Dilemmas: My son's friend has no concept of manners

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Marie is horrified by the bad manners of her son's friend, aged 12. His behaviour at the table is very poor and `thank-you' is absent from his vocabulary. Why have his parents not taught him better, and should Marie attempt to show him some social graces?


I RECENTLY told a friend that I found it really lovely that he got up when I, and other women, came into the room. He was shocked. "Women!" he spluttered. "I get up when anyone comes into the room, particularly children. It's a mark of respect!" Since then I've been leaping up like a yo-yo, much the recent embarrassment of a gloomy-looking 14-year-old who wasn't prepared for a middle-aged woman springing to her feet and offering her hand. And yet once she'd got over the surprise, she seemed pleased.

There's one thing I regret hugely in my life. No, not not going to university. Or not being forced to continue learning the piano long after I'd given up in despair. No, it's that the importance of manners was not forced down my throat like a goose on it's way to become pate de fois gras. I don't think I've got dreadful manners. But recently I've understood their importance.

I used to go away to stay and never take a present. I used to think that just verbal thanks after dinner was enough. I used to think the only jokes I should laugh at were the ones I found funny. I used to think that whoever was first should go through the door first, regardless of whether they were young or old or carrying heavy bags.

That's why I feel for Marie's son's friend. And if Marie wishes to help this boy, she should devise some way, however bizarre it may seem, to help him.

Obviously there's no question of her talking to his parents. They would be understandably upset. And to discuss it with them would be bad manners in itself. I'm also sure if she had what's known as "a quiet word" with him (how noisy are those words, internally!) he would go home and repeat every word.

Mine may appear a crass and obvious plan to adults, but I don't think the children would see through it. She should encourage her son to ask this boy to stay for the weekend. During the first morning, she should berate her own son, but not unkindly, for his bad manners. She can surely find a few moments when he slips up. She should then announce that for an hour that afternoon they're going to have a `politeness rehearsal' for a politeness test the next day. This exercise will be seen as a treat, like a party game, not a punishment. There will, of course, be a considerable prize involved, like a computer game they both want. For an hour and a half she must involve them in play-acting. She is the hostess and they are coming to dinner.

Each one is tested individually. There is a lot of door-opening involved, coat removing, gift-giving, who sits down first, table-manners, oily thank- you letter writing and so on. She could even give each of them a list of points to remember, with the ever-present reminder that manners are a way of making the other person feel as comfortable as possible. If she's something of an actress, with any luck this would turn into a hilarious event.

The following day each one will be tested on what they've learned, in a spirit of such jocularity and hysteria that no one's really aware that a lesson is being given. Preferably the test would take place in separate rooms so they can't spark each other off laughing. At the end they both must, of course, be marked equally, and get the same prize.

Thus Marie will have given her son's friend an enormous gift which, even if he never uses it until later life, will remain with him for ever.


When in Rome ...

What is normal? The range of socially acceptable behaviour is extremely broad and many social circles would accept Marie's son's friend's table manners. At 12 years of age the boy is probably quite set in his ways. Given time he will come to appreciate the saying: "When in Rome do as the Romans do!" I do not think Marie can hope to change the boy at this stage, but I do think she is entitled to receive some consideration in her own home. If she cannot bear to be more tolerant of his behaviour, I feel that her approach needs to be firm but fair. Gentle encouragement towards, for example, staying at the table for some reason, would be far more fruitful than any amount of implied criticism.




Rules are rules

Why on earth can't Marie tell her son's friend to behave properly? She could say: "In our house we don't eat holding our spoon and fork in our fists. We eat like this ..." She could also tell him not to get down after the meal, and she could also ask him to say "Thank-you". She doesn't have to be unkind. She should just say to him that they have rules in this house, as his parents, no doubt, have different rules in theirs. The fact that they clearly have pretty few is neither here nor there.



Manners mean nothing

Marie is living in the dark ages. Manners just aren't that important any more. Isn't it better that this boy is a nice person and a good friend to her son than that he's well-mannered? Opening doors for people and saying please and thank-you all the time went out of fashion years ago. Marie should learn to relax and think about the more important things in life.



Next Week's Dilemma

Dear Virginia,

My friend Emma suffers from verbal diarrhoea. I've known her for eight years and she's getting worse. Her last boyfriend finished with her after 10 years because she talked too much and her other friends find it a problem. She goes on and on in a very loud voice and isn't interested in anyone else. I dread seeing her. Should I see her less, or risk hurting her and confront her? Or would voicing my feelings make no difference - her ex told her. What would I say to her? I want to keep her as a friend. Is there a painless way of doing this?

Yours sincerely, Erica

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