Teaching children etiquette is more than showing them which fork to use, says Peggy Post, who is co-author, with Cindy Post Senning, of The Gift of Good Manners: A Parent's Guide to Raising Respectful, Kind, Considerate Children (HarperCollins; 450 pages). Post should know. This is her 10th etiquette book. She talked with TIME about the challenge of raising well-mannered kids.
Q. ARE KIDS' MANNERS WORSE TODAY?
A. I think [most are] no worse. It's just more of a challenge today. A lot of children are not being taught the basics, starting with the values of respect and kindness and honesty and consideration.
Q. HOW EARLY CAN PARENTS START HELPING THEIR CHILDREN LEARN GOOD MANNERS?
A. The first year of life, believe it or not. The whole underlying principle of setting a good example is so key. The infant can see parents being respectful to each other. As children learn to talk, saying "Please" and "Thank you," they'll begin to realize why they're saying these words. So that can start really young.
Q. YOU WRITE ABOUT THE GOLDEN RULE FOR PARENTS. WHAT IS THAT?
A. The Golden Rule of Parenting is, Always behave in the way you want your child to behave. It's pretty simple when you think about it. Once it hits parents between the eyes that their child is going to mimic what they do, it makes such a difference. We've all heard stories of how all of a sudden a 2-year-old is saying some horrible word. So, definitely clean up your act.
Q. YOU SAY THAT EVEN THE BUSIEST FAMILIES SHOULD STRIVE TO HAVE MEALS TOGETHER AT LEAST ONCE OR TWICE A WEEK. WHY IS THAT SO IMPORTANT?
A. Sitting down at a table and having a meal is a great classroom for a child. It's not just about learning all those nuances of eating but also about learning to converse with people. This is something they'll be doing throughout their lives. It doesn't have to be a gourmet meal; it doesn't have to be a formal meal. Just sitting down and sharing what they have done throughout the day is a great lesson for children. It can be fun too. I've done some workshops where you put a mirror on a table to show a child how gross it is to chew with his mouth open.
Q. IS IT O.K. TO CORRECT OTHER PEOPLE'S CHILDREN?
A. Oh, wow! [Laughs.] That's a delicate one. Unless the child is endangering himself or your children or hurting property in your house, you have to tread really lightly. You don't want to criticize somebody else's child's general manners or someone else's parenting ability. But if the other child is doing something--let's say drawing with a crayon on the wall, or about to set your house on fire, or hitting your child, or something on that order--you would certainly want to step in and correct that kind of behavior.
Q. HOW CAN PARENTS CONVINCE KIDS THAT ETIQUETTE IS IMPORTANT?
A. I think it's really important for them to realize that it's not about being a sissy, if you will. It's a good thing to be respectful to people. It makes you feel better. Think about how you like to be treated. All of this really does give you confidence in knowing what to do, throughout life. Kids innately want to be liked. They want people to want to be around them. I think when they realize that there are many reasons to learn how to interact with people, they'll be more motivated to learn.