Ellen Widdup’s escape to the country

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I’M A big believer in the power of “please” and “thank you”.

The idea of etiquette is too easily dismissed as quaint, but believe me, impeccable manners help you get on in the world.

You won’t get your date to fall in love with you by breaking wind on your first rendezvous, picking your nose in the cinema or talking with your mouth full.

You won’t land your first job by interrupting your interviewer, spitting out your chewing gum or swearing like a trooper.

And you are hardly likely to make a good impression in general if you are rude and abrasive, shun your knife and fork, don’t offer your seat to someone who needs it more than you, or – this one’s for you boys – are always rearranging your bits and bobs in public.

Like most parents of young children, I spend a very large portion of the day reminding them to be polite.

“Take it in turns”, “share” and “say please” are repeated dozens of times, along with suggesting they use “pardon?” instead of “what?” and “excuse me” rather than “move”.

It’s not a lot to ask, really, but sometimes I wonder if they are listening to a word of it.

On Monday I was loading my grocery shopping into the car as my two-year-old son clung to my leg, begging for biscuits.

“I want one, I want one,” he pleaded. “You are a mean mummy.”

“Well,” I replied. “You are being a rude little boy and I haven’t once heard you say ‘please’.”

“Please,” he whimpered.

An elderly gentleman who had just parked his car next to mine watched our exchange and tipped me a wink.

“If I’d have spoken to my parents like that, I’d have got a clip round the ear,” he said and chuckled. “Things were very different in my day.”

If I hadn’t been taught to respect my elders, I might have curtly informed him that smacking was no longer an accepted form of discipline.

Instead I smiled politely, handed my son a digestive and headed home to Google the rules of etiquette for children of the 1950s.

They are as follows: Always rise to greet people when you enter a room and bid them goodbye when you leave; address your elders as Mr or Mrs; don’t speak until spoken to; never interrupt a conversation; if you leave or cross the room you should say “Excuse me”; do not run up and down the stairs or across the room; talk in a low, even voice.

In short, children should be seen and not heard.

So how have manners changed so drastically in a single generation?

I think it’s probably down to the fact that adults are no longer setting a good example. After all, children can’t be expected to follow suit if the adults around them don’t practise what they preach.

These days it’s not uncommon for a motorist to cut you up, honk their horn and gesture abusively out of the window. It’s rare to hear an apology for tardiness and we don’t think twice when we send a letter or email, only to receive no word of reply.

Women’s lib made sure gestures such as opening a door for a lady, carrying her shopping bags or helping her on with her coat are now deemed more condescending than conciliatory.

And there is always that little reminder of how disrespectful we have become on the little sign over the front seats of the bus that asks us to give up our chair to those who are pregnant, elderly, disabled or carrying small children.

A report last year suggested that politeness – especially at the dinner table had all but become a thing of the past.

Researchers who polled 3,000 adults found most thought it acceptable to answer their mobile phone during a meal, to talk with their mouth full and start eating before others’ food had arrived.

Well what can I say? Smacking aside, I can see why the generation that grew up in the 1950s thinks we should be doing more to instill good manners in the generation to come.

And so I return to the importance of a “thank you”.

This week I was given the opportunity to set an example to my children and say these words to someone who really deserved them.

If you have read my column before, you might remember my son’s late-night asthma attack and how I had to call 999 for help.

I spoke of the paramedic who turned up on our doorstep, who was patient and kind, who put everything right.

My article hit the arena of social media and before long my saviour was identified as Julie Offord, a paramedic with the East of England Ambulance Service.

After we had tracked her down, my son and I were invited to visit the Ipswich ambulance station to see her again.

On the way there I warned him: “Be polite. Remember to say please and thank you and when we leave it would be lovely if you told Julie you had a nice time. It would mean a lot to her.”

It was a great day and my son was on his best behaviour. He got to switch on the siren, fiddle with the flashing lights and play with a plastic medical kit Julie had bought him as a present.

And I got the chance to express my gratitude.

As we got ready to leave, my son gave Julie a big hug.

“What do we say?” I prompted.

“Thank you,” he said.

“And…?” I pressed.

“My mummy said I had a nice time,” he said with a grin.

I’m pretty sure such cheekiness would be frowned upon in the 1950s but as far as a modern day education in etiquette goes, it’s a start.

Please email me at EllenWiddup@journalist.com or find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup.

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