From the BabyCenter folks (you know, the ones who send you emails every week or so with updates on how your child should be developing) comes a new survey about today’s parents and their attitudes toward manners. Apparently, manners are back (though in some houses, naturally, they never really left). The BabyCenter poll released this week shows today’s parents focusing on teaching their kids proper behavior for a variety of reasons; the top three are “to gives kids a moral compass” (64%), as a reaction against seeing “badly behaved kids” (58%), and to give kids a leg up in a “competitive” world (43%).
Manners are a way for people to show kindness and respect on in small ways, and just make the world feel nicer, if they really connect with something underneath — but manners that are simply a series of rules and rituals with no underlying positive messages strike me as at best pointless, at worst kind of hypocritical. Which is why some of the BabyCenter responses rubbed me the wrong way. For instance, when 40% of parents say they want their kids to “treat adults with respect” but only 19% feel its important that their offspring “treat other children with respect,” I have to scratch my head. What manners rulebook are they reading that says grownups are more valuable, more worthy of good treatment, than children? And if they really believe that, what does it say about how they’re raising their own kids?
I grew up in a family that allowed kids to call (most) adults by their first names (a no-no for 40% of the BabyCenter poll respondants); really, though, the rule was that we were to call people what they wanted to be called — for many if not most adults in our circle, that was a first name, but if someone was introduced as Ms. Smith or Professor Brown, that was the name we used until told otherwise. Flexibility, on this and other aspects of social behavior, seem much more useful to me than a strict set of rules.
That’s why, for my kids anyway, I’ve tried to teach manners from the inside out — I don’t prompt them to say “please” and “thank you,” but they see me saying it every day, to family members as well as strangers, and that has seemed to work. As for more complex etiquette questions, we focus on the content (that place where empathy and a sense of fairness overlap) rather than the form. I’ve spent enough time in the South, where a hotel clerk will “yes ma’am” you to death while completly ignoring your requests or concerns, to have much patience with empty, sugar-coated manners. (And when my younger brother was slapped across the face for refusing to call a teacher “Sir,” I’m not sure what that really taught him — other than to get out of South Carolina!) I don’t want to raise kids who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk, you know?
What manners issues are non-negotiable in your house, and how do you enforce them? Or do you take a gentler approach, and hope your kids will imitate the behavior you model? And what do you ask your children to call the adults in their lives?
Photo: Nina Leen for Life Magazine, 1959
More by this author: