Manners Matter

Table manners are but one set of cultural conventions, but they are so easily integrated into the daily routines at every camp that we should be hitting them out of the park. If table manners are a cinch, then the only reasons they are neglected are laziness and shortsightedness.

The thought is either, “As long as kids eat, it doesn’t matter what side the fork goes on,” or “As long as they set the table somehow, no one cares how they do it.” By that reasoning, as long as they wear clothes to an interview, it doesn’t matter what clothes they have on.

Here, of course, detractors will assert that camp is an informal place, where etiquette should play a minimal role.

And yet we insist on good sportsmanship, which is another way of saying “sports etiquette.” We explain and enforce rules and insist that campers congratulate the other team at the end of a contest, for example.

Detractors here will hasten to add that sportsmanship matters because following rules, playing fairly, and resolving conflict are all life skills. Indeed, this is correct, and it supports a camp’s choice to insist on good sportsmanship. Whither good manners?

Once again, consider the self-discipline, self-reliance, and social skills born of practicing conventional table manners.

If that still doesn’t grab you, consider the health benefits of campers’ using serving spoons instead of their fingers, the spiritual benefits of unselfishly serving one’s neighbor first, or taking the smallest piece, not to mention the community benefits of guidelines such as “You kill it; you fill it” for water pitchers, butter dishes, salt shakers, and the like.

When campers themselves have a role in setting tables according to some shared conventions, when they adhere to manners such as “no elbows on the table,” “chew with your mouth closed,” and “ask, don’t reach,” and when they clear and clean their own tables, then mealtime is no longer class-oriented.

Instead, it is a pleasant and culturally literate exercise in ownership that nurtures a collective spirit and promotes the type of self-reliance that leads to success in adulthood.

In a million little ways, camp well-done is preparation for life well-lived.

Dr. Christopher Thurber serves as the school psychologist at Phillips Exeter Academy. He is co-author of The Summer Camp Handbook and the co-founder of, the top provider of web-based educational content for youth leaders. To book Chris for an event or to download more resources, visit


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  1. Manners Matter
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  3. For Juniors’ Sake
  4. Leadership After Failure
  5. The Burden Of Manners

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