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Saturday, February 22, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Manners manor: Pupils enter as children, leave as charmers

Seattle Times staff reporter

In her quaint Wallingford home, Dawn DeGroot teaches a class not about spotted owls or gray wolves, but about another endangered species — manners.

DeGroot, 52, who grew up in a Ward and June Cleaver-style household in the 1950s, said she had grown troubled because so many kids don’t value such things as showing common courtesy, respect and consideration for others, as older generations did.

So in October, she opened Wallingford Charm, simply announcing the class to friends around town and parents at Wallingford’s St. Benedict School, where her daughter is a third-grader. Since then, through word of mouth, DeGroot, a former nurse, has been contacted by parents who were more than ready to enroll their children.

While she is one of the newer etiquette instructors in the area, other charm classes of various sizes are also offered around the region.

During DeGroot’s $200, five-week course, which meets once a week, youngsters learn about dining etiquette, good posture, introductions, eye contact, writing thank-you notes and basic manners. Classes are offered for 8- to 10-year-olds, 11- to (12-year-olds and 13- to 16-year-olds, who also learn prom etiquette.

Outside, DeGroot’s husband, a gardener, has transformed the front yard into a tranquil setting in a bustling neighborhood. A large, well-manicured hedge blocks out the drone of traffic, and daffodils, snowdrops and paperwhites are already in bloom.

Inside, antiques, such as a wall clock, armoire and 3-foot dollhouse, decorate the living room. Dozens of etiquette books are on display; some, like “Uncle Dan’s Book on Etiquette and Things,” dating back several decades. Seated in the dining room at a (10-foot-long table, built from wood from St. Benedict’s School, students practice dinner manners with fine silver and Limoges china.

This week, DeGroot entertained several elementary- and middle-school students on their midwinter break. At the end of one session, the students gathered in the cozy living room. The boys were quick to offer their seats to the girls, and the girls made sure to sit with their legs crossed at the ankles and hands folded neatly in their laps. While sharing a bag of Gummi Worms, they talked about some of the new manners and etiquette tips they’d learned.

  • It’s important to have your own stationery, so you’ll never have an excuse not to write someone a thank-you letter.
  • When eating dessert, use a spoon for soft desserts and a fork for hard ones.
  • Always pass salt and pepper together.
  • Don’t pick up your napkin if you drop it; that would draw attention.
  • The size of a quarter is the best-sized bite of food to take.
  • At social gatherings, it’s important to have three interesting questions ready to spark a conversation with a stranger.

The students were also not afraid to ask tough questions. “If someone tells you they love you, but you don’t love them, what do you say to them?” asked one young man.

“You can tell them, ‘Thank you,’ but you don’t have to say it back,” DeGroot replied.

Tim Reilly-Crank, a fifth-grader at Lowell Elementary, said he learned “it kind of stinks being a guy, because you have to do everything for the girls. But, if everyone used manners, the world might be a better place because nobody would be mean.” “The class teaches you discipline,” added fellow Lowell fifth-grader Jada Wittow. “Once you get used to using your manners they become natural and you know the difference between being polite and impolite.”

For DeGroot, who believes the breakdown in manners started in the “Greed is good,” “What about me?” 1980s, the concept of her class is simple: If someone has good manners, they also have self-respect. And when you’re polite to someone, you give them self-respect. And, in practicing good manners, you’ll have more enjoyable life experiences.

“No one likes to be treated unkindly,” DeGroot said. “And is it going to kill you to give someone a compliment? No.”

J.J. Jensen: 206-464-2386 or jjensen@seattletimes.com.

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