“Cool School”: Teaching Etiquette to My Teenage Sons in a Relevant Way.

The first time I did “cool school” we were a missionary family returning to live in the US after 15 years away. I wanted my children to understand the unwritten rules of American culture (for example, we don’t kiss when greeting, which is all they’d ever known…) I decided to throw in some etiquette and hope as we acclimated to a new culture, we would bring our classiest selves forward.


We role-played, had open-ended discussions, and I showed videos of bad and good examples, trying to employ as much humor as possible, knowing they’ll remember how they felt during cool school more than they’ll remember the rules we covered.  I have four sons, so I was focusing in on the admittedly confusing cultural norms that are changing constantly for young men.


Here is my list of (hopefully) timeless principles:  


  1. Respect (littles, elders, others…) This never goes out of style, is biblical, and can be the plumb line when you are in a situation where the rules seem fluid or unspoken. We enacted standing up on a bus for someone pregnant or senior. We practiced how to say, “I appreciate where you are coming from…” and brainstormed the many ways we’ve seen others demonstrate respect towards us.


  1. Be generous (offer to pay, and be generous in spirit as well as dollars…) We talked about generosity as an attitude and how it goes way beyond picking up the dinner bill. On their own, they offered how giving up the front seat in the car to a sibling is as generous as treating someone to a meal.


  1. Ask permission. This goes a long way- whether talking about cutting through someone’s yard, or hoping for a kiss. Consent is no small issue these days and the more we teach and model it, the better we prepare our children for this culture.


  1. Put your phone away… this goes for at the table, in a conversation, behind the wheel, on a date, and in class. The phone is a tool, not a toy, and we challenged each other to value who was in the room more than what was coming over the screen.



  1. Eat slow, and put your fork down between bites. I told them the slower they ate, the cooler they were. Wolving down food looks uncouth and signals bad manners. Bonus points if they use the knife and the fork at the same time, if their napkin is on their lap and if they chew with their mouth closed. Nothing says fashionable more than good table etiquette.


  1. Open the door, it’s gracious. Sure, there will be occasions when someone doesn’t value your effort, but those are fractional in comparison to the amount of times the gesture is appreciated. It declares “I am putting you before me.”


  1. Let the woman walk (or anyone for that matter) in front of you to the table, through the door, into the room… It’s a nice sign of respect, and doesn’t have to be a political statement- it announces your mother taught you well, and just for that, please do it.


  1. Stand up/look up when someone comes into the room or to the table, and catch them up on the conversation. I am not sure what is happening to our culture, but we seem to be getting worse at welcoming someone into the conversation, or to the table. It communicates volumes about your respect for someone when you take the two minutes required to welcome, acclimate, and include someone.


  1. Listen more than you speak. We are always talking at people and social media has made a bad habit, much worse. If we cultivate the lost art of good listening skills (ask clarifying questions, make eye contact, don’t interrupt…) we will win and keep friends.


  1. Say thank you (write it, speak it, text it) Gratitude is sooo first class. When we circle back and thank the waiter, our teacher, your grandmother, a date, we make an impression. Plus, it’s biblical! The Bible says, “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now …” (Philippians 1:3-5, NIV)


I am sure there are plenty of etiquette principles I haven’t included, this is just where we got started. I said it before cool school class, during, and after: we aren’t well-mannered so people think highly of us, we are well-mannered because we mostly want to leave a positive impression of God’s kids.

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