Imagine our academically brightest young people who attend world class universities. They’ve reached the zenith of their toilsome years of scholastic achievement, and now they enjoy the distinction of being students at Harvard, Yale, and MIT!

What We Have Realized

Now imagine that some of our best and brightest are clueless about how to greet people, which utensils to use at a formal dinner, how to dress, and how to groom themselves. Imagine that not only some, but even many of these students, lack such social graces. This is what the administration at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) began to realize, prompting them to hire Judith Martin, also known as “Miss Manners,” to do an annual “Charm School.”

Even at the Charm School “graduation ceremony,” students still showed up dressed in baggy jeans, sweatshirts, jackets, baseball hats worn backwards, and unlaced, high top gym shoes.

Learning grace and courtesy are as important as learning to read and write.

MIT students are just one representative slice of the pie for a phenomenon that you notice after spending even a few minutes with many young people today: the rudeness, language, clothing, voice volume, the “screen stare” facial expressions, and a general lack of concern for others stick out like an untucked dress shirt.

What We Should Do

Our social customs are not readily apparent to young children because so few people these days practice them. But this negative tide can be stemmed right at home. The optimal time to expose children to skills of social courtesy is from 2 1/2 to 6 years old. During this critical time, children can effortlessly absorb the customs essential for getting along well in society. After 6 years of age, however, these lessons in grace and courtesy need to be taught remedially. And, as demonstrated by the MIT students at “Charm School graduation,” it takes a lot to undo a lifetime of bad manners. Here are a few parenting ideas to promote social skills right at home:

  • First, make a list of various social skills that you think are important for your child to grasp. Here’s a list of 40 Common Courtesies You can Practice with Your Child
  • Next, choose a time of day to practice these skills in a fun way. Take a turn demonstrating, and then invite your child to take a turn.
  • If the children are under six, only show it the correct way; for children over six, you can make a point by doing it wrong and laughing together. Then show it correctly.
  • Because these lessons often come to mind only when there’s a problem, parents must become very familiar with these skills and present them often.
  • It is important to offer these lessons in civility in a civil way. Teaching social graces must not be presented to children as corrections for bad behavior, but rather as lessons on the joy of respecting others and contributing effectively to society.

Why We Should Care 

Children who are consistently guided in these ways begin demonstrating graceful interactions with each other. They develop respect for other children as well as self-respect and self-esteem. Such children better control their own behavior, impelled by a sense of self-dignity.

Learning grace and courtesy are as important as learning to read and write. In a world where academic skills are becoming quite common, and where social graces are becoming rare commodities, which children will be more competitive in the job market? It will be the applicants who know how to interrupt and when; how to take leave; how to eat properly if invited to lunch; how to make way for others and “dress for success.” More than likely, it’s the children with a grasp of social graces who will be noticed and hired—the ones who didn’t have to attend Charm School.