark
     Of painted glass in leaden lattice bound;
     He listeneth and he laugheth at the sound,
     Then writeth in a book like any clerk.
He is the poet of the dawn, who wrote
     The Canterbury Tales, and his old age
     Made beautiful with song; and as I read
I hear the crowing cock, I hear the note
     Of lark and linnet, and from every page
     Rise odors of plowed field or flowery mead.

Monday, March 26, 2018

On creativity

One day when I only had five children, my friend Michelle dropped in for lunch when I was feeling especially low. My mom, my husband, and all my kids are so creative—we have artists and musicians and storytellers—and in comparison I felt so very uncreative.

As I was complaining, I was making soup out of leftovers, pulling odds and ends out of the freezer to fill it out, absentmindedly dumping in spices, and tasting it every once in a while. When we sat down to eat, Michelle said that when she was watching me make it she was kind of horrified because I wasn’t really even paying attention to what I was doing, but she called it the best soup she’d ever eaten, and told me to stop thinking of myself as lacking in creativity.

Don’t think of “creativity” as something that’s limited to the fine or performing arts, or to writing poetry and stories.

You are made in God’s image, so you are creative! You just need to learn to recognize all the creative things you’re already doing.

Making soup without a recipe is creative. Building a chicken coop is creative. Keeping the lawn tidy and attractive is creative. Working puzzles is creative. Seeing connections between seemingly unrelated things is creative. Making your bed and placing the pillows “just so” is creative. Deciding which books out of all the possibilities your children should read next is creative. Having your spices or tools or pencils arranged so that you can find exactly what you want when you want it is creative.

Do you see the common thread here?

In all of these activities, you are imitating God’s creative work in the beginning: Bringing order out of chaos.

Take Michelle’s advice: Stop thinking of yourself as lacking in creativity. Look for the ways you are already bringing order out of chaos, and build from there.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Out of the mouths of babes

Once when my sister, Anne Marie, was two or three years old, we were out driving when a particularly low quality song came on the radio. When it was over, she remarked, “That song isn’t real. Somebody just made it up.”

Naturally I DID NOT LAUGH when she said it, even though I laugh every time I remember or retell it.

But I have remembered it and retold it regularly, not just because it was funny, but because I think there’s real truth in there.

I was reminded of it again this morning while reading Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty for Truth’s Sake. In his chapter on music he quotes the English composer John Tavener, who says that, “all music already exists. When God created the world he created everything. It’s up to us as artists to find the music.”

He goes on to say:

Music just is. It exists. If you have ears to hear, you’ll hear it! . . . I believe we are incarnated in the image of God in this world in order for us to re-find that heavenly celestial music from which we have been seperated. Our whole life is a continuing return to the “source.”
(p. 96)

Saturday, September 2, 2017


My morning walks are something like a meditation time. When I first starting walking regularly I would bring along an audio book or my French lessons and I found that I hated it — I couldn’t focus on the walk or the book. Instead I focus on the walk itself, and it’s much more pleasurable and relaxing that way.

First I focus on my feet, how I’m placing them. This will sound silly but it’s actually necessary for me. A couple of years ago the pain in my right foot became so bad that I finally went to a doctor and he put me in physical therapy for a few months. Turns out that the weeks I spent walking in a cast after breaking my foot when I was five years old caused me to develop bad habits, and the years of that gait caused damage to my foot, my ankle, my knees, hips, back, and neck! So the first thing I do is make sure that I’m planting that foot the way I should be and pushing off correctly.

Then I spend a bit of time noticing my hips and lower back, checking for correct posture and muscle usage. Then I move up to my upper back, neck, and shoulders, making sure they’re correct and relaxed, so that my chest is open and relaxed and I’m breathing properly. Then I cycle through again to make sure I haven’t lost anything along the way.

CS Lewis said, “When you put the feet right, everything else comes right.” 😀

This sounds time-consuming, and it was at first, but while I’m concentrating on my gait, posture, and breathing, I’m also taking in the look of the ground and noticing whether it shows signs of recent rain or wind. I’m smelling the air and feeling the temperatures. I’m listening to the birds and other animals and to the sound of the wind in the trees. I’m looking up at the sky and noticing the color and whether there are any clouds and what they’re like.

Nowadays focusing on my own body has become easy enough that it doesn’t take much attention or energy, so I have more of that for simply noticing the creation and letting my thoughts wander to whatever I want to think about.

There’s a specific technique that I had learned before all of this came up, and I think it’s why focusing on all those things came fairly easily for me. It’s counting your breaths. This sounds dumb, but it’s actually pretty hard.

Go sit or lie someplace quiet with no distractions. Then breathe in to a slow 3-count and out the same way. Count in your head, if possible, so you can keep your body as quiet and relaxed as possible. At the end of each cycle, count that as 1 breath (keeping count on my fingers works best for me). Try to get all the way to 10 without thinking of anything else. If any other thought intrudes itself, push it out and start over counting.

The goal is to be able to count to 100 (ten 10s) while maintaining that level of focus. It took me weeks and weeks to get there, but it’s worth it! Especially if you have an annoying dental procedure coming up and don’t like using the laughing gas. 😉

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(This post was originally a comment at Joy’s blog.)