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Children’s Etiquette Around the World

By Lora Shinn, – 04/05/2008 – 12:00am

Across the World

In Japan, can kids slurp soba noodles? In South Africa, is it okay to greet your teacher with “What’s up, Carrie?”

The formal and informal rules governing behavior make up what we call etiquette or “good manners.” Expectations for children vary according to cultural taboos, religious traditions, and historical influences. With the help of etiquette experts like Sue Fox, author of Etiquette For Dummies (2007), international ex-pats, and moms-in-the-know, here are some interesting facts about kid protocol around the world.

Schools educate children about manners in modern Japan. “Being considerate to others” and “upholding society’s rules” are two important values taught in elementary school. When children are disciplined by teachers or another adult, they must look down at the floor and avoid meeting the adult’s eyes; doing otherwise indicates disrespect.

At home, children are expected to ditch their shoes at the door and put on slippers. At dinnertime, it’s polite to slurp Japanese-style soba noodles, but not spaghetti. Kids use brightly-colored children’s chopsticks to eat – but never to stab food or point at something.

United States
In the Southern U.S., traditions around respecting your elders still rule—children are expected to address neighbors with a Ma’am or Sir. In classrooms across the U.S., teachers are often called by a courtesy title (Mr., Miss, Mrs.) and their last name (Mrs. Johnson).

At school, children are expected to go without gum, and remove hats. Children don’t typically use a knife for everyday meals, and it’s okay to cut food with the side of the fork. From hamburgers to hot dogs, it’s perfectly acceptable to “dig in,” using your hands. However, chewing with your mouth open and slurping are considered very distasteful.

In Brazil, children are cherished, and strict discipline isn’t enforced with young children. Kids and adults adore chatting about soccer – but talking about money or politics isn’t smart etiquette. Brazilian families say “Bom Apetite!” before they start enjoying the meal. In formal dining situations, children avoid eating food with their hands, unless they wrap it in a napkin – even fruit and pizza. It’s not polite to make any sort of noise at the dinner table: no smacking, slurping, or burping.

Brazilians encourage their child to be a member of the clean-plate club, as it’s considered disrespectful to leave food behind on your plate or in your bowl.

South Africa
Charlotte Youens, owner of The Elegant Touch in South Africa, says that before class starts, children separate into two lines outside the door, girls on one side and boys on the other. Girls walk in first, the boys follow, and all stand behind their desks. The teacher greets the children: “Good morning class.” Children simultaneously answer with a “Good morning, Mrs. Johnson,” and then take their seats.

At home, the South African child uses a plastic-handled spoon and fork until age 5, after which they start using an adult-sized knife and fork. Families eat dinner together on a nightly basis. “It is important family bonding time,” Youens says.

Egyptian children need to keep both feet on the ground when sitting, and not show the bottom of the shoe or foot soles to others: it communicates “you’re beneath me.” Boys and girls are encouraged to wear modest attire that covers the body, such as long shirtsleeves and pants, or long dresses.

It’s perfectly acceptable for an Egyptian child to eat traditional pita and falafel with her hands, as long as she only uses the right hand. The left hand is considered unclean and only used for less-than-savory tasks (like taking out the garbage). Leaving behind a little food on the plate is a compliment – it means that the host has enough money to feel unconcerned about waste.

Pointing at adults and chewing gum in public are both non-non, along with anything else that violates France’s strict cultural codes. “The French place a lot of importance on the idea of getting children used to living in ‘la collectivité,’” from a very young age, says expatriate Caroline Presber, who blogs at The Globetrotter Parent. Manners are often reinforced in preschool – where even three-year-old children receive a four-course meal at the table, with china plates and fork, spoon, and knife.

Should you give a newborn baby boy a pink or blue outfit? In some locations blue is best, and in others, pink is preferred. A Polish child doesn’t typically have a birthday party on her birth date. Instead, her family hosts a feast celebrating the child’s saint, on the saint’s day of canonization. The honored girl sits at the head of the table, and guests bring presents, as at a Western-style birthday party. Children and adults are expected to load their plates with food, and accepting seconds is expected.

Italian families often gather for a leisurely Sunday afternoon lunch – sometimes lasting more than two hours. Grandparents would normally be served first, then young children. An Italian child is taught to eat spaghetti with a fork only, to never touch their hair at the table, and avoid speaking when their mouth is full of manicotti (or anything else).

In contrast to France, Italian preschools value play, not the s’il vous plait. “Values are something taught at home, not at school,” says Caroline Presber, expatriate mom and blogger at The Globetrotter Parent.

United Kingdom
In Britain, it’s considered poor manners to ask for an additional helping. For some families, there just wouldn’t have been any extra food, says Helen Neale, a UK-based mum, and because World-War II rationing had a long-lasting effect on table manners. Instead, a child waits until he’s offered seconds. Eating peas? Good manners requires a child to squash them against the reverse side of his fork with the knife, preferably with something mushy like potatoes.

In most schools, teachers are addressed as Sir and Miss, and secondary-school pupils stand when a teacher enters the classroom. Students of all ages must raise their hands before speaking in class, to show respect for the teacher and fellow classmates.

“In the Chinese culture it is totally acceptable to slurp your soup. In fact, it’s expected!” says Syndi Seid, a San Francisco-based etiquette expert of Chinese descent. “The Chinese believe in serving foods as hot as possible, at times seemingly still boiling,” she says, and a slurping child is paying the cook a compliment: the food was too hot to eat without cooling it first.

A child typically begins using short chopsticks at around age 3. By age 9, he’s pro enough to graduate to regular-length chopsticks. A child learns to serve himself from a circular disk in the table’s center, from large family-style bowls.

In India, children are taught to defer to their elders. When a grandparent or other elder visits, an Indian child bows in a namaskaram, prostrating at the adult’s feet. In turn, the elder blesses the child, wishing her all the very best.

According to India-based Ranjini Manian, Chief Executive Officer of Global Adjustments Services and author of Doing Business in India for Dummies, mothers worry about how much their child eats, and “pampering with food is part of the Indian culture.” An Indian mother feeds her children off of a steel plate with her hands until they’re old enough to eat on their own. “Slurping is a sign they are enjoying the meal,” Manian says.

For dinner, Australian kids will often hang out with their parents around the “barbie,” or barbeque. Because the climate is so warm, barbecuing is an informal, multi-generational method for dining and entertaining. Humor is key to growing up in Australia. Kids and adults enjoy creating nicknames for one another, often relying on a physical characteristic: a redheaded child might be called “Red,” for instance. But “Red” is discouraged from bragging about educational or personal accomplishments in this egalitarian society. If a child is a “tall poppy,” her mates will cut her down to size.

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