"Eli, please chew with your mouth closed," I nagged my kindergartner for the thousandth time during dinner. Apparently, he was as tired of hearing it as I was of saying it.
"When I get to heaven, Mom, I'm going to ask God if I can make my own heaven. And when I do, I'm going to call it 'Bad Manners Heaven' and everyone who goes there can chew with their mouth open all the time!"
I don't know where Eli comes up with this stuff, but when I relayed his comment to some friends, they agreed that he would have lots of company in his little corner of paradise.
It truly is a struggle to teach children manners in a society that glamorizes rudeness and continually blurs the boundaries of morality. The typical American lifestyle is now so casual that many dismiss etiquette as so incredibly last-century.
But courteous behavior isn't old fashioned despite what many seem to think. Being kind and considerate of others is the backbone of a civilized society. And whether we like it or not, our manners play a huge part in how other people view us. I don't want others thinking that my kids are heathens - even though they sometimes behave like they were raised in a barn.
I wish that we were born into this world polite, kind and gracious, but it's a parent's job to teach this stuff to children - over and over again, until it sticks. And sometimes I'm convinced that my kids are coated with Teflon.
People have complimented my boys for being polite. And I'll agree that they are pretty good kids, even though that isn't always evident at home. That's my fault. I haven't wanted to be one of those stuffy, formal moms who won't let their family relax at home.
But I'm finding that if I don't start tightening the reigns here, the bad behavior follows them out the door because it's all they know.
This means that all too often, I find myself saying things like, "No, we don't stuff chopsticks up our nostrils and bark like a walrus at the Chinese restaurant." Or I end up scolding them for falling over laughing after belching in the grocery store, or loudly announcing that they just passed gas.
Speaking of gas, I bought something really stupid at Wal-Mart one night. While wandering around in search of bargains, I found some T-shirts on clearance for just $1. I hesitated before purchasing them, as many other mothers must have before me. A shirt emblazoned with "Pull My Finger" isn't exactly something you want your kid wearing out in public.
But I figured they'd make good pajama tops. And besides, I knew my dad, the reigning king of the pull-my-finger game, would find them hilarious.
My Dad did indeed crack up when he saw them. However, I was mortified the morning I barely caught Zach in time before he wore the darn thing to church.
Dinnertime tests my patience the most, not just for open-mouthed chewing, but for using ones' clothing as a napkin. Last night, Eli's white T-shirt became a modern art study in orange and burgundy, covered in smears of macaroni and cheese and barbecue sauce. His napkin lay beside his plate, pristine, white, untouched.
There's always something new to teach. We recently attended a large group dinner, and I told the boys to only take small portions of the best items, to make sure there was enough for everyone. Judging from the other kids' plates, I might've been the only parent mean enough to propose that concept.
I wish this pursuit of politeness ended at the table, but it doesn't. Zach used to open doors for people but needs reminding to do so again. My sons' phone manners leave much to be desired, and all of us need to work on not interrupting each other while we're talking.
Thankfully, help exists on a wonderful Web site loaded with detailed information on teaching our kids how to navigate this increasingly rude and hostile world. Check out www.rudebusters.com and let me know what you think. Because I can't be the only modern mom fretting over good manners - can I?
Kari Apted may be reached at email@example.com.