Now that my own children have graduated from adolescence, I can report some good news about manners from the other side. Recently, I ran into the 20-something son of a family friend. Only a few years ago, he was a typical slovenly, grunting, gaze-averting teenager, but here he was, looking me in the eye, greeting me cheerfully by my surname and actually initiating a conversation. What seemed like a minor miracle was instead the magic of maturation, predicted all along by developmental experts: He grew up -- and thanks to good role models has become like his friendly, unerringly polite parents.
Not that it always happens this way, but to some extent parents of teens can be reassured that shoveling food and slamming doors are probably not permanent conditions. Nonetheless, it's risky to leave good manners up to Mother Nature, particularly in today's world, where recent public opinion surveys have singled out teens for their rudeness.
The blame for teen behavior is often placed on parents, many of whom feel they're fighting an uphill battle. Our high-tech, hurry-up society has eaten away at both the quantity and quality of personal interactions, reducing possibilities for positive social role models. Moreover, some teens are overly influenced by the media, where boorish behavior and crude language are frequently glorified.
Despite these obstacles, parents who value good manners shouldn't give up, but should realize that it's going to take more finessing during adolescence, advises Laura Kastner, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and clinical faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington.
"Parents are likely to experience a drop-off in manners during the teen years," Kastner says. "In the process of forming their own identity, which includes firming up the boundary between self and parent, teens can feel crowded by too much parental closeness and guidance, so they can come across to us as disrespectful and unpleasant."
Given everything that our etiquette agenda is up against during adolescence, what can parents do?
Eight helpful tips for taming teen rudeness:
1. Keep the big picture in mind. Many teens show great respect and consideration for their friends, but parents may not notice because they're picking away at specifics like the dreaded elbows on the table. Aim broadly, for example, on acquiring language that conveys courtesy (please, thank you, you're welcome, I'm sorry, excuse me).
2. Set them up for success by being proactive. "Ongoing criticizing and correcting a teen's manners are more likely to backfire and breed resentment than instill good behavior," Kastner says. A better approach is to think ahead with a direct request. For example: "I'd like you to take grandma to the table and help her to her seat when she's here for dinner tonight."
3. Be positive and keep it light. When something goes well, follow up with a casual comment, such as "I really appreciated it when you helped me with the groceries." Unless you overdo it, this kind of gentle praise can sink in.
4. Recognize the learning process. Acquiring manners takes practice so that it becomes a conditioned response, but we're doomed to fail if we talk about it relentlessly. Instead, Kastner advises families to work on manners over time. "Consider having an occasional white tablecloth night with a special meal so everyone can practice," she says.
5. Speak up about your non-negotiables. Parents should have no reservations about picking a couple of top issues and sticking to their guns about them. Whether it's no cell phones at the table or a tucked-in shirt at a holiday meal, keep the list short and enforce it.
6. Encourage involvement in activities where they'll be exposed to positive behavior. Make sure teens are engaged in activities (choir, scouts, community service) where they'll be around positive adult role models. In athletics, choose coaches as much for their sportsmanship as for their winning record.
7. Remember where the apple falls. How we as parents behave toward others may be our most effective way to dilute the impact of all that's negative in our culture. Our teens are observing whether we lose our patience with an elderly driver, whether we're cordial to the person behind the counter or whether we cut in line.
8. Sustain your relationship. "Rule number one for parents is to make sure they have a mostly positive relationship with their teens so they can have influence," Kastner says. If there are signs that you and your teen are seriously sideways, ease up on manners and figure out what you need to do to reestablish your relationship.
Jennifer Wyatt, Ph.D. is co-author with Laura Kastner, Ph.D., of The Launching Years: Strategies for Parenting from Senior Year to College Life and The Seven-Year Stretch: How Families Work Together to Grow Through Adolescence. They are also the authors of Getting to Calm: Cool-Headed Strategies for Parenting Tweens and Teens.