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Minding Your Manners [Crystal City magazine]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Crystal City magazine
Cover story
Fall 2001
Photos by Bognovitz

At Christmas time last year, Heidi Peck’s house was filled with guests. She wanted her daughter Lauren, then 5, to be on her best behavior. But Lauren seemed to have trouble remembering her good manners.

When a flier came home from school offering a manners class for 5 and 6 year olds by a local mom named Joy Yates, Peck signed up. “Lauren is a great kid, but I was tired of listening to myself scolding her for not minding her manners,” says Peck. “I figured if lessons on how to have good manners came from someone else, it might stick.”

Yates, who has sons ages 6 and 2, says she knows firsthand how tough it can be to get kids to listen and be polite. “Most Moms and Dads have trouble getting their children to use good manners,” says Yates, who started offering her manners class throughout the region in 1999. “It can be one of the most frustrating events in a parent’s life.”

Yet the Gainesville, VA resident says it is possible to teach kids to use a napkin, answer the telephone politely, and obey the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. The secret is to make a game of it.


Yates fills sessions four hours long with word games, songs, and crafts that reinforce good etiquette. When she teaches children how to introduce themselves properly, she sits them in a circle, turns on some kid-friendly music, and passes a teacup with stickers inside. When the music stops, the child holding the cup states his name, favorite color, and favorite animal. After making a successful introduction, the child takes a prize from the cup, and the music starts again.

Reinforcement and repetition are also key ingredients. At the start of each class Yates reviews the big ideas taught in the previous session. Similarly, at the end of each class, music plays as kids sit in a circle and pass a “hot potato” (usually a small ball). When the music stops, the child holding the potato tells something he or she learned that day.

Humor, though, is Yates’ most effective tool. She’ll ask, “Is picking your nose good or bad?” “How about passing gas?” They are encouraged to shout the answer, and after a few giggles the roomful of kids usually screams out, “Bad.” To that, Yates takes the opportunity to explain the proper thing to do about a runny nose. “Run and get a tissue, so it doesn’t drip all over.” Flatulence requires a slightly lengthier discussion.

Yates isn’t afraid to tell the kids like it is. “By being playful, and honest with them, I find that I am most persuasive,” says Yates, a former veterinarian’s assistant who never intended to launch a career as a Miss Manners for juniors.
But she did want to work with children. In fact, just months before she started teaching manners to kindergarteners, she and her sister-in-law, Dawn Yates, had founded Little Princess Tea Parties, a full-service birthday party company. Each weekend it serves cake, costumes, and tea to more than a dozen Washington area birthday girls.

However, when Dawn’s daughter asked if her aunt would help with a manners badge for her Brownie troop, Yates figured it wasn’t an unreasonable leap.

“I was raised to behave properly at the dinner table, say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘May 1’, but I never considered myself to be a paragon of good manners,” says Yates, who immediately went to the library and checked out every manners manual she could locate. She made a master list of best and most important concepts, and from those created a kid-friendly lesson plan.

The Brownies loved the session, and Yates decided a manners class would make a nice addition to the company’s repertoire. She offered it to other Brownie troops. When it proved popular, she contacted the Prince William Recreation Department and found out how to rent classroom space and advertise her course to other kids in the count).

Although only three kids signed up for the first recreation center class, word quickly spread that kids were actually learning about manners. The end of 2000 filled her classes filled to capacity (about 10 kids per class). She then ventured into Fairfax County, and now begins a new session the first week of each month at the Mott Community Center on Braddock Road. She has plans also to offer her course in Manassas and Alexandria in 2002.

So far, Yates says she had to expel only one child. “It was a class filled with 9 girls and two boys, and one of the little girls just wouldn’t listen,” Yates explains. “ I knew it was going to be awful for her mother to have her daughter expelled from manners class, of all places, but I couldn’t teach with her talking back. So, I calmly escorted her out and asked that she not return.”

But most children graduate with good manners. To celebrate, Yates hosts a tea party on the last day with real teacups and saucers (into which she usually pours lemonade), small cakes, and fairy tale-style costumes she uses at her Little Princess birthday parties. Parents, who are encouraged to take active roles throughout the class, are invited to watch how politely their children have learned to behave.

Six months after her graduation, Lauren Peck’s mom says she continues to see the benefits of manner’s class. “I’ve actually overheard her scolding her friends, telling them to use their good manners when they don’t act nicely.”


Most adults have had their good table manners instilled into them by their parents. Still, it can be tough to teach your kids the finer points of how to behave properly at the dinner table. The following are 10 simple rules to post on the refrigerator to help make the learning process a little easier.

1. Always wash your hands before sitting down to eat.
2. The napkin is unfolded and placed in the lap as soon as you sit down.
3. If you are sitting at the table properly, no elbows should be able to touch the table. (Although resting on your elbows has long been considered quite rude behavior, it is permissible to rest your forearms on the table.)
4. Always pass trays of food, salt and pepper, and anything else on the table to the right. (Remember this rule by repeating, “Passing to the right is the right way to pass.”)
5. Do not take more than you can eat. As a rule, take one serving of a dish. This allows everyone to receive a portion of the food. If there is any leftover, you can ask to have seconds.
6. Once silverware is used, it should never touch the table again. Always rest it on the plate. Lay the silverware horizontally on the plate when you are finished. It lets the waiter (or your parents) know you are done.
7. Do not begin to eat until everyone is served.
8. Napkins go in the chair when you are not finished with your dinner, but you need to use the restroom. This tells the waiter (or your mom) that you are not finished. When you are finished with your meal, place your napkin on the left-hand side of your plate on the table.
9. Do not, ever, talk about how much you hate what is being served. If you don’t like something, take a small portion and keep your thoughts to yourself. After all, the chef (or your parents) most likely worked hard to prepare the meal and you don’t want to hurt their feelings. Besides, you may just like sprouts or grilled asparagus if you try it.
10. Stay at the table until everyone is finished.


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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.