Ribbons of pink and cream icing drape the dress of the Barbie doll cake. To the chorus of Happy Birthday, eight-year-old Wafa stands at the back of the classroom and cuts into the moist chocolate sponge.
Her fellow students clap and turn eager faces up to ‘Mam Randa', who is dividing the cake into portions. The adult bends to their eye level, and says, "If you want something, how should you ask for it?"
One by one, the nine children say, "Mam Randa, may I have some cake?"
Wafa is served first.
"Well, she is the birthday girl," says Mam Randa, otherwise known as Randa Mufarrij, a civility expert at FasTracKids Sam Centre in Dubai.
This isn't a birthday party for Wafa and her friends. They are taking lessons at the Courtesy Camp's Manners Workshop, in which kids between the ages of eight and 11 attend a four-week programme covering the areas of manners, respect, communication skills and confidence.
While Mufarrij hands out the last few plates, one of Wafa's classmates, Diya Sanjeev, spots her mother, Nisha Sanjeev, at the classroom door, which has been left ajar during the short break. Immediately, Nisha dodges out of her daughter's view. Diya, dressed in a black tunic top, white tights and sporting coloured bracelets, cranes her head - a mop of ebony curls - even further. She blinks a few times, glancing towards the door, ruffled.
She can't leave until the three-hour session finishes.
Before the break, Mufarrij taught them the rules of a proper introduction, demonstrating the three improper handshakes. To identify these, the group had objects: the strand of cooked spaghetti - passed around amidst "Ughs" and "Eews" - was deemed a weak handshake; the rock, a bone crusher; and the feather, a light handshake with poor hand contact. Instead, she taught them to aim for a firm handshake, with a smile and good eye contact.
Outside the classroom, Nisha talks about why she enrolled Diya. She describes her only child as obedient but self-conscious. She says her nine-year-old can be hesitant before speaking, which can be detrimental in an academic environment. "If she doesn't answer quickly, students who are more vocal forge ahead. It's worrying. I'm the kind of mother who doesn't want academic brilliance; I want Diya to be street-smart. This workshop will help build her self-respect and confidence."
For Nisha, along with the other parents who've enrolled their children at the Camp, a programme like this isn't about academia or etiquette. Based on the Canadian Civility Experts curriculum, the programme teaches kids how to behave in a range of social settings, how to manage conflict and show consideration to others.
Diya will start at a new school next year. Nisha says, "At this stage she won't get the individual attention that she did in primary school. She has to learn to speak up. Also, as working parents, we try to spend as much time with her as we can, but tend to forget to use of courtesy phrases. We understand its importance, but don't consciously enforce it. When Diya wants something she might say, ‘Give that to me', and we give it; we don't always remind her to say ‘please'".
Nisha can already see the benefits. She says, "I saw an improvement after the first session. She began to place her shoes on the shoe rack - something she has never done. She also, much to my surprise, agreed to give away her old crayons; as an only child she has never had the need to share. Recently, I sent her on an errand to buy something, which required her to queue, interact with the sales assistant and make the purchase. I was proud to see her manage on her own. "
Mufarrij, the director of Civility in Action International, is delighted at the results Nisha has seen and prides herself on the practical application of this course. She explains the Civility in Action concept:
"There is a global outcry against incivility," she says. "There is dishonesty, irresponsibility, meanness and disrespect. The absence of a code of conduct in children and grownups made us realise that we need to create awareness and train children to carry themselves in a civilised manner."
Mufarrij says that there are many reasons for a formalised workshop in courtesy. "Parents don't get to spend as much time with their kids as they would love to. Networking has made it vital to equip youngsters with social skills. And, with globalisation, one needs to know how to interact with different cultures." Mufarrij believes it is easier for children to learn this from someone other than a parent. "A formal workshop corrects bad manners and enhances good manners. Once a child learns the basic skills, parents can build on this understanding, which can in turn help kids deal with peer pressure and bullying."
Nisha certainly plans to build on Diya's learning. "I will continue to reward good behaviour, stressing self-reliance, especially when she volunteers to help or manages a particular task by herself," she says.
After the workshop, Diya, races and grabs her mother's hand. Did she enjoy it? "Yes," says Diya. "We were taught how to behave and how to talk when we meet a new person. I enjoyed the singing parts the most and the animation on manners. I had lots of fun. "
The next Manners Workshops will run in February 2012
7 basic courtesies
Children should learn to:
1. listen and pay attention
2. be appreciative and thankful
3. understand responsibility
4. be responsible for themselves and the world around them
5. master social and communication skills
6. be self disciplined and patient
7. respect themselves and others
5 tips for parents
1. Stress on the use of courtesy words - please, thank you, sorry and excuse me
2. Remind your children to use "May I…" when they ask for something
3. Teach your child to greet guests the proper way with a firm handshake, maintaining eye contact and smiling
4. Appreciate your child's efforts
5. Lead by example
Info courtesy: Civility expert Randa Mufarrij