Teaching our children about common courtesies (for the Thanksgiving table & every day of the year)

an interview with CP Kanipe, Aspen



We live in an informal place, where Dress Jeans can be de rigueur for Thanksgiving Dinner. Many of us moved here from elsewhere, perhaps the Midwest, New England, the South or Europe, where “the rules” are strict and clear. We walk in uncharted territory here, the “Wild West,” where we value the creative individualism and the friendly “come as you are” mores of this place. Yet we also hope to impart enough social couth that our kids don’t grow up to be bumpkins. 

What we truly value is universal – simple, common politeness. However, we suspect that our children might benefit from a few cherry-picked etiquette lessons. And we see that badgering them to say Please and Thank You can be exhausting as well as ineffective at times. So I turned to one of my parenting big-sisters, CP Kanipe – who is an ex-pat Ohioan in fact, whose children and grandchildren are delightful to be around, truly themselves, and genuinely graceful – to find out how she did it.

“You can set the mood by lighting a candle, bringing reverence to the occasion, even if the occasion is simply that it’s the end of an ordinary day. In fact, that’s when you need it the most. You need to make it part of your family’s habit life. If you wait for a special holiday meal, it’s too late.”   ~ CP Kanipe

KC: How can we parents begin?

CPK: The table is a good place to start because you are all sitting there together, and your children will imitate what you bring to the table. You can set the mood by lighting a candle, bringing reverence to the occasion, even if the occasion is simply that it’s the end of an ordinary day. In fact, that’s when you need it the most. You need to make it part of your family’s habit life. If you wait for a special holiday meal, it’s too late. Set the table every night. You can use paper napkins – it doesn’t need to be fancy.  Sit together and slow yourselves down. Share a blessing. If you’re not religious, you can still express gratitude for the person who cooked the meal, and the people who grew the food. It all begins with gratitude.

KC: Our daily bread…

CPK: Our daily habit life is everything. When I visited my mother in a dementia wing of a nursing home, I could tell who grew up with the habit of putting their napkin in their lap; they still did it. Those who said Please and Thank You continued speaking this way, while the others who demanded things – you could see that they never practiced common courtesies. We say “once a man, twice a child.” In old age, after everything else falls away, we’re left with the habits we formed in early childhood. 

KC: Such as holding a fork correctly?

CPK: It’s an easy thing to laugh about, the rigidity of formal etiquette rules.  But really, brain research tells us that the tripod grip – which is what we use when we hold a fork in the manner that our culture says is correct – plays a critical role in brain development. When a child is capable of holding a fork, or a pencil, or a tool with a tripod grip, then the myelination of the brain that happens as a result of this dexterity is absolutely profound. 

KC: Can you tell us more about the rhyme and reason behind “the rules”? 

CPK: My son used to complain. He used to ask, “why are you so picky about table manners?” And I told him, “there will come a day when a potential boss will take you to lunch. And he will notice your table manners. And it may be the difference between your getting the job, and someone else getting it.” Once, when I was eighteen, someone whom I admired gently showed me that how I used my fork when cutting food was considered improper.

KC: Did you feel judged?

CPK: I felt extremely embarrassed and forever grateful. When parents make themselves aware of the rules, they give their children an opportunity to move in the world in a certain way. It really is a gift. I later noticed how my father held his fork, and I realized that I had grown up unconsciously imitating him. Children learn through imitation. Who we are and what we do – especially in the earliest years of life – are what our children will imitate. Be worthy of imitation. It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do as a parent.”

KC: It’s like the old adage – do what I say, not what I do. Instead, we’re doing what we want our children to do.

CPK: Yes. And there’s a lot to be said about how we speak. You sometimes have to stop before you blurt something out, and intentionally consider what you are going to say, how others might feel. Or how you might appear to your children. If you drive around calling every other driver an idiot, then guess what – your children will too, and more to the point, they will regard others this way.  “Please” and “Thank

You” and “May I” come from respecting others and being grateful. Brain research tells us that smiling and saying Please and Thank You causes a release of serotonin in the brain for both the speaker and the other, so politeness can actually increase wellness and happiness.

KC: An NPR segment recently examined how Alexis has changed how we speak: “Alexis, play jazz.  Alexis find a recipe. Not now Alexis.” Children were unable to distinguish between how their parents speak with Alexis and how to speak with teachers, other adults and children.

CPK: Having good manners is really about being respectful of other human beings and seeing everyone as our equal. It comes from strengthening our own sense of self-respect, asking “what makes me feel valued?” And then giving this courtesy to everyone around us. Standing up to greet a guest when they walk in the door. Giving a seat to an elder on the bus. Opening a door. Looking someone in the eyes, really seeing the human being standing there with you. It’s the greatest gift we parents can give humanity, raising children who can see and respect everyone they encounter.  This is what it is really about. Not which fork to use. 

KC: When you say this, you elevate our work as parents.

CPK: It takes inner discipline to consciously shape our own habit life, but it’s worth it. My children called me to be more mindful than I ever wanted to be. I’ve done more uncomfortable things for my children than I ever would have done just for myself. Believe me, there have been plenty of times when I’ve stumbled on this path. You’ve got to laugh at yourself too. Your children need to see that you’re human.

KC: Permission to be imperfect.

CPK: I wonder, is there a culture that doesn’t have manners? Is it an underlying thing? Or it is something that we have decided is important for civilization? If we value civility, then we can make the world a more civil place starting with how we regard and treat others. This is how we teach our children to be part of the world.

Looking for ways to bring home some old fashioned etiquette lessons for your children? Check out these classics.

How to Speak Politely & Why

is part of a series, including

How to Behave & Why and

Manners Can Be Fun,

written by Munro Leaf,

who is best known for his

1936 beloved classic

children’s’ book Ferdinand,

about a pacifist bull in Spain.

Tiffany’s Table Manners

for Teenagers was  written  in the 1950s by  former long time

Tiffany’s chairman Walter Hoving,

and illustrated by iconic fashion illustrator Joe Eula. This primer on  “the rules” emphasizes  grace, and lets the reader know, among other things, that it is perfectly acceptable to eat asparagus and fried chicken with one’s fingers.