Small manners: Children learn to interact with grace and ease while building confidence with etiquette classes
Small manners: Children learn to interact with grace and ease while building confidence with etiquette classes

Six-year-old Kaytlin Kelly stepped through the front door, holding her elbow and nervously staring at the ground.

Shelley Cooper, founder of the Etiquette School of Montana, extended a hand to greet her new student on the first day of class last Monday.

Too unsure to return the gesture, Kaytlin ducked behind her older sister Taylor for cover.

With more confidence, Taylor shook Cooper's hand but couldn't quite bring herself to meet the warm eyes of her new teacher.

Olivia Channer was up next. The

5-year-old walked slowly up to Cooper with her arms behind her back and eyes fixed on her feet.

As Cooper raised her hand, Olivia turned around and ran to the back of the line, hoping to avoid the terrifying experience of meeting a grownup stranger.

After the remaining students made it through the introductions, with varying degrees of assurance, the 10 children, ranging in age from 5 to 12, took their seats and the etiquette lesson began.

Proper introductions, appropriately, were the first topic.

Besides the ins and outs of confidently and appropriately introducing themselves, students in Cooper's class were also schooled in the basics of telephone etiquette, table etiquette, thank-you notes, and what to do with all that strange, extra silverware at upscale restaurants.

To most people, the word etiquette has an old-fashioned sound, conjuring up images of Southern belles and stiff, monotonous conversations between well-groomed elites.

For Cooper, etiquette is not the least bit antiquated and still very much has a role to play, even in the informal 21st century and the even more informal West.

&#8220We're not in a formal society anymore," she said. &#8220But you can be laid back and still be proper."

The goal of her class, she said, is not to make her students into adherents of the rigid social rules of the antebellum South. Instead, she wants to give them the social skills necessary to be confident and appropriate in a variety of social settings.

&#8220I'm not in any way trying to teach people to be super-formal," she said. &#8220We're in Montana."

Cooper traces etiquette's decline in popularity and prominence not to a decrease in interest, but to most parents' busy schedules and the dwindling time that families spend together.

&#8220After being around other parents and seeing the frustration - frustration with their kids and with not having enough time to teach them these things - I know this is something people want," she said.

Cooper doesn't consider the class a supplement to the parenting of her clients, however.

&#8220This class isn't a downplay on my clients' parenting skills. They don't want me to parent their kids," she said. &#8220I'm just there to teach the basic skills that aren't taught anymore."

Founder and president of the Etiquette School of Montana Shelley Cooper is eyed by 6-year-old Kaytlin Kelly during a class at Cooper's home.

Cooper has had her share of etiquette training. A graduate of the Sherita Lynne Modeling Agency, an institution where formality is a must, Cooper went on to receive her certification to teach etiquette to children from the American School of Protocol.

She taught her first class in Missoula last February and has taught four since, including one for 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds.

Last week, after the students introduced themselves to their peers and told their favorite thing to do (Olivia likes to play with her kittens Cowboy and Sneaker) came the lesson on proper introductions.

There are several rules to keep in mind when introducing yourself or others, Cooper tutored. When two people of the same age, sex and position are introduced, the order of introduction is not important.

Elders, VIPs and women being introduced to men, however, are always first.

Cooper had the children play out a number of situations.

One of Cooper's assistants and former graduate of the program, Brooke Richter, played the role of President Bush for 8-year-old Jordan Kelly and Cooper's 9-year-old son Chase.

&#8220Hi President Bush, this is my friend Jordan," Chase said. &#8220Jordan, this is President Bush."

Kaytlin and Andy Carnes, 6, were up next. They approached each other with their arms crossed, staring at anything that wasn't the other's eyes.

&#8220You want to look at her eyes and not her toes," Cooper suggested to the bashful pair.

After their introduction skills were honed, Cooper led her students to the dining room where 13 plates covered in snack food were set.

Before sitting down, the boys were taught how to pull the chairs out for their female peers.

&#8220If you're sitting next to a girl and you want to show them how cool you are, this is how you do it," Cooper said.

Once seated, Cooper started covering the proper use of each table item.

Napkins may seem like a straightforward table item, but according to Cooper, they play an integral part in formal dining.

&#8220The napkin starts the meal," she said.

After diners place the folded napkin, with the fold toward the table, on their laps the meal can begin.

During the meal, napkins serve the functions of catching crumbs and wiping mouths. However, there's only one proper way to wipe your mouth.

Starting from one corner of her mouth, going down to her chin and back up to the other side of her mouth, Cooper showed her students the proper V-shaped path of the napkin.

Her students, making a variety of letters with their napkins at first, eventually got the hang of it.

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Besides napkin use, students also learned the parts of their wine glasses (which were not filled with wine), how to hold them, how to eat rolls, and which direction the butter and all other things are passed at the table: right.

At the end of the next day's class, which covered spoon use, the students started showing that the lessons were sinking in.

Unprompted, the boys at the table stood up after the napkins had been placed on the table and pulled out the chairs for the girls at the table.

The girls, in proper etiquette form, then turned, stood and thanked the gentlemen.

Twelve-year-old Kinzie Cooper, right, savors the flavor while 7-year-old Sydney Channer takes a moment to be at ease.

On Wednesday, the students' two days of instruction were put to the test at a three-course meal.

After learning the basics of the Continental and American styles of eating, the meal began.

While Cooper continued teaching, her students, without encouragement, were applying the lessons they had learned so far.

The butter was passed to the right, the salt and pepper were always passed together, and they ate their rolls in small, bite-sized chunks, defying the stereotype that most young diners are rushed and sloppy. At the end of the meal the boys again pulled the chairs out for the female diners.

Holly Carnes, whose daughter Andy and 7-year-old son Sam are taking the class, said she enrolled her kids to help them be better citizens of the world.

&#8220As parents, we've decided to view the world from an international perspective," she said. &#8220It doesn't matter where you're from, if you can enter a relationship with the basics of etiquette, it increases the chances of social success."

She also said that the decline of basic etiquette understanding has made interactions more difficult for many people.

&#8220A simple thing like opening the door for someone or pulling out their chair is that sort of human connection that we desire but have lost," she said.

Curtis Swanson, whose

12-year-old daughter took one of Cooper's earlier classes, said the change in her confidence and behavior has been dramatic.

&#8220She not only applies what she learned, she corrects me," Swanson said. &#8220There are no more elbows on our dinner table."

Ann Backer, whose daughter Breean is now Cooper's other assistant, sees etiquette playing an important role in Breean's future professional life.

&#8220The way you handle yourself with other people is crucial," she said. &#8220I want my daughter growing up taking the best care of other people."

Holly, who would like to see Andy and Sam turn around Americans' negative image abroad with their understanding of etiquette, said a lot of people have misunderstandings about etiquette.

&#8220Etiquette is not about being stuffy, it's about interacting with grace and ease," she said. &#8220Courteousness is timeless."

The class ended Thursday with a five-course dinner at the Mustard Seed. The students' parents attended to see what their children had learned and listen to speeches that each child prepared on a topic of their choice.

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