When students in the Howard County after-school program Can-Teen say "please" and "thank you," they scarcely sound as if they were once nagged or scolded into doing so. Instead, their expressions of gratitude appear to be just that, and they understand why such expressions are warranted.
Sound strange for a group of more than a dozen teens? Not according to Taurean Washington, the youth director for the Can-Teen program, a county recreation and parks program that teaches leadership skills and etiquette.
Located in Ellicott Mills Middle School, the program for sixth- through eighth-graders also offers instructions on positive thinking, social skills and healthful eating. They put their manners to use on field trips.
Recently the students visited Carrabba's Italian Grill in Ellicott City to learn proper restaurant etiquette. They were graded on their manners by proprietor Jerry Delahanty, but they knew before heading to the restaurant that their manners would be up to par.
"You don't just say, 'Can we order now?' That's what you shouldn't do," said Justin Mattox, an Ellicott Mills sixth-grader. "You should be polite and say things like, 'May I please have some water?' "
Sylvie Skye, a sixth-grader at Ellicott Mills, said Can-Teen requires that proper manners be used at all times. "They make sure that we reinforce good habits," she said.
Jinyu Hyang, an Ellicott Mills seventh-grader, said that normally the thought of using manners scarcely arises "because you just want to get what you need. But in retrospect, when you use manners, they give you what you want faster and more politely than if you just say it with nothing at all."
Washington said he came up with the idea to give the students real-world experience in how manners can benefit them.
"I know we can say it in a format where you're told what to say and what to do," Washington said, "but I wanted them to see it where if a real situation was presented, how would they act?
"We've done a couple of rehearsals in the program, where we'd make spaghetti," Washington said. "We had a couple of chefs. Some people would play customer and some would play server. And during snack time, we would keep reinforcing 'please' and 'thank you,' and we wouldn't serve them unless they said, 'please' and 'thank you.' The big thing for me is consistency and holding them to that standard."
Delahanty demonstrated some of the basics of restaurant service, such as taking orders and serving women first, as well as how change is given for a bill and standards for gratuity. "They can now do the math and figure it out themselves," he said.
Delahanty gave the students high marks for their manners, and he said that about 60 percent of restaurant-goers truly understand etiquette. "The rest just don't get it. We do our best to accommodate everything," he said.
Still, the teens acknowledge that remembering to offer expressions of gratitude comes easier at some times than at others.
"I always say 'please' and 'thank you,' but sometimes, I just slip," said Kayla Berry, an Ellicott Mills eighth-grader.
At Can-Teen, students lose privileges — such as playing games or using the computer — for lack of manners and must use proper etiquette to regain privileges.
Recently, Jinyu said, "We lost everything, because we went to an animal shelter and we were kind of loud and weren't listening to directions. They took away most of the fun stuff."
Washington said that Can-Teen's aim is to prepare students for high school, where similar programs are not offered. And the students say they can see how good manners will aid them in the real world.
"They're going to get us really far," Justin said, "because it's pretty much your dignity."