There has not been a great deal of scholarship on manners and childhood (historians of manners have focused more on class and gender relations), but a historical trajectory can nevertheless be traced in the numerous discussions of proper conduct that have circulated in the West since the Middle Ages. The path has been mostly continuous, despite each generation's sense that manners have changed–usually for the worse–for the succeeding generation. This continuity reflects basic biological and developmental constraints on the construction of childhood. It also upholds historians' recent revision of the notion advanced in the 1960s and 1970s that views of childhood have changed dramatically over time, from medieval and early modern "miniature adults," for example, to Victorian innocents. While changes in the larger society and culture have affected PARENTING styles and rules for youth, expectations for proper behavior in children have changed little. The stability of manners for children reminds us of the stubborn reality of their physical and mental immaturity. Children are not born with proper behavior; they need to be taught the rules. Above all, they need to be taught self-control. And children's physical and intellectual weakness relative to adults has led to continuous demands that they defer to their elders. Thus, although the story of manners and inequality has changed along with the larger social order, the social inferiority of children has a long history. There appears to have been only one exceptional period: that of the post–World War II baby boom. But this exception only proves the rule, as recent decades show a reversion to tradition.

While this entry focuses on the history of manners for children as manifested in America, many of the patterns are more general. Indeed, differences in manners between America and western European societies are often overstated. Whether acknowledged or not (and in some periods Americans actively denied it), Americans have looked to tutelage from Europe for most of their history. Continuity and the pan-Western applicability of manners for children are seen first in one of the earliest manners books for children printed in America, Eleazar Moody's The School of Good Manners. While compiled by Moody, a Boston schoolmaster, in 1715, much of this work was adapted from a 1595 English version of a French courtesy work of the 1560s. There were at least five other English editions in the seventeenth century before Moody's American adaptation. And Moody's work was published over and over again–in at least thirty-four editions between 1715 and 1846. The book also appeared under other titles.

The Seventeenth Century to the Civil War

The many different editions of this work give us a sense of the prevailing rules for proper behavior in children from the seventeenth through the mid-nineteenth centuries. Above all, they were to defer to their elders, especially their parents. They were to show their reverence in various ways, such as bowing whenever they encountered adults and refraining from interrupting them. They needed to master their bodies by standing up straight, avoiding any fidgeting, and restraining their tongues. Moody and his imitators spent a good many words instructing children in table manners. Among other things, they advised children to come to table with their hands and face washed and their hair combed. They were to wait for all to be seated before sitting themselves. They were not to express any likes or dislikes concerning the food. They were to wait for others to begin eating, and then eat slowly and carefully. They were to sit up straight, and keep their elbows off the table.

The continuity in manners for children indicated by the persistence of these rules conflicts with the notion that the eighteenth century saw great change in the status of children. The ideas of JOHN LOCKE and JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU are supposed to have revolutionized parent–child relations. These ENLIGHTENMENT ideas did change the advice given to parents on how to behave with children. Parents were urged to be a bit more loving in their demeanor than they had been in the past. This change was subtle, for discussions of proper parental behavior in seventeenth-century America (mostly from the pens of New England Puritans) had not been starkly authoritarian. Still, this evolution in proper parental behavior may have modified the tenor of children's relations with adults. More important in changing the context for children was the liberation of youth from their formerly shared inferior status. Lumped together with children in the seventeenth century, from the mid-eighteenth century on youth were increasingly asked to behave like adults. This development yielded tangible results for children in the nineteenth century. Antebellum conduct works described a middle-class world of adults in which youth were accepted on equal footing, but from which children were banished. While youth were given the same advice as adults on how to make and receive parlor visits, for example, children were best left at home. Parents were even discouraged from allowing their children to make an appearance when they entertained. With middle-class housing growing increasingly substantial and differentiated in the nineteenth century, instructions to keep the children's nursery or playroom "back stage" became explicit. To be sure, nineteenth-century art and literature often portrayed middle-class children as angelic innocents. But these portrayals do not appear in manners advice, unless one interprets children's banishment from society as a means of protecting their innocence.

The Post–Civil War Era

While children were not taught how to behave in adult society, they still needed to learn the old rules in order to keep their place, whether at home or at school. The fact that Moody was a schoolmaster is reflective of another important continuity in the history of manners for children: from the seventeenth century to the present, parental admonition has been thought to require reinforcement in the classroom. Early nineteenth-century schoolbooks included chapters on manners and politeness, often copied from Moody's compilation. These were surely more influential in the northern states, where common schooling was more widespread. But their influence spread along with both settlement and schooling to the West. In the post–Civil War era, some new states actually passed laws providing for the instruction of manners in schools. And a 1911 survey of public schools suggested that the majority were teaching manners. In more recent decades, a whole industry has sprung up providing audiovisual materials for the teaching of etiquette in schools. To be sure, the context for this instruction changes. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the perceived need for manners in the curriculum was undoubtedly a byproduct of fears generated by the cresting tide of European immigration. In the early twenty-first century we are more likely to look to schools to carry out business left unfinished by harried single parents or two-career couples. The changing social and cultural context makes the need seem urgent and new, but the reality is that Americans have always looked to schools to help teach children manners.

The post–Civil War era did see some significant changes in American manners. Antebellum authors had pretended to be departing from European ways in prescribing a code of behavior more fitting for a republic, although in fact there were few differences in the rules they gave from those prevailing in Great Britain, whether for children or adults. After the Civil War, the authors stopped attempting to appear so democratic, and indeed, as befitted this rapidly industrializing society with its growth of inequality, they grew unabashed in their pursuit of European or "aristocratic" ways. New etiquette writers inscribed these changes in new works. But they did not write new advice for children. While Moody's work was not reprinted after mid-century, continuity is reflected in the incredible longevity of a contemporaneous work, Youth's Behavior, better known as "George Washington's Rules of Civility." As a youth, Washington had copied out one hundred and ten maxims from this book, which, like Moody's, was a seventeenth-century English version of a late-sixteenth-century French work. While it did not have as great a circulation as Moody in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it had even greater staying power. Youth's Behavior differed from Moody in important ways, but offered similar advice on deference to superiors, control of the body (especially speech), and proper behavior at table. These rules continued to be cited well into the twentieth century. Samuel Goodrich, author of the popular Peter Parley series, quoted extracts in his 1844 work Whatto Do and How to Do It. Sarah Josepha Hale quoted nearly thirty of the precepts in Happy Homes and Good Society (1867). Amy Vanderbilt recommended them as late as 1952.

The Early Twentieth Century

There were many new works for children published in the twentieth century, but these, too, display a remarkable continuity of expectations. Gelett Burgess revived an old practice of setting rules to rhyme in his popular Goops and How to Be Them (1900). Burgess began with table manners, and gave all the ancient injunctions about not talking while eating or eating too fast. He reiterated the old advice to respect elders, joking "When you're old, and get to be, Thirty-four or forty-three; Don't you hope that you will see, Children all respect you?" Gelett's work is stamped with a certain late-Victorian fastidiousness. It devoted separate pages to the need for cleanliness, neatness, tidiness, orderliness, and punctuality. It begged children to refrain from "Disfiguration" (drawing on fences and walls), and playing in Sunday clothes. This combination of traditional rules with a new push for cleanliness and order persisted in the 1920s. It is seen in Margaret Bailey's The Value of Good Manners (1922), where she named cleanliness and tidiness as the first requirements for well-mannered children. And she held out for deference to elders, disagreeing with those who would suggest that it was passé. She thus gave rules that are found in Moody: when adults entered the room, for example, children were to rise and offer their seats.

Even authors who thought they were coming up with something new were actually giving old advice. Lillian Eichler (1924) and Margery Wilson (1937) both claimed to be offering "the new etiquette," but their advice was strikingly traditional. Eichler stated, "The new etiquette does not attempt to stifle the child's personality. But it does attempt to stifle the bad habits … [of] rudeness, disobedience, untidiness, bad table manners, and lack of courtesy" to parents and elders. While her pleas that children should not be repressed sounded new, her specific injunctions for children were old. As had authors before her, she stressed the importance of table manners, and gave the same basic instructions to "eat slowly and carefully, and keep the mouth shut while chewing." The nineteenth-century banishment of children from adult social life persisted as well, with her claim that children should not be included in formal dinners. Moody could have penned her advice for informal dinners, where she claimed that children "must not seat themselves until all the elders have been seated. They must come to the table with hands and nails scrupulously clean, hair brushed, clothes neat. They must not show greediness at table, displeasure because of some dish they do not like, or delight because of some dish of which they are particularly fond. They must not begin to eat before the others or leave the table before the elders have finished dining." Margery Wilson gave the same advice, and added precepts on correct speaking and greeting of adult guests that also echoed Moody.

There were some new notes sounded in advice to parents in these early-twentieth-century works. More often than in the past parents were reminded that they taught manners best by setting an example for their children, and that they should respect their children's rights. But what parents were encouraged to teach their children had changed little. At the same time that books of manners kept to the old standards, however, it is likely that changes in other social areas, especially in popular culture, began to have an effect on the actual behavior of children and youth. New, less formal signals about carriage and POSTURE, dress and language, and other matters began to stream out of movies, magazines, and school peer culture by the 1920s. While these changes had a greater impact on youth, soon new child-rearing manuals would also begin to emphasize greater informality in parent–child relations.

The Postwar Period

In advice books to parents, a revolution in manners for children is first evident following World War II. After something of a hiatus during the Depression and war years of the 1930s and 1940s, etiquette works began to pour forth again in the late 1940s and 1950s. The reigning arbiter of manners in this period was Amy Vanderbilt, whose Complete Book of Etiquette appeared in at least ten editions between 1952 and 1970 alone. One notices a change right away in Vanderbilt's discussion of table manners. She is silent on the age-old admonition that children should be taught not to express their dislike of various foods, instead telling parents not to dictate what a child should eat. Instead of teaching children to be silent until addressed, she recommended encouraging children to converse at table, so long as they did not monopolize the conversation. Compared to the past, her expectations of children are surprisingly relaxed: if a child made a scene at the dinner table, she simply recommended gently removing him, for his own comfort, and urged parents not to expect too much of their children in terms of manners. In places Vanderbilt suggests that adults conform to children's lack of manners, as in her suggestion that because children like eating with their fingers, parents should give them plenty of opportunities to do so with snacks and picnics and in fact should join in, rather than give lectures on manners. Vanderbilt assured parents that manners could not be taught through "constant nagging," but rather children would naturally want to know how to behave properly. She suggested, moreover, that there would be something wrong with a child who was perfectly behaved. Some experts have dubbed this new approach an "informality" of manners.

Where did this change come from? Many observers of postwar child rearing have pointed to an author who was even more ubiquitous than Amy Vanderbilt: DR. SPOCK. In addition to numerous English editions between 1945 and 1960 (and at least six editions since), his Baby and Child Care was published in twenty-four languages, including Croatian, Tamil, Armenian, and Urdu. While not as starkly childcentered as Vanderbilt, Spock's suggestions were similar. One of his brief sections on manners, for example, bore the reassuring header "Good Manners Come Naturally." He maintained that if parents were considerate of each other, their children would simply "absorb" good manners. He did think parents needed to do some actual teaching of manners, but rather than the old emphasis on the necessity of showing respect for elders, he claimed parents needed to teach manners because they owed it to their children to make them likeable by others. In all, however, he recommended a relaxed stance, regarding what formerly would have been seen as unacceptable behavior as a phase of development. He described how six to eleven year olds typically displayed bad manners–in their speech, at table, and in their comportment. But rather than advising parents to combat this development, he lauded it as an essential part of growing up. He assured parents that good manners would soon resurface on their own.

By the end of the baby boom, the pendulum began to swing back to tradition. This is evident in Eleanor Roosevelt's Common Sense Book of Etiquette (1962). Like other twentieth-century writers, she urged parents to respect their children's individuality and to show them courteous behavior, but she was equally emphatic that parents had an obvious duty to teach their children manners. While parental example was the most effective, kind instruction would also be necessary. Roosevelt's advice in specific situations was likewise a mix of postwar relaxation and a revival of older patterns. She opined, for example, that children should be encouraged to speak freely and have their dislikes respected at table, but maintained that children should show respect for their elders and learn table manners. Echoing Moody, she claimed that children should rise when elders entered the room and not sit down until the adults were seated. They were never to come to table without clean hands and face and combed hair.

After the Baby Boom

Roosevelt's ideas gave a glimpse of things to come when books addressing manners for children began to pour from the presses in the 1980s. But the immediate impact of the postwar relaxation in the teaching of manners to children was a marked hiatus in the production of instructions as the BABY BOOM GENERATION came of age. Their parents had been advised not to worry too much about manners, so the rising generation was without much lore to pass on. Very few works addressing manners for children appeared in the decade from the late 1960s through the 1970s. Virtually the only manners for children materials produced in this decade were some film strips for use in schools and a couple of episodes of a television show for children, Mr. Roger's Neighbor-hood. The dearth of books discussing manners for children in the late 1960s and early 1970s is not surprising given the cultural revolution taking place in the West at that time with the feminist and youth movements. But a long-term view shows two things. First, the anti-manners sixties and seventies were produced by child-rearing trends in the postwar decades, and second, the experiment could not last. As the boomers became parents and confronted their own uncivilized progeny, they began to look for help.

Manners writers in the 1980s and 1990s reflect the perplexities of their readers in their tone and format. Two of the most popular writers, Judith Martin (a.k.a. Miss Manners) and Mary Mitchell (a.k.a. Ms. Demeanor), both adopt the question and answer format of their newspaper columns in their books, as if to suggest that today's audience is in urgent need of answers to real and pressing etiquette problems. They both also employ humor to a degree not witnessed in earlier etiquette books. Perhaps this is to deflect the selfconsciousness of anti-ritual baby boomers in their quest for social certainty. That the boomers have a serious desire to teach their children manners despite their own deficiencies is shown by the rise of a new industry of manners schools and camps. PARENTS MAGAZINE–a doctor's office staple–has also published a steady stream of articles on how to teach manners to children. Even colleges are helping parents apply the finishing touches with special "dine and act fine" etiquette-lesson dinners for prospective job applicants.

What are children taught by all these agencies of manners instruction? By and large, the traditional rules. The only new spin is a nod, for the first time, to the multicultural character of American society. This usually takes the form of repeated acknowledgements that European-American standards for behavior are not the only standards present in American society, let alone the world. But this has not led to any lesser adherence to the old standards. Thus, after a typical twentieth-century nod to the idea that parents should not expect their children to be polite if they themselves are rude, Miss Manners launches into the old admonitions. Children should be encouraged to listen to rather than talk much before adults. They should address adults formally with proper titles unless invited to do otherwise. Family dinners should be employed to teach children table manners. Children should wait until their parents begin eating, should refrain from expressing their dislikes or playing with their food, should use their utensils and napkins properly, and should not leave the table without permission.

Mary Mitchell soft-pedals on deference to elders, advising children to feel free to initiate conversation with adults, and claiming that parents deserve respect because they are human beings and parents, not because they are older. But she, too, coaches parents in traditional table manners, reminding them, among other things, to teach children to sit up straight and refrain from eating too fast or talking with their mouths full. Elizabeth James and Carol Barkin's Social Smarts: Manners for Today's Kids (1996) is similar to Mitchell's work in acknowledging cultural differences while dispensing traditional European-American table manners rules, but is more traditional than Mitchell on respect for elders. Busy parents at the turn of the twenty-first century can also supplement their own instruction with that of their child's favorite cartoon characters, as manners are now taught in books and videos by the Berenstain Bears, Clifford (the Big Red Dog), Winnie the Pooh, Barney, and the Muppets. And parents can rest assured that these works teach the tried and true rules for children: polite address and posture, table manners, cleanliness. While the baby boom generation is ambivalent about the need for respect for elders, life with their own children has taught them that manners do not in fact "come naturally."

See also: Child Development, History of the Concept of; Child-Rearing Advice Literature; Hygiene; Theories of Childhood.


Bailey, Margaret Emerson. 1922. The Value of Good Manners: Practical Politeness in the Daily Concerns of Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page.

Burgess, Gelett. 1968 [1900]. Goops and How to Be Them: A Manual of Manners for Polite Infants Inculcating Many Juvenile Virtues Both by Precept and Example. New York: Dover.

Caldwell, Mark. 1999. A Short History of Rudeness: Manners, Morals, and Misbehavior in Modern America. New York: Picador.

Eichler, Lillian. 1924. The New Book of Etiquette. Garden City, NY: Nelson Doubleday.

Goodrich, Samuel Griswold. 1844. What to Do and How to Do It, Or Morals and Manners Taught by Examples, by Peter Parley. New York: Wiley and Putnam.

Hale, Sarah Josepha. 1867; rev. ed. 1889. Happy Homes and Good Society. Boston: Lee and Shepard.

Hawkins, Francis. 1646. Youth's Behaviour, or, Decency in Conversation Amongst Men. French by Grave Persons for the use and Benefit of Their Youth. Now newly turned into English by Francis Hawkins. London: W. Lee.

Hemphill, C. Dallett. 1999. Bowing to Necessities: A History of Manners in America, 1620–1860. New York: Oxford University Press.

James, Elizabeth, and Carol Barkin. 1996. Social Smarts: Manners for Today's Kids. New York: Clarion Books.

Martin, Judith. 1982. Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior. New York: Atheneum.

Martin, Judith. 1984. Miss Manners' Guide to Rearing Perfect Children. New York: Atheneum.

Mitchell, Mary. 1994. Dear Ms. Demeanor: The Young Person's Etiquette Guide to Handling Any Social Situation with Confidence and Grace. Chicago: Contemporary Books.

Moody, Eleazar. 1754 [1715]. The School of Good Manners. New London: Green.

Roosevelt, Eleanor. 1962. Eleanor Roosevelt's Common Sense Book of Etiquette. New York: Macmillan.

Schlesinger, Arthur. 1946. Learning How to Behave: A Historical Study of American Etiquette Books. New York: Macmillan.

Spock, Benjamin. 1945. Baby and Child Care. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Vanderbilt, Amy. 1952. Amy Vanderbilt's Complete Book of Etiquette. New York: Doubleday.

Washington, George. 1926. Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, ed. Charles Moore. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Wilson, Margery. 1937. The New Etiquette: The Modern Code of Social Behavior. New York: Frederick A. Stokes.