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No child’s play

art and culture Updated: Aug 07, 2011 02:07 IST
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Seven-year-old Samya Khanna looks lost when the instructor tells her the webs of her palm should meet with a guest’s while shaking hands. She may have trouble spelling ‘manners’ or ‘table,’ but she is confident setting up cutlery during an etiquette workshop.

The expressions on the face of Kingshuk Dua, 8, go from reticent, to edgy, to confused as the teacher holds forth on the placement of the knife and the fork.

Off the Ring Road in West Delhi’s Punjabi Bagh, a class of young children is learning the virtues of body language, the perfect handshake and ways to differentiate between dessert spoons and fruit knives.

“Ours is the only institute in India affiliated to the Etiquette School of Manhattan, which is in New York,” chimes the receptionist as she rolls her ‘R’s. Really? And what’s the right age to begin at the International School of Etiquette Finishing Academy?

“Oh we get queries even from parents of three-year-olds. That’s the trend in the United States, you see,” says proprietor and chief instructor Monica Garg, “But in India any child over five is ready to go to finishing school.”

In an age of incessant marketing and brand positioning, ambitious parents end up pushing children to etiquette schools to acquire a veneer of polish.

Ask Ankur Khanna, mom of a five-year-old who recently got a ‘Protocol’ certificate. “I am proud of Kabir. On a recent vacation, he was the centre of attention at the dinner table,” she says about the student of kindergarten at the KR Manglam Global School.

Across the Ring Road in South Delhi’s New Friends Colony, at the vaunted Pria Warrick Finishing School, proprietor Warrick says lessons in social graces have to begin early. “We teach 25,000 children in 226 schools across the country from class nursery to XII. Of course, till class I, we use only plastic cutlery for the lessons.”

Warrick claims she teaches more than just eating with forks and knives. “Mixing psychology with etiquette, we enhance interpersonal skills and help the child overcome social anxiety.”

The situation is similar in most metropolises. From the basement of a ramshackle building in Mumbai’s Bandra, Gautam Garry Guptaa runs The Personality School.

Apart from business executives and youngsters, he teaches “essential life skills”, to seven-years-olds such as how to speak English effectively, how to shake hands and how eating a chicken leg is one of the worst mistakes you can make at a party.

At most finishing schools, parents pay from R3,000 for a week’s training to R16,000 for a month. But does one really have to go to a classroom to learn how to say ‘thank you’ and please? Journalist Sunalini Mathew, former editor of Child magazine and parent of a nine-year-old, says it isn’t age-appropriate for a five-year-old to take body language lessons. “A teenager, perhaps, will be able to grasp the nuances of the handshake.”

Experts say children should be allowed to be shy, introverted or awkward — if it is a part of their personality. Delhi-based psychiatrist Deepak Gupta, who specialises in emotional and social well-being of children and adolescents, says there isn’t any harm in teaching social graces to children, provided, they are in sync with mental and emotional growth.

“Sports and physical activities should go hand in hand with physical, social and cognitive development.”

Money alone won’t buy you class, says sociologist Shiv Visvanathan. Most parents who send their kids to finishing schools crave for a demeanour of status. “It is the same status which comes from entry into clubs and admission to certain schools. It pushes children into tuition classes at age four and gets them a tag that helps conceals their social inadequacies.”

But many parents won’t agree. Bakhtaawar Khan, 11, attended an etiquette course during his last vacation. “In my time, only company heads needed these skills,” says his father Noor Khan, 45, who owns an automobile business, “But my son will need to know all of this the moment he enters college.”