by Katherine Martinko
Teenagers do not have a reputation for being the politest demographic, but Brooke Romney is on a mission to change that.
A writer, speaker, educator, and mother of four boys, she is also the author of 52 Modern Manners for Today’s Teens, a book that helps teens learn how to navigate the world in a way that will bring them greater success. Romney spoke to Lianne Castelino, host of Where Parents Talk, in a video and podcast interview from her home in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Click for video transcription
Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a writer, educator and speaker. Brooke Romney is also a best selling author and a mother of four boys. Her latest book is called 52 Modern Manners for today’s teens. Brooke joins us today from Salt Lake City, Utah. Thank you so much for being here.
Thank you so much for having me.
I’d like to start off by asking you what was the impetus for this book and this series?
Well, the first book was 52, Modern Manners for today’s teens. And the impetus for that was as my kids were growing older, and my first one became a teen, I was doing a lot of observing of him of his friends, I was at the middle school often working with people in youth in church groups. And I was noticing that there was a bit of a disconnect, and what parents were hoping their teens knew and understood, and what teens were practicing in the regular world. And as I was watching this, I saw that there were two groups of teens, one group that had a lot of emotional intelligence, social intelligence, they understood they just were the people that kind of got it, or maybe their parents were very intentional in teaching it one or the other. And I watched as they went on a positive trajectory. People liked them, they were included, adults leaned on them, they use them as positive examples. And I watched as their life became very successful through the years. And then I watched the other group that struggled with that a lot more. So maybe they just didn’t get it. Maybe they had some neurodiversity, maybe their parents didn’t understand. And it was they were coming from a background where that was more difficult to know and teach. And I watched as their life kind of did the opposite, they became less connected, they had less opportunity, because of that their self esteem was lower. And then they put themselves in situations that weren’t ideal. And in my mind, I thought there has to be a way for us to be able to simply teach these things that are so small and doable, but really create success in kids lives. And that’s kind of where it started just really having that desire for all teens to have the opportunity to feel successful in small ways.
That’s a profound story in terms of having a starting point, because then how do you go from that, which is a lofty goal, to distilling it down to 52 manners, but Modern Manners for teens?
Well, what I started doing was I started noticing the small things, and then I started sharing those on my Instagram, just little things that I observed. So for instance, one was be a good passenger, I was giving a lot of rides to teenagers, and some would get in my car and say, Hi, Mrs. Romney, how you doing and, you know, have a small conversation with me, they would always say thank you when they left the car. And I noticed my own feeling was, I really enjoy that child, I’m happy to give that child a ride. There were other kids that got in my car went right to their phone didn’t say a word, barely said anything before they left the car. And I had a different feeling toward them. And so I shared on my Instagram, you know, one of the things we could remind our teens to do is to be a good passenger. And these are some of the things that would help. And my audience got really excited about that reminder. And they said, Well, I thought I had taught my child that. I don’t know if I did, I don’t know if they’re doing that in the real world. Thanks for that very concrete example and way to teach. And so I started throwing, they said, Will you please share more. So it’s, it’s one of those things that when you’re looking for something, you can often find it. And because I became so attuned to some of the social and relational and emotional things that teens weren’t quite getting, I started seeing them often. And then I had parents sharing things that were going on in their lives with me. And I started sharing those once a week. And that’s how the idea started. And then I really, I have four boys, and they can be a tough sell. And I knew that if this was going to get into their bones, right, if they were going to really feel this, if I was really going to help them make a change. I had to create the right format, something that was easy, quick, digestible, something that felt relevant, and something that they could be reminded of, and either learn from their parents or learn on their own.
So the format is something that you clearly spend time on because this is not a typical book format. Can you take us through how you landed on that format for this book?
I would love to so it is I just from being a parent, I knew that I read a lot of really great things and and there were lots of great ideas out there. But it was really difficult for me to put them into practice. And so I knew that I needed to find a way that parents could easily parents are busy, they’re pulled in so many directions. It needed to be easy for parents to do if they if I wanted them to make it a habit in their home. So it’s a little stand up book, it comes with its own easel. And then there’s a manner on the friends. And this one actually is be a good passenger. And so I knew it had to be quick and snappy, something that would give families common language when they were noticing something or reminding their child. So they could say, hey, remember, be a good passenger. And it was common language. And then I wanted to share what that looked like, I it’s really important that we don’t just say be a good passenger, but we can show our children what that looks like. And then on the back, I knew there had to be a why I have kids who have to know why it matters. And I knew there had to be why. And so by creating this format, it was really important to me that parents had an easy way to distill this information to their kids. That it could be a good conversation topic starter, sometimes families don’t know what to talk about, you have this in the middle of your dinner table, and you can just go through it. I also knew from my own experience that some kids aren’t interested in connecting and learning from their parents during those teenage years. So it was really important to me that this also offered an opportunity for kids who would prefer to learn on their own to do that. So there are a lot of families who just set it out. And their teens can take it in on their own terms, it doesn’t have to be a big deal. But for those who are especially Prickly, they can just take a look. Take it in and one of my favorite stories is a mom who was sure her son would not like this book, and he made it very clear that he did not like it. And he thought it was ridiculous. And then one night she went into his room and he was reading it all by himself. Because I think our teams really do want to know how they can be successful.
So on that note, Modern Manners, what exactly do you mean by that term?
I love that you asked this question. Because manners can sometimes be in especially teenager signs, or sometimes even in parents minds, things of the past things that are no longer relevant. And I wanted to make it very clear that these were things that mattered today. They were things that would help your kids be successful, help them create relationships. So I focus less on which word to use, and more on how to create connection. Sometimes that is through a physical manner. There’s one about being a good houseguest, asking people about their shoe policy, not laying your face on their decorative pillows, asking permission before you take food from the kitchen. That’s a very physical matter that might be a little more old school. But what it does is it creates really positive experiences for these kids who go into people’s homes that are very polite, they get invited back. So really, the start is a physical manner, but the result is increased relationships.
So in in with respect to those manners for a second, how did you land on 52? Because, you know, when you talk about Modern Manners, and empowering kids, essentially, while educating them, there could be a long list, how did you distill it down to 52?
Well, I worked really hard with my community to figure out which ones were most important and the ones they were seeing often. So my first volume of Modern Manners has 52. And they are starting at the very basics things like introduce yourself, be a good passenger, don’t lead just one person out. The way you smell matters, things that were very basic that were very necessary. After doing that first book, I realized there were plenty more live a good life lessons that I wanted kids to understand. And so I created Volume Two, which goes a little deeper, things like celebrating others, not making fun of questions, being a good conversationalist, giving your attention, things that would just allow them to take their life up one notch, and connect on a deeper level, and gain a little bit more confidence and not just how to exist with people, but how to live a really good successful life on the inside and the outside.
It’s so interesting, because on so many levels, it’s like you’re doing a social experiment, while also writing this book, you’ve got you know, your your sons in your home, you’ve got their friends, you’ve got people reacting that you see in the world around you in your community, as you describe. So what was that like? Like? How did you go about or did you see any changes in your own sons after the book came out?
We have actually seen really powerful changes in our own home more than anything, them intentionally living with better manners and noticing the benefits of it. So one of the manners in the first book is to acknowledge adults. And my second son was taking a girl on a date for the first time and because of that manner and things he had learned in our home, he knew to go to the door he knew to get attention to If this girl’s parents have a short conversation with them, let them know when she was going to be back. And after the date, this girl called my son and said, My parent absolutely loved you. And he said, well, the bar is kind of low, like that is just a basic way to interact with people. And so he said, Don’t other people who take you out do that. And she said, No, you’re the first one that’s even come to the door. And it was a really good reminder for him that these manners are important for him to feel good about who he is in the way he exists. But also, there’s a really great benefit in the way other people feel about you.
It’s such a great example, because it’s such a simple example. Right? It might not be on the top of mind for many parents. But the impact that it made that you just described is is tangible.
It really is. There’s been so many other great examples, one of the manners in the first book is find new friends. And that basically says if you are with a group of friends who consistently because everyone has friends who do not nice things every once in a while, but who consistently leave you out, put you down or make you feel like you don’t belong, it’s time to find new friends. And then it goes on to say, this might be a difficult thing, you might be alone for a little bit. But at the end, you’re going to reap the benefits of putting in the effort to find new friends. And I had a mom who recognized me in a store one day and said, that mattered changed her son’s life, they had talked about it as a family. And he’s a big 16 year old boy. And he came to her room later that night and in tears. And he said, I need to find new friends. My friends are horrible to me. And they make me feel like I don’t belong. And I feel horrible about myself every time I’m with them. And she said it took him all summer. But by the next year, he had this great group of friends. And so she just stopped me to just give me a hug and say, this changed my son’s life because it opened up a conversation in our house. And there’s been so many other really great stories about kids who feel empowered to live their best life, because of a small conversation or even something they read. In one of the books, there’s a manner that says Be aware. And it says, you know, pay attention to your friends, if there’s if they seem off, if there’s something that doesn’t seem right, if they’re talking about that, let someone know you’re a teenager shouldn’t have to deal with that all on their own. And because that manner was up in their house, mom just messaged me and said her daughter noticed something in her friend called her friend’s mom and said, I’m worried about my friend. And this mom got her daughter in to counseling. And she felt empowered, because she knew that she didn’t have to do it alone, she didn’t have to keep a secret. She didn’t have to be the one that was her sole mental support, she could reach out and ask other adults that love this girl for help, too. It’s been really incredible and encouraging to see the way this helps teenagers feel like they have a little bit more control of their life now, but also their success in the future.
Is there any feedback that you’ve received that really struck you with respect to the three versions of the book that are out now? Since 2021? When you think back on it, you just, you know, you’re just blown over by the impact?
Yes, one there. One excellent benefit that I wasn’t planning on is how much this has helped a neuro, the neuro diverse community. I had a mom who, whose daughter has autism, and she’s high functioning, but she struggled a lot with social and emotional skills. And this daughter was invited to go on a weekend away with a friend. And the mom took the time to open the book up and go through every manner that made a lot of sense for her to be a good guest. And when this girl got back, the the family that she was with a mom called to let this mom know of this girl who sometimes struggles with social and emotional things, that she was the absolute best best vacation guests they’ve ever had that she pitched in, which is one of the manners that she included the younger siblings that she was kind and helpful that she was respectful of their property. It was so fun. And this girl felt so excited. And I’ve heard from so many people in the neurodiverse community that they just needed something clear. So their kids knew do’s and don’ts. The other thing that has been really exciting for me is that oftentimes when parents are correcting their kids, it creates a little bit of division. The kids get defensive, the parents don’t know what to say. And it feels a little attacking and then it sometimes can hurt the relationship. But these are things that really need to be taught. And so you don’t want to not teach something because you don’t want somebody to be offended or mad. But what this does is it gets parents in front of the problem. So the Don’t feel personal. They feel like things that everyone’s dealing with, when you open the manner that says the way you smell matters. You’re not telling your child that he stinks. You’re saying, every person needs to make sure they shower, and they wear deodorant, and they are cognizant of their breath. Those are just things everyone has to do, and so feels really empowering instead of purple.
The other thing that I find really interesting is the timing of when your book came out. So 2021 a year into the pandemic. And I wonder if any of what you were seeing in terms of the behavior prior to your book coming out, because presumably, that was happening during the pandemic, your observations impacted, what ended up being the content in your book?
Absolutely, one of the things that I thought a lot about and saw a lot of is, our teens often had their eyes down in their headphones in. And as parents, we took for granted that they were observing the world around them. When I was when I was a kid, and when I was a teenager, there was nothing else for me to do. But watch my parents interact with people. Not only that, but because our life was generally mostly in person, we went to the bank, we went to the grocery store, we went to the mall, there were a lot of social interactions for me to observe. And our kids were not getting that opportunity to observe. And then we expected them when they did enter the real world that they would just know how to do. And I feel like that was an unfair assumption as parents to think that our kids just got it. Because there’s a lot that they have to learn through observation. And if they’re not going to observe that it’s really important that we teach it deliberately. So I saw so much of that, from the kids who spent a lot of time online, interacting online, only texting and not quite sure what to do, when they ended up in a room full of people and felt awkward or alone or like they didn’t know how to have a conversation in person. And I really wanted to give them the tools to be able to feel successful in the real world.
Many would argue that traditional manners, you know, table etiquette holding the door for somebody are a thing of the past. What is your reaction to that and do any of those manners factor in at all into your books,
there are a few that of the traditional manners that are in there. And I think that I would agree that some are a bit obsolete or less important. But I think a lot of them just set people just a little bit apart. So one of them that is in there is have restaurant manners. And that goes a little bit to the table manners, but also into the, to the way that we interact. We don’t sit on our phones and wait for a server to get our attention, we give our attention. One of those is know how your meat is cooked. I find that sometimes when a teenager goes to a restaurant for their first time, let’s say to prom, it’s very embarrassing, when they’ve never thought about how they want their steak cooked because their mom just makes their food for them, or they’ve never had the opportunity to order something like that. The other one I do have hold doors open. And this is not gender specific, I think it’s kind to be able to be aware and to observe that when someone looks like their hands are full, when someone’s pushing a stroller when someone’s in a wheelchair, or sometimes just to be kind and show that you’re noticing others, you just hold the door open the other day, I held the door open for someone at the gym. And she was pleasantly surprised and just said thanks. That was really nice, because I think it’s something that is a bit of a lost art. But that people really do appreciate. And what I noticed is it offered an opportunity for us to connect, she looked me in the eyes, she smiled, she said thank you. And that was an interaction I wouldn’t have had. And I think our teens need as many personal positive interactions as possible. So we can kind of offset COVID living online, and maybe some negative interactions that they’re having. It was important to me that as teenagers started doing these small things, what they weren’t going to see is that people started appreciating them, they started noticing the good in them. And because of that, they would be able to notice the good in themselves. Even if they’re not the star of the football team or a straight A student. They have great character. And I think that’s what can get people through some of those really difficult times when nothing seems to be going your way is to look back and say, but I’m someone who pitches in and I’m a good friend. And I reply and I know how to decline an invitation kindly. And I’m someone who, you know, is willing to ask a question or advocate for myself in school that builds you up when sometimes the world takes you down in other ways.
Well, and that leads to my next question, which really is about the world we live in today and all the noise that really It counters what you’re, you know conveying in your books in terms of, you know, uncivil behavior, rudeness, those kinds of things or distracted behavior. How do you go about countering that?
I think this is one of the reasons why publishing these books was so important to me, is because I don’t truly know of a better way to do it, than in small bite sized steps every week that our kids can work on and practice. I think a lot of what they hear is that it doesn’t matter. But it doesn’t matter. They’re aware that you, you just do you and, and while that is a fun thing to think about. It doesn’t serve them well. It serves them so much better, to be aware, to be kind to have social intelligence, to work on making connections, to be someone who’s trustworthy, there’s one about working honestly. And I think as they put these things into practice, they’re going to find that especially, especially in the world we live in, they are going to rise so quickly, because there will be something so different about them than others. There was an article in the Wall Street Journal not too long ago about a group of people who had been hired into one of the big five accounting firms, which is a really prestigious job to get right out of college. And they were finding that these really bright superstars and in academics, didn’t know how to have a conversation. They didn’t know how to interact with a client, they didn’t know what was appropriate to say to their boss, they didn’t know how to reply in a timely manner to a request that they were given. And as I was reading, that I thought, there’s so much more to life than being the top of your class, you can really set yourself apart with some of these intangibles, because there’s so many people who aren’t doing them.
Now, in your home, you’ve got four sons, as you mentioned, ranging in age from 21, down to 11. And I’m curious as to, you know, the impact in the last two years since your book came out, in light of the updates as well, to the book and the different editions, what have you seen in terms of each of those boys, learning about manners, not just from each other, but from the book that their mother wrote?
Well, you’re never a hero in your own home, I would say. But it has been really fun for me to watch them, either putting them into practice or saying, Mom, we know this, we’ve got it, you’ve already shared this with us. One of the things that’s been especially interesting as we’ve been working through the teen books in my home, and my youngest is a little on the younger end, there’s a five year gap. So we just started the kids book with him as soon as it came out. And what I have found is, I was really good about teaching a lot of these teenage issues to him. But he was younger. And some of these manners in the kids book are new to him. For example, we said, one of them is about not not asking for food, but waiting for it to be offered when you’re at a friend’s house. And he’s like, Oh, I asked her food every time we were able to engage in that conversation about why that’s not polite, and what we can do to make sure that you’re not hungry the next time you go. So, you know, we take granola bars for every one instead, or we make sure he’s eaten, or he brings a water bottle. So he’s not being annoying about needing something all the time. So it’s been really interesting to see that he has a lot of these teen manners down. But we are really glad that we’re starting over with the kids manners, because he needs those just as much.
So along those lines, then what could you offer to parents who will listen to and watch this interview about tips and strategies in their own homes, let’s say for people who may not have your book yet, who perhaps have neglected some of the things you describe in terms of even, you know, role modeling manners on a regular basis. What can you offer parents in terms of support and tips?
Well, one of the things that I think is so important in any type of parenting is that it’s never too late. It’s never too late to start creating the environment in your home that you would like to have. And even you know, my example with the kids manners, where I really did think I was teaching good things. And apparently, I missed out on a lot of things with my youngest that I should have been teaching, and to be able to just laugh with each other. And to be able to say, Wow, I can’t believe I never taught you that. It doesn’t always have to be so serious. So being able to bring things up and joke around and I love being able to say, You know what, I’m not great at that manner. I wrote this book and there are manners when I flipped to them. I’m reminded that I am not doing that very well. I love being able to call my kids out when I see them doing one of the manners really well, it’s really fun to have a lot of positive encouragement. It’s also fun to be able to say, Have you ever seen this when that wasn’t working, or when it didn’t work well, being able to get their input, so that it doesn’t feel like oh, it’s a manners lesson. But it’s just a way for the whole family to get together and figure out how to be a little kinder, a little more aware. And because of that a little bit more successful. In my kids book, I added a family challenge just so it didn’t feel like it was parents lecturing and telling their kids what they had to do. But the whole family, you know, gets together, there’s one that talks about not saying unkind thoughts. And the challenge is, this week, when you think of something unkind to say this to someone, say something kind instead. And that is a great exercise for the whole family, and they can do it in the home. So it’s never too late to start creating the family you want. So you don’t have to have ridiculously lofty expectations that because of these books, your children will never do anything that is a miss manner. And then to just have fun with it, have fun with it, learn together, and then really notice when good things are happening.
Is there a specific place in the house that you recommend this book reside? Brooke?
If your family likes to converse and connect over the book, I love it at the dinner table. So often we’re sitting together and we’re asking the same questions. How was school? What did you do? Do you have homework, and this can just kind of elevate the conversation give you something new to talk about, I love that dinner table. For families who maybe aren’t going to use it as a discussion piece on a breakfast bar is great. I know a lot of families who have it in the bathroom because it’s where their kids are standing and looking in the mirror and they’re going to see that especially, they’ll be sure to see that every day. Others had them in their kids rooms and let their kids just kind of do it on their own for kids who like to be a little more autonomous or independent. And they’re seeing really great things. A lot of a lot of parents say, I thought I would be the one that was flipping the pages. But somehow the pages get flipped more often than I thought we would flip them because my kids are curious about what’s kind of what comes next. And they’re seeing the good things that happen when they practice the matters.
Brooke Romney, writer, educator, author of 52 Modern Manners for today’s teens. Thank you so much for sharing your time with us today.
Thank you so much. It’s been a great conversation.
When asked what inspired the book (and its sequel and prequel), Romney says she had observed groups of teens with varying levels of social-emotional intelligence. Those who were socially aware tended to take a “positive trajectory” in life. “People liked them, they were included, adults leaned on them and used them as positive examples. I watched as their lives became very successful. The teens who lacked those skills “became less connected,” with fewer opportunities, and because of that, “their self-esteem was lower. And then they put themselves in situations that weren’t ideal.”
Manners may seem like an archaic concept, but Romney presents a compelling argument for their relevance today. These are proven themes that create success in teens’ lives—and teens really do want to know how to be successful. Having manners creates positive experiences for kids because adults will like them more and be keen to invest in and interact with them. Polite teens get invited back. Manners also build teens’ confidence, giving them the tools to navigate new situations. Manners open doors and build valuable connections.
The book is designed to give families “common language”—phrases that summarize each manner in a way that can be repeated and remembered. Some examples include: Be a good passenger. Acknowledge adults. Find new friends. Be a good guest. Open doors. Give your attention. Work honestly. Know how your meat is cooked. Don’t smell!
“Our teens need as many personal positive interactions as possible,” Romney tells Castelino, especially in light of the pandemic.
She describes the many interactions she witnessed her own parents having and what she learned in the process, growing up in a pre-Internet world, and realizes that even though the world has changed, teens still need those lessons today. “If they’re not going to observe, [then] it’s really important that we teach it deliberately.”
At a time when parents may struggle to communicate with teens, this book can help them to get ahead of any problems so they’re not playing catch-up.
It’s a tool that can be left out for a teen to discover on their own or to shape stimulating discussion at the dinner table. Romney says it is also useful for neurodiverse kids, who can benefit from clear dos and don’ts when it comes to social interactions.
In a culture that so often prioritizes individuality, Romney maintains that a “you do you” attitude does not serve teens: “It is so much better to be aware, to be kind, to have social intelligence, to work on making connections, to be someone who’s trustworthy… As they put these things into practice, they’re going to find that, especially in the world we live in, they are going to rise so quickly—because there will be something so different about them than others.”