Manners: The Good, The Bad, and The Crime of Indifference

At 3 years old, Kostyn is practicing a lot these days. He’s learning how to use the potty and how to sound out words to read them. He’s practicing how to scale the local playground’s rock wall, and how to pronounce the “L” in “ladybug.”

But more than anything else at the moment, he’s practicing his manners.

We used sign language as a communication tool with both our boys, so before they could speak they were signing “please” and “thank you.” Essentially those were among Kostyn’s very first words, and he used them gleefully and proudly every chance he got. Somewhere along the line, though, the “me!” toddler within emerged. Suddenly, “Can I have some more milk please?” turned into “Mommy I want more milk!”

So we’ve gone back to the drawing board, so to speak, to reinforce the basics of manners both at the table and out in the world. There’s an awful lot of patiently “ignoring” his demand until he re-formulates it into a pleasant request going on around here.

It can be frustrating for both of us, but in the grand scheme of things I know this is the easy part. It may take some time, but it’s not difficult to train a 3-year-old to say certain words to get what he wants. What’s more difficult -- and far more important -- is teaching that child the reason behind the words. Teaching him about respect and kindness, about The Golden Rule. 
I’ll never forget the first time I was called out for breaking that rule. It’s a memory that haunts me, thankfully, to this day.

I was in fourth grade (many many many years ago) and was a total wallflower who was by the grace of God (I thought) blessed to have found favor with the “cool girls” in my class. They were bubbly and cute and I was so happy that they considered me worthy of sharing their lunch table. I don’t think I added much to the conversation, but I tried my best to blend in.

Another shy girl in our class who hadn’t found favor with the “cool girls” was a short brunette named Wendy. Wendy’s clothes were worn and ill-fitting; her hair was always a mess. When I was in school, kids like Wendy were called “grubs.” It shames me to type that today.

I don’t remember what was said to Wendy, or who said it, the day my fourth-grade teacher called my friends and I out into the hallway. She did not mention Wendy by name, nor did she call out a single one of us for any particular transgression. She merely handed us a dictionary and told us to look up the word “clique.”

“I don’t want any cliques in my classroom,” she said, then left us there in the hall.

I wonder if the other girls remember that incident; it has certainly stayed with me. I came from a good home, a Christian home, with caring parents who taught me right from wrong. For years I assuaged my guilt over that memory by telling myself I was merely a silent partner in the crime. I never actually said anything bad to Wendy, I was just guilty by association.

In time I realized that was perhaps the greatest transgression of all — the crime of silence when someone else is being mistreated, misrepresented or misunderstood. Because having good manners is not just saying “please” and “thank you.” It’s not merely holding a door open, or not snickering too loudly at the joke your friend is making at someone else’s expense.  “Minding your manners” involves learning and using the tools needed to gracefully walk beside a person and offer them, at the very least, your respect. Because that’s what they deserve. That’s what everyone deserves.

I worry about kids today, about how they’re learning The Golden Rule and how the neverending cacophony of technology affects their ability to live by those lessons. I know even I have trouble sometimes setting the right tone in my own emails and text messages, and minding my manners when addressing people on Facebook or Twitter.

I read something tonight about how manners expert Maralee McKey is looking for Manners Mentors, a small army of Christian women who’d like to influence a generation by teaching children manners. I think it’s a lofty goal, and a much-needed one. Perhaps a manners class would have changed the outcome of my story from fourth grade. It certainly would have given Wendy a better chance for a happier childhood.

Isn’t every child worth that?

[Disclaimer: This post was prompted by the opportunity to win a sponsorship to the Relevant Conference, a blogging conference for Christian women bloggers. But every word of it is true.]


Maralee McKee said...

Dear Robyn,

Your post is wonderful! Thank you for your thoughtfulness in writing from your personal experience and for sharing both the value and benefit of demonstrating respect and kindness towards others daily in our words and actions.

Well said!


Dee said...

Awesome, as always, your writing is so gifted...many a tear to my eye...and your boys do have their manners...good job mom!!

Sheila said...

When I was little, my dad would tuck me in at night and he would help me say my prayers. After listing all the people I loved and thanking god for making us healthy, at the end my dad would prod me to say "and most of all, help me be a good girl". It was a catch-all phrase asking god to help me be respectful and polite, to use my manners and to help others. Night after night of saying prayers in this way, I had come to wonder why my dad chose to save that prayer for last. So I asked him why he thought it was the most important thing. My dad simply said "because being a good girl IS the most important thing."

As a soon-to-be stepmom, I realize my prorities are the same. The only thing I wish for my stepdaughters is that they continue to be "good girls". I don't care if they're smart, talented, athletic or motivated. None of that means as much as being respectful human beings. Thanks for the reminder of what we need to prioritize as parents.

Maestra said...

(Sorry for the length. This one hit deep.)

Thank you for this post! It brought on quite a bit of soul searching for me the past few days and a deep examination of the old habits I have slipped so far back into during the past year. Now with Z coming of age I need to redouble my efforts to move toward more conscious parenting in this area. I know this will seem a bit odd to you, Robyn, because I often revert to “old ways” most around family, I guess due to insecurity, but my choice is actually to NOT force manners. So as much as possible, because it does go against deeply ingrained habits, I don’t say, ‘Say “Please’” or “What do you say?” or such. I don’t want the words to become empty habits. I don’t require apologies for the same reason.

I DO want to grow respectful, polite children and use every opportunity to model the appropriate behavior. So instead of, “Say Please” when T was little he heard a lot of, “When we want or need something from someone the polite way to ask is by saying please.” said quite matter-of-factly. Or “When someone does something nice for us the polite thing to do is say Thank You.” Then of course I would model immediately. Now that he is older we have discussions in the car on our way to playdates or such. We talk about what respectful behavior to his friends looks like, any particular requirements for where we are going and politeness in general. I will offer a reminder when I feel appropriate. Last night at a restaurant he wanted a different color crayon and went to the hostess to ask for one. As he left the booth I said, “Please remember to be respectful.” I heard him use all the appropriate words; Excuse me, Please and Thank You, and both he and the hostess were smiling when he returned.

For apologies, I require the offender to care for the situation in some way, but especially in a situation where I know an apology would be bitter or untrue words I do not force it. Instead I state something like, “You did X and you need to try to help fix the problem. You may offer a hug, or a handshake or an apology or help fix whatever was broken (for example). What is your choice?” Again, I did lots of modeling when he was young. Nowadays, on his own he usually chooses a combination which includes a verbal apology.

Shelia, I completely understand your sentiment and especially like the idea of learning to rely on God to help guide us in our choices. One habit I did fully break years before I had children, though, was the use of the terms “Good Boy” and “Bad Girl”. It is not the child but the behavior which is negative. I try to be sure that my message to my children is always that God has made THEM wonderful but with human frailty that sometimes allows for bad choices. I encourage you to search for whatever words will help you convey to your children their innate goodness.