• A marketing manager before moving to Umm Sequim 18 months ago, UK-born Emma Collins has three children: Rosie, 10, Jemima, eight and Ted, aged four
• Alexandra Dumont is a full-time mum to Sophia, five, and Vadim, two. Originally from Russia, she lived in Switzerland before moving to Dubai’s Jumeirah Islands three years ago
• Mena Press is originally from Bogota in Columbia. A trained nursery teacher, she is mum to Sebastian, seven, and three-year-old Matilda. She lives in Arabian Ranches and arrived in Dubai in 2005
• Mother to Dali, 10, and Quito, aged 13, Theresa Tsui is a part-time marketing manager and stylist from London. She moved to Dubai three years ago and lives in The Lakes
What got us talking
No child is perfect, but we all want to raise kids who are polite and a pleasure to be around. Let’s face it, they’re not going to get far in life if they eat with their mouths open, pick their nose and never say please or thank you. Dubai is a city of contrasts, and its youngsters can surprise us with their impeccable courtesy one minute, only to astound us with their rudeness the next. So, how do you instill good manners? Is it difficult to hammer home proper conduct in an expat environment? And when should kids stop viewing soup as finger food? We gather four mums at Baker & Spice and, over coffee and carrot cake (elbows off the table please), quiz them on how their families mind their ‘p’s and ‘q’s.
Are kids’ manners today better or worse than they used to be?
Theresa: Definitely worse. I always say to my kids, ‘In my day we behaved like this...’ then I think to myself: Shut up, I’m turning into my grandmother!
Emma: Yes, there’s that ‘not in my day’ attitude, but I sometimes think when you say that to your children, you’re looking back at your own childhood and remembering yourself at an older age and so you’re perhaps expecting more from them.
Mena: But I do I think we were better behaved than our children are today because our parents were less tolerant. Manners start in the home.
Alexandra: I agree. I think there is much less discipline these days.
Theresa: My parents were disciplinarians. We knew where the boundaries were and we knew not to go past them – or even near them actually (laughs). Our parents were more frightening to us than we are to our children.
Emma: But my parents weren’t strong disciplinarians and neither am I, but I think it depends on individual families and how manners are taught. If you look at some teachers, and some parents too, the best ones don’t need to get cross or raise their voices with the kids. They just have a natural authority. I think that’s what my parents had.
Mena: That’s true; but some teachers here in Dubai are too ‘matey’ with the kids, or they worry about telling a child off because they fear the repercussions – that the mother will come in and complain.
Do manners vary between different cultures, and is this a problem for parents in Dubai?
Mena: One of the mums in my daughter’s class – I’m not sure what nationality she is – told her daughter that if anyone comes near her she must hit them. So that’s an example of how background can certainly shape a child’s manners. Her mum doesn’t want any strangers to approach her daughter, so this is her way of teaching her daughter to protect herself.
Alexandra: No! Really? I’m surprised by that; but I don’t think that’s a cultural issue – it’s a question of education. I’m amazed that a mother would teach their child to be so unsociable. It’s just not rational as strangers are a part of life. And children need to learn how to respect each other and their elders.
Theresa: I agree, but different cultures do have different ways of doing things. I come from London and we have a habit of making sure our children stand up when they’re on a bus to offer their seat to an adult who is standing. But I’ve lived in Hong Kong – and that just doesn’t work there. If you get up to offer your seat to somebody, before you’ve even turned around, they’ll be somebody else in your seat. Nobody gives up a seat in Hong Kong because it’s such a packed place. My daughter got up to give her place to a heavily pregnant lady and, straight away, a man jumped into the seat. She told him it wasn’t for him, that it was for the pregnant lady, but he still refused to move.
When should we try to instill good manners into our children?
Emma: Straight away.
Theresa: I agree. You can begin teaching them manners from their very first words. For example you can teach them how to say ‘ta’ when someone gives them something, and just keep repeating it until they get the message that they have to show an indication of appreciation if they receive something. After they get that, you can graduate into proper language.
Alexandra: Yes, I think that’s right. When I was a child, it was drummed into me to respect adults, especially the older generation. Even from a very young age my parents stressed the importance of good manners. It’s very important for mothers and fathers to take an active role in this.
Mena: In times past, it was very much a case of children should be seen and not heard. Manners were part of life and you didn’t question an adult when they reprimanded you for something. I think now there is a much more relaxed attitude to parenting; but, while that can be positive, it’s not always a good thing.
Theresa: Yes, it’s still up to parents to sort out their children. I don’t see much evidence of good manners out in public at all. Kids are happy to barge you with a shopping trolley or let a door slam in your face… It’s not great at all. I have no problems in raising my voice to my kids in public if the situation demands it. They have to learn that running wild and being rude isn’t acceptable and I really don’t care if people think I’m embarrassing myself.
Emma: Teaching children manners isn’t just because it’s nice. It helps them make friends in the world – it helps them get on. It gives them confidence because they are more easily accepted. Being polite makes your children far more likeable and then they get on better in life. That’s why manners are important.
Many children are brought up by nannies. How do you think this affects their manners?
Alexandra: Especially here in Dubai, parents who have maids can be very dismissive of their children and there are many kids who are rude and bad mannered because they just get to do what they want. They are disrespectful to their maids who often don’t have much authority over them at all.
Mena: I have a lovely lady working with us who has been with my family for three years. She doesn’t pamper the children and if they make a mess or leave a towel on the floor in the morning, because they are being lazy, that towel will still be there for them to pick up when they get home later in the day. Yet when I take my kids to school, I see some maids carrying the children’s bags and lunch boxes and being spoken to badly.
Theresa: Maids are often badly treated and I’ve seen this across several cultures. The way some children talk to the maids is dreadful, and the worst thing is when mothers moan about the maid in front of the kids. That just undermines their authority.
Mena: Good manners in a child are reflective of a parent’s example, so if we as parents are making demands or speaking impolitely, then the kids will too. That kind of behaviour is passed down.
How important is etiquette these days? Should kids still send thank you notes for example? And what about good table manners?
Alexandra: I think this is essential. From the age when they start to go to parties and friends’ houses, they should certainly be taught to thank their host. And at their own parties, they should thank the person who gives them a gift. Once they cwrite, they should send formal notes to say thank you.
Emma: Certainly, it’s important, but these days I think email is a perfectly acceptable way to send thank you notes. To send a note by post is far too slow, and my children always email their friends and their grandparents, so I think that’s fine.
Alexandra: I think the subject of eating is far more tricky, especially as we live in such a multicultural society. In some cultures it’s fine to eat with your fingers, but in Western culture that’s not as acceptable. My daughter actually told someone off because he was eating with his fingers when we were in Sri Lanka. She didn’t realise that in his culture it’s a perfectly acceptable practice.
Mena: Personally, I think table manners should be taught as early as possible. From the age of three a child should really be trying to use a knife and fork. Of course, they will make mistakes and they won’t be perfect, but they should be made aware that this is the correct way for their family and their culture.
Emma: I think you can push it to a point, but there is also room for negotiation. For example, my daughter will get to the bottom of her cereal bowl and ask me, ‘Mummy, is it okay for me to pick this up?’ (mimes slurping the milk) and I don’t mind then because she knows it’s not really the best manners, but she’s asked me to make an exception. I usually say, ‘That’s fine – the queen isn’t watching today.’
Mena: And you still want them to be children. Life cannot be totally regimented.
Emma: Yes, you can take manners too far. Do you really want a perfect child? One who would never say boo to a goose? Of course, you don’t want them to be selfish or think the world revolves around them, but you can’t be too hard on them either. Rules are there to be broken, after all.