Editor’s note: In this month’s character-building feature story, The Modern Manners Survival Guide, we tackle the importance of proper etiquette every day, in a relevant, unfussy way. This anecdote and discussion activity from Choices teacher-adviser Amy Lauren Smith—a sixth to eighth grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teacher’s Guide each month—will help your students incorporate manners naturally.


Last week, I chaperoned the middle school dance where I teach. We called it a "social" rather than a dance to avoid terrifying the 6th graders, and we offered plenty of options for kids who didn’t feel like dancing. There was a ping-pong table set up in the adjacent room, as well as snacks and tables for kids who felt like socializing with their friends without having to shout over the loud music.

Unfortunately, there was very little socializing going on. A large group of 8th graders were all sitting together, but every single one of them had their head in their phones. I pointed out that this was something they could do at home, and that we put on this event so they can actually hang out together, in person. One of the boys looked up at me and said, “Well, everyone else was on their phones, so I had nobody to socialize with.”

He had a valid point, and I could certainly relate. We’ve all been in that situation, with friends, family, or colleagues, awkwardly staring at the top of people’s heads, realizing that nobody is listening to anything you said. As adults, we know that ignoring someone is not good manners, yet we do it to each other all of the time. And if we’re doing it, how are kids and teens supposed to know any better?

I needed to come up with a solution, so I thought about the “phone-stacking game,” made famous in California’s Silicon Valley. In this dinner-table game, everyone puts their phones in the middle of the table at a restaurant, and the first one to break down and check their phone has to pay the bill. Since my 8th grade friends were getting all the free pizza they wanted, we needed to come up with a different form of punishment.

They put their heads together for a minute and decided the first person to check their phone would have to stand in the middle of the room, belting out a Christmas carol in front of all 100 peers in the loudest voice possible.

Turns out, the risk of humiliation is just as good as actual currency in the world of middle school. They lasted almost an hour—laughing, chatting, arm wrestling, and just being your typical boisterous 13-year-olds—until I finally heard “Deck the Halls” being shouted out, terribly off key.

The experience was fun and the kids got a chance to realize how much their phones—while amazing tools for socializing—can get in the way of actually connecting with others. When I asked them about it the next week in class, I wondered how many of them have time at home without any phones, like device-free dinners. Turns out quite a few of them do, but the rule just applies to them, and not to their parents.

The problem with that hypocrisy is that we’re expecting teens to just know how to act, without giving them the tools or acting as role models for good etiquette. Adults often lament about teens and phones, but we’re just as guilty of rude behavior. We break up over text, gossip on social media, or just ‘ghost’ on people altogether. Unless we teach kids about having good manners, these problems are only going to get worse.

I’m not saying we need to go back to the days of stiff etiquette classes, but some lessons on manners are needed—for kids, teens, and maybe the rest of us too.

Try reading The Modern Manners Survival Guide from our January 2018 issue, then discuss it as a class. For something fun to add to the mix, be sure to check out these videos with Will Ferrell on device-free dinners, from CommonSenseMedia.org.

And be sure to try the "Cellphone Etiquette Cheat Sheet" skills sheet, to help students brainstorm modern cellphone etiquette.