IT’S dinnertime, and 6-year-old Joaquin Hurtado is staying in his seat. He hasn’t stood up, run around the table or wrestled with his little brother. Good thing. It wouldn’t take much unruly behavior to shatter the dishware or the mood in this upscale restaurant.
“This is a place where you come to eat,” the boy says softly, explaining nice manners. “It’s not a place to play.”
The place is Chenery Park, a restaurant with low lights, cloth napkins, $24 grilled salmon and “family night” every Tuesday. Children are welcome, with a catch: They are expected to behave — and to watch their manners, or learn them. Think upscale dining with training wheels.
Chenery Park has many allies in the fight to teach manners to a new generation of children. Around the country, there are classes taught by self-appointed etiquette counselors — Emily Posts for a new age — delivering a more decentralized and less formal approach to teaching manners than in years past. A few restaurants, like Chenery Park, and high-end hotels set aside space and time for families.
These etiquette experts say that new approaches are needed because parents no longer have the stomach, time or know-how to play bad cop and teach manners. Dinnertime has become a free-for-all in many households, with packed family schedules, the television on in the background and a modern-day belief of many parents that they should simply let children be children.
Some of these manners-minders acknowledge that they can sound like curmudgeons, just another generation of older folks mourning the lost habits of more refined times. But they also say that parents welcome their efforts as a way of outsourcing the hard work of teaching youngsters to follow rules.
During a recent family night at Chenery Park, Joseph Kowal, an owner, roamed among the regulars and newcomers, saying hello and occasionally playing parental ally. He’s got a twinkle in his eye but a steely commitment to having children — even if they’re not etiquette role models — at least sit politely and not scream or throw food.
“Some parents will say, ‘Uncle Joe’s going to come up here, and he’s going to be cross with you,’ ” Mr. Kowal said. “They use that to their advantage.” He recalled one child who wouldn’t settle down, and he threatened to tape the child’s mouth. The child told him to go ahead and try.
“I went to my office, got some blue painter’s tape, came back and ripped a piece off,” he said. The kid piped down. “The parents looked at me like, ‘We’re going to try that at home.’ ”
All of which raises some intriguing questions: Is it Joe who brings out the best in his young patrons? Or something else? And what are the best strategies for training children to be polite, to pay attention to the world around them, whether they are in dim lighting with fragile dishware or at home?
ETIQUETTE teachers, other parents and people who spend time thinking about how and why we mind our manners have some interesting ideas about new strategies.
“These days, you have to teach kids about return on investment,” said Robin Wells, the founder of Etiquette Manor in Coral Gables, Fla., which holds classes on etiquette for adults and children. When it comes to children, she said, long gone are the days when you could tell them that they have to behave a certain way “just because.”
So, even as she imparts lessons about using forks and the importance of looking the waiter in the eye, she does so by framing the lessons in a constructively selfish way for the children. She often exhorts her young students: be polite to your mother because she’ll be happier, and if she’s happier, you’re happier.
On the first day of her five one-hour sessions, which cost $285, she tells the children to go home and do one unexpectedly kind thing so that they can see how wide-eyed and impressed their parents will be. “It’s almost manipulation at its finest,” she said.