Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Manners, please!

The Times has an interesting piece by a pediatrician who posits that manners are a key part of child development and that if they were referred to by a trendy new name ("social skills") more folks would be inclined to insist their tykes behave better.

The piece sent me off on a bit of a manners tangent at the bloglet today, and I found myself sounding off on something that concerns me as a parent: as a group, modern American parents (all adults, actually) tend not to present a united front to children when it comes to what manners we expect from them. Yes, many of us ask our kids to have basic table manners and ask for things with a "please" and a "thank you," but that's a cursory approach to courtesy, and often parental expectation stops right there when it needs to go deeper in my not-so-humble opinion. Yep, from what I can see, we don't all have the same expectations of children, and I'd say few adults really care about what an old teacher of mine once called "the line between familiarity and contempt."

I know it gets old to hear people crab on about bad manners and kids. I know many kids with plenty good manners. Of course. But there are plenty kids with poor manners 'cuz their parents either have poor manners too, or else their parents just don't think all the old-fashioned "frills" really matter anymore and are just that--frills rather than essential components of social interaction. I'm talking about a bigger picture that centers on respect for others, especially one's elders.

I've been criticized for the parent etiquette-related posts I do over at the Cookie bloglet. Sure, I like to be tart in my tone and poke fun at a Bragdaddy or a Multimedia Mommy, but there's a serious issue at stake: our kids. If adults don't know what really matters and are inclined to narcissistic ways of communicating with each other, what are they teaching their tots? And most important to me, what are they teaching mine?

It would be so dang excellent if all parents and teachers had the same basic expectations of kids! The same core code. Here's a wacky example of how it could be useful: As a former teacher for a semester at a private school, I had kids in my classroom who thought it was okay to chew gum in class (or when talking to an adults generally) because the school didn't have an official policy on gum-chewing. Gum-chewing! Like so many other PC moments in our culture, the school I taught at allowed gum-chewing at the teacher's discretion. Seriously. So you end up sending a kid off to a college interview and she arrives armed with swell grades but has a wad of Hubba Bubba in her cheek? Shweesh, man! Yet this is exactly what happens to a kid who has no idea of propriety, and who sees no big diffs between hanging with your buds and conducting yourself in the world at large.

Gum-chewing aside, there are many much more basic concepts of politeness that I wish to hell ALL GROWNUPS WOULD INSIST UPON so that all our kids would go out into the universe poised to be happy and successful adults, good co-workers, and overall thoughtful human beings who can absolutely rock the boat when it counts, but who also understand tact and the subtle arts of diplomacy that make people facile in society. There's nothing snobby or mysterious or overly stern about basic good manners, and it would be so much easier--much less work for all--if we could agree on them and stop sending mixed messages. How bloody magnificent would it be if we presented a uniform manners model to all our kids?

As I discuss in the bloglet post, I feel like there once was such a thing as a understanding among parents-- an "expected" way for kids to act towards parents and grownups in general--which the majority of adults automatically reinforced whenever kiddos didn't toe the line. But nowadays the whole parenting vibe is so diverse and complex, and you can't assume another mom (or teacher) or will agree with you on anything, from diet, to sleep, to conduct.

More's the pity. Anyhoo. I can dare to dream. Here's a rough draft of Manners Wish List (leaving aside obvious table manners and please/thank you stuff):

  • Teachers can't be called by their first names. Ever. Much less school principals.
  • Children should look adults in the eye when greeting them. From Kindergarten up, they should be encouraged to address adults by name when greeting them. (not just "hello/hi")
  • By, say, third grade (when it can stick!), kids should be taught to step aside for adults when entering buildings or walking down stairwells.
  • Children must always thank adults for having them at their homes.
  • As soon as they are old enough to call each other on the phone, children must be taught to introduce themselves if a parent answers, and greet the parent by name (whether first name or Mrs. So-and-So), before asking for their buddy.
If the above (or something like that) were something we all agreed on I bet we'd have a much healthier society and of course people would adore our kids even if they were impish little beasts who got up to all sorts of tricks! Having basic manners doesn't mean you have to be insipid or conforming or that you don't get to rebel against your elders. But kids need something to rebel against, and if your elders don't insist on a line between children and adults, then what the heck is growing up all about?

*p.s. A word about the Mr./Miss/Mrs. thing: Personally, I'm not bothered if kids call me by my first name. Traditions evolve and I don't think we need to force our kids to go into some needlessly old-fashioned mode that nobody around them participates in (I don't live in the South, y'all, so nobody around me does the Miss So-and-So thing). So long as a child is polite to me (as in the above list) I'm happy.*

And you? Are you a stickler for manners with your kid? Do you feel comfortable reprimanding others' kids for not displaying their manners ?


Steph said...

I completely agree. We plan on having our kids refer to our friends as Miss Laura or Mr. Tom or whatever but not just Tom and Laura. I'm not a big fan of calling any adult close friend of the family "auntie". The title aunt is reserved for my sisters. It's hard b/c our friends kids refer to us as "auntie steph" but we will make our kids (when they're old enough to talk) call them Miss or Mr x.

Lina said...

I agree whole heartedly. We've tried to instill the Miss and Mr to adult friends, but it's difficult to make it stick when you're the only one, and your adult freinds aren't bothered by the informality. We've also insist on asking to be excused from the table and giving up seats on buses. Of course so much of it is leading by example, and there I admit to sometimes falling short, but you have to do what you can.

Remember Eddie Haskell on Leave it to Beaver? Proof that kids can have good manners and still be mischeivous as hell. Something to aspire to, I think!

Fall From Grace said...

Oh! the phone! Poor phone manners get me like nothing else. I trained my kids from a very early age to say, "Hello, this is..." when calling a friend's house, and to add 'please' when they ask to speak to their friend. I also made it clear that these were to be two separate sentences in case the person answering wanted to engage them in conversation.

When kids call to speak to my children, more often than not they don't even respond to my 'hello' with one of their own let alone identify themselves - they just ask for whichever child of mine they're calling for. I used to correct them but I've given up. They seem to figure if I recognize their voices, why should they bother to say who they are?!

Only in the last couple of years have I allowed my children to answer our ringing phone, and I've actually had people compliment their manners when I come on the line. That feels good.

Anonymous said...

Well said crabmommy. I completely agree! My children have to sit at the dinner table until everyone has finished(at least seconds...) ask to be excused, look people in the eye when they say hello Mr so & so or Cathy, answer the phone with "Hello may I ask whose calling", calling others "hello may I speak with so & so". It is really hard to enforce when other parents don't follow same rules of etiquette. When we eat at our cousins house for example (8 & 12), they continually are getting up and down, interrupting begging for dessert while my 4 & 5 year old sit with bemused expressions as they wonder why they too can't "get up". It is frustrating but so worth it in the end! Thanks for the topic.

Amanda said...


I don't mind the first-name thing with kids as it feels, I dunno, a little too outdated to try the Mr./Mrs. thing in our society anymore (or at least on the west coast of the USA). I'm not trying to sound pretentious and Victorian in this post. I don't mind if a kid calls me by my first name. But when teachers and principals are all first-name and at-the-same-level with the kids, it tweaks my vibe.

I do know Southerners who still prefer the old-fashioned way--the Miss/Mrs. you speak of (unless the kid knows her friend's mom/dad really really well). That never flies up north, though.

The Boss of You said...

Just to add to your list, I think that children should respect the rules of the home they are visiting and parents should be aware of those. I have only got a two year old so we're not developmentally up to the other stuff, but this one gets everyone started on a good foot. It helps to respect the feelings of other people and to be aware that there isn't the same leniency wherever he or she goes.

I have surrendered to my child's passion for stripping the furniture of cushions to jump on them, but one of her buddies is simply not allowed to do that and I am on her if she ever tries that at his house.

It's a pretty rude parent who doesn't get the lay of the land at someone else's house in order to enforce it with their own child.

Carey said...

I'm not a big fan of kids calling any adults by their first name - but I grew up in the South, so it's to be expected :) I don't think it needs to be as formal as "Mr. Smith", but it will certainly be "Miss Julie" or "Mr. Patrick". I think it just shows respect. Our kids will also be taught "yes/no ma'am" and "yes/no sir" along with the standard "please" and "thank you". Shoot, I still say "yes ma'am" to my elders and I am 35!! LOL

The Boss of You said...

Ha! Carey. I still hold the door for my elders and I am forty.

Anonymous said...

I was a teacher and now an Asst Principal. I call kids out at parent-teacher conferences for not displaying manners towards the teachers in the room and even their parents!

At my school, most kids pass me in the hall and say "Hi/hello Mrs. So-and So." But, it's a small few who follow that up with, "How are doing today?" Those kids rock!

Karen Stead Baigrie said...

Have been raised in an ex British colony by a mother who taught me to speak English as the Queen spoke it, I am truly appreciative to her for that and the manners that came along with those lessons. There have been times in my life when doors have opened because I knew how to command myself amongst older, wiser, more sophisticated company. I love to eat with my hands but if need be I know how to dine in very fine company and I know how to treat someone older and wiser than myself with respect. Are these things bad? I hardly think so and so I will teach my children where, when and how manners are useful, respectful and important.

L. Shepherd said...

I'm Southern and I can't stand to hear kids call adults by their first name. People have created the hybrid where it's "Miss First Name" Instead of "Miss Last Name," but the effect is the same. Society may be more casual now, but adults should still be seen as authority figures who are on a different level from a kid's playground buddies.

kayce hughes said...

Love manners! With 7 children life is a little crazy but we do try and teach manners. As yankies that moved south we make a game out of the "yes ma'am" thing. In the car i will say one of the kids names..they will hopefully say yes ma'am... then i say i love you. They think it is funny and it helps us all to remember our manners.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree about the concept of respect and tell my kids AND other kids off if they get sassy with me. I doubt you'd ever get this generation to agree on what matters in terms of learned behaviors but tone is everything. LOVE the tampon dachshund, by the way. That's what everyone's getting for Xmas next year. Hope we have an office party...

jenny's starting a web business said...

This has to be my favorite blog post ever. Manners are important and kids have to learn them at home.