Children attend etiquette enrichment classes

Some parents send their kids for etiquette training, but experts caution that outsourcing the job of teaching manners and social skills could affect the parent-child bond

Eight-year-old Ashley Ngeow knows how to have soup at a formal Western meal, directing the spoon away from her in the bowl. To signal that she has finished eating, she rests her fork and knife at an angle on her plate that looks like it is 4.20 on a clock.

She learnt these rules of dining etiquette at a half-day enrichment workshop when she was six.

Her mum, businesswoman Fion Phua, 47, wants her only child to conduct herself well. At least once a month, Ms Phua takes Ashley to the formal dinners and business functions she attends, where Ashley gets a chance to practise such social skills.

"Etiquette is something that she ought to learn from a young age. It will become a habit when she's older," says Ms Phua, who is married to a 51-year-old retired businessman.

It is not only dining etiquette that is taught in such enrichment classes for children. They may also receive training in social graces, such as minding their Ps and Qs, deportment and basic conversational and telephone skills.

Enrichment classes for etiquette and manners are gaining popularity, according to observers.

Last time, I ate chicken wings with my fingers. Now, I mostly use a fork and spoon.

CALEB, 11, who took an etiquette enrichment class one year ago

Ms Agnes Koh, the founder and director of Etiquette & Image International, has seen increased demand for her enrichment programmes for primary school children during the school holidays. A half-day workshop there costs $78 a child.

Ms Teo Ser Lee, the founder and director of the Protocol Academy, which provides etiquette and protocol services for adults and children from the age of five, reports a "40 to 50 per cent increase, year on year", from 2015 to this year, for children's etiquette programmes. A workshop she runs for a primary school-aged child typically costs under $200.

One of the factors driving the demand for manners and etiquette classes is busy parents' dependence on professionals in some aspects of parenting.

Ms Clara Tan, founder of etiquette school Molly Manners Singapore, says: "Sometimes, parents either have no time (to instruct their children in etiquette) or they don't know how to go about it and lack a proper framework."

But Ms Josephine Loh, a training manager for Morning Star Community Services, which develops parenting programmes, has reservations about parents "outsourcing" such instruction.

"Children learn best from their family and their immediate social environments. When parents take on the responsibility of teaching children social skills, children learn that their parents care for and love them, as they take the time to teach them," she says.

"Children do not need their parents to be perfect role models. They just need some time from their parents to show they care," she says, adding that outsourcing parental tasks too frequently could affect the parents' bond with the child.

But Mrs Cheryl Tan, 42, believes that most parents already teach their children manners from the time they are toddlers, and that such enrichment classes are a form of "reinforcement", especially for less well-known aspects of dining etiquette.

Mrs Tan, a stay-at-home mother and freelance educational trainer, says that her daughter Karisse became less shy after attending an etiquette workshop last year.

Karisse, eight, is more confident in maintaining eye contact with people she speaks to and in handling cutlery when the family - including Mrs Tan's husband, a 43-year-old vice-president in the telecommunications industry, and their elder son, 13 - have Western meals at Jack's Place, even though they seldom use forks and knives when dining at home.

Having an external trainer and learning about social graces together with other kids helped Karisse, says Mrs Tan.

"It's like sending them to an expert. Sometimes what a teacher says is more powerful than what mummy says, even though we're saying the same thing," she adds.

The demand for enrichment classes in manners and etiquette shows that "parents value the importance of young children having the confidence to conduct themselves with poise in any given social situation", says Ms Jenny Cheok, a lecturer at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Temasek Polytechnic.

"There is a slight paradigm shift in the parenting culture in Singapore to move from academic competence to social competence."

Ms Teo, who was trained in protocol and etiquette in the United States, is of the same opinion: "It's no longer just competing on an academic level, a lot of it has to do with EQ (emotional intelligence) as well."

Her outfit, Protocol Academy, has programmes for children and teenagers such as training in dress sense and how to give a presentation, deportment and interview skills for university admission.

Arthur Cheong, 13, still recalls etiquette lessons he took two years ago, which taught him about deportment, such as how to sit, stand and walk with poise.

The Secondary 1 student says he understands better what it means to give a good personal impression.

"During oral exams, for example, if you slouch while you're talking, the teacher will have a bad impression (of your performance)," he says.

Ms Sandy Seah, a 45-year-old executive in the insurance industry, was frustrated when she kept reminding her son Caleb, 11, to sit up straight and not to hold his noodles high above his bowl before eating them.

Caleb, the younger of her two sons, had good manners, but she felt they could be improved.

Ms Seah, who is married to a 49-year-old car dealer, says Caleb became "more confident in expressing himself" after he took an etiquette enrichment class more than a year ago.

Although Caleb sometimes needs reminders from his mother, he has better posture now and has applied his improved dining techniques.

He knows how to use a fork and knife to cut the head off when eating prawns.

He says: "Last time, I ate chicken wings with my fingers. Now, I mostly use a fork and spoon."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 08, 2017, with the headline 'How to dine and walk with poise'. Print Edition | Subscribe