John Cowan - Two meals

Publish Date
Friday, 10 March 2017, 10:30AM
Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

By John Cowan


Gidday, I’m John Cowan from the Parenting place.

Years ago, I was a youth worker dealing with at-risk and troubled teenagers. I thought it would be a good idea to take a couple of them to have a meal with my parents, who were the kindest, friendliest people you could ever meet. But it was excruciating. Sitting at the table, these boys did not have clue what to do and they just looked totally embarrassed and awkward. Despite all the best efforts and intentions of my parents, those kids would not have been more uncomfortable if we had pushed bamboo under their fingernails.

I remember another meal in British Columbia. I joined a large Canadian family for dinner. At first I did not notice but then it struck me: the constant round of “Please”, “Thank-you”, “You’re welcome” – an automatic level of politeness that was very foreign to me as a kiwi. I was not the only guest at the meal: their teenage daughter had invited her new boyfriend.

So, for him, it was the nerve-wracking ordeal of meeting her parents for the first time; and, as he cut into his food, his plate shattered. Gravy, meat, vegetables – all onto the table. If this had been happening in New Zealand and if it was happening to me, I would have died, and so would my girlfriend, and the parents as well. In fact, the whole table, keeled over, stone dead from embarrassment. But Canadian super-manners kicked in: “Oh don’t worry about that – the dishwasher does that to the plates” – I am sure it doesn’t but there was just the swirl of good natured reassurance, they laughed it off, the boy handled it just fine, his food was replaced in a moment and there was not a single corpse anywhere. Man, I was impressed.

Etiquette is not just old-fashioned snobbery. If you give your kids good manners, they will know how to handle almost any situation. Knowing what to do, knowing how to make a request, knowing how to show kindness and respect – fantastic life skills.

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About John

John has been with The Parenting Place ( for seventeen years as their senior writer and presenter.  He had various roles working with youth and families prior to that but actually started his working life as a scientist in neurophysiology at Auckland Hospital.  As well as writing and speaking, John is frequently on radio and television.

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