Everyday Graces: A Child's Book of Good Manners

The introduction to Everyday Graces: A Child's Book of Good Manners has been reprinted with the permission of ISI Books 

Karen Santorum writes that this anthology "grew out of the frustration of not being able to find a book on manners that instructs through stories rather than by rules of dos and don'ts." Each of her selections has been tried and tested on her own children, and each is introduced and concluded by her own thoughtful commentary. The result is an informality and intimacy that is inviting and infectious.


When we speak of politeness we may think of something that can be easily learned from reading an etiquette book. Such may be the case with simple, isolated behaviors like selecting the proper fork or keeping one's elbows off the table. But true politeness requires more. For it is the mirror of a person's heart and soul – it is an outward expression of inner virtue. And inner virtue is best learned through constant practice and examples. That is why I wanted to create Everyday Graces: A Child's Book of Good Manners. It teaches manners through literature that illustrates the connection between good manners and good character. This book grew out of my frustration at not being able to find a book on manners for children that instructs through stories rather than by rules and dos and don'ts.

Having six children of our own, my husband and I know the influence stories can have on children. About a week after reading "George Washington and the Cherry Tree" (a story about telling the truth), my son Johnny, who had put a hole in our kitchen wall while practicing his baseball swing, said, "Mommy, I cannot tell a lie: I did it." After this confession I decided my kids should hear that story about once a week!

One day, I discovered Sarah Maria, our three-year-old who habitually empties all of her drawers before deciding what to wear, stuffing all of her clothes back into her dresser. When I asked her how this change had come about, she told me she did not want to be like "unca." Since I have six brothers, I was not sure to which "uncle" she was referring. Later in the day, I realized that she was referring to "Hunca Munca" in the Beatrix Potter story, "The Tale of Two Bad Mice."

There's no doubt that storytelling helps parents lead their children to discern right from wrong. As far back as 450 b.c. the great thinkers were debating how one becomes a good person. Socrates, Plato, and many others since have agreed that children learn best through storytelling. Contemporary moral thinkers such as Robert Coles, William Kilpatrick, Gilbert Meilaender, William J. Bennett, and Vigen Guroian also believe that stories play a critical role in shaping the next generation.

Thus, Everyday Graces is a compilation of classic stories, poems, myths, and fables to be read aloud to children. The goal of this book is to cultivate a desire in children to practice good manners and kindness towards others. This desire is reinforced when children recall stories or model their behavior on that of their favorite heroes.

Politeness is not a robe for special occasions; rather, it stems from the very nature of the person in whom reside traits of good, decent, and respectable behavior. A truly polite person strives to practice acts of kindness at all times, in all situations, and with sincerity. She knows that the little acts of kindness – the warm smile, the sympathetic word, and the good deed – are just as important as the big ones. Even when she differs in opinion from others, her words and actions are gracious and disciplined.

We want our children to be successful in everything they do, but our most important goal should be that they become courteous, honest, unselfish, and well-behaved persons. For many parents, the thought of teaching children manners is daunting, especially when added to the other responsibilities of parenthood. But in reality, parents teach manners all the time. When we instruct our children on how to eat and dress, speak with one another, play with siblings and friends, and treat their parents, the elderly, and the sick and needy, we are teaching manners – and there is no place on earth more important than the home for accomplishing this.

Our most effective teaching tool is our own behavior – how we ourselves live and treat others. When virtue is manifest in us, we plant the seeds of love and good manners in our children's hearts. The examples we set for our children are profoundly important for their moral formation. Our children do not need to know that we are perfect, because none of us are; rather, they simply need to know that we too are trying to live decent and respectable lives, treating others by the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do to you" (Luke 6:31).

When children use words like "please," "thank you," and "you're welcome," and when they act with kindness and generosity from unselfish motives, family life is enriched. When children learn that they have to put other people first, and that sometimes doing what is right may be costly, they have learned important moral lessons. Children need to see and understand that polite behavior contributes to peace and enjoyment for everyone. Manners are a powerful deterrent to violence, because people who are polite know how to practice restraint.

Ironically, when many people think of good manners they imagine blue-bloods dressed in fine linen and lace at a polo club, sipping rare imported tea with pinkies extended. But good manners are really quite simple. In our everyday activities we can be abusive, selfish, and contentious, or we can be kind, considerate, generous, and cooperative. This choice applies to all, both rich and poor, in every culture. The concept of politeness has been present in all human societies and has enabled civilizations to thrive.

Good manners elevate and strengthen every aspect of family life, worship, the workplace, and even government. There is a strong correlation between politeness and success. Politeness makes a person more likable and respected. In the professional world, good manners are a leading qualification. The lawyer will win arguments in front of the jury with her gentility, the contractor will gain clients through his courteous behavior, the doctor will win her patients' trust with her polite bedside manner, and a business will thrive because of the amicability practiced by its employees.

Unfortunately, in our day, respect and attention to good manners has diminished, whereas individual rights and self-expression have become an obsession. Many people believe they have a right to use obscene language or aggressive behavior. Free and uninhibited self-expression is seen as a virtue; persons are applauded for speaking their mind without regard for the impact of their words on others.

We have seen the fallout in school violence, road rage, and hate crimes. We need to recognize the damage that results from rudeness, hurtful words, and spiteful actions. We need to promote the basic rules of civility as essential to family living and social concord.

We, as parents, are the first and primary teachers of our children. If we insist on courtesy and kindness in our own homes, and if we practice these virtues every day, our children will follow our example. The stories and poems included in this book are intended to serve such ends. I carefully selected them, with particular lessons in mind.

You will read from Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables and find out why speaking your mind isn't always a good idea. Your children will learn about good table manners as you read excerpts from Johanna Spyri's Heidi and Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. The art of serving others a pleasant meal is shown in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. The importance of good grooming is discussed in a story about the battle of Thermopylae. Your children will be touched by the kindness of Sara in Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess. In "Grace," singer/songwriter Bono beautifully expresses the value of seeing the goodness in everything.

Good sportsmanship is taught in Mary Maples Dodge's Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates and in "The Battle of Hector and Ajax" from Homer's Iliad. Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer teaches us that cheating in school is never a good idea. Children will learn why we write letters when they read Rudyard Kipling's "How the First Letter Was Written," and they'll learn how to write letters from Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln's own correspondence.

These are just a few of the selections contained in this book. There are also fables, myths, and stories about real-life heroes that will inspire children to emulate good behavior. They are instructive, but they are also clever and entertaining. I trust you will find them enjoyable and edifying.

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