Friday, October 29, 2010


I have been thinking a lot about manners recently. Going beyond the simple "please" and "thank you", and the art of eating with silverware instead of your hands is really rather rare these days, it seems to me.

Manners used to be taught in schools as part of a well-rounded curriculum. Sometime in the 1970's or 1980's, manners ceased to be important enough to address as a subject of education in the classroom (and indeed, in some cases, were scorned as old-fashioned) and were relegated to the ranks of "things we learn at home". At the same time, parents, who had always been responsible for instilling and developing social skill training were being told to let their children be "free to be who and what they wanted to be". In addition, many families were coming apart at the seams and families who previously had a parent at home to administrate and supervise the children gave way to a culture of "latch-key kids" and unsupervised teenagers. There was no way to transmit the culture of "mannerly behavior" that sustains our restraint and charity (or kindness toward others) as a society, because there was no one around to teach or enforce it. And now, those kids are the parents of today.

Today we have two problems in society that are, I believe, directly related to this lack of social training or "manners". The rise in bullying (and its cousin: violent crime) and the rise in violent political debate correspond with shocking clarity to the decline in the importance of manners in our schools and homes. Why?

There are a couple of reasons. Manners are a set of rules that give a person something to fall back on in unfamiliar situations. It's a framework of what to say and do (or what not to say and not to do). But, it is like using a tool in an emergency. When your car has a flat, if you have never tried to use that lug wrench or jack when it is not raining and dark, it's going to be really hard to use for the first time it when it is. Practicing manners, then, is a way to use a set of tools that will stand you in good stead when the unexpected happens.

For example, if you are at a dinner party where you know only your host, you have a set of rules governing what you talk about with your fellow partygoers and how to go about it so you don't offend anyone. That seems pretty esoteric, but imagine that you are the new kid at school and all the same rules apply (to everyone). Suddenly, you have a structure for how to act and what to say (and so do they), that, if enforced, could save you embarrassment and a lot of grief.

The second reason that manners are important, is that they give you a sense that you are not the most important thing in the room. It demands respect for your fellow man. From a Christian perspective, each person is created in the image and likeness of God and that is enough to keep us from harming another in body mind or spirit, but in the world of secular society, we had to legislate it. Hence, manners. And, if followed as the societal norm, the type of respect that comes from adhering to manners could save kids' lives. Heck, it could save your life.

"But what about my right to say what's on my mind?" You wouldn't believe how often I hear this from kids who are caught saying something inappropriate to a peer, or worse, an adult. Each of us has the right to Free Speech in this country. I realize that this is a hotly contested freedom right now. Where does that right end? 

When I was very young, my mother told me that I had my rights as long as they did not interfere with another person's rights. That means, that as long as I allow another equal time and do not personally attack (physically or verbally) another person, I am within my rights to speak my mind as regards my political values and ideals. And they are within their rights to speak theirs. So, why do we have all of this politically based violence? I can only assume it is a complete lack of manners. There is no way that a gentleman or lady would ever lay hands on another person if he or she disagreed with that person.

So it seems to me that these are pretty basic rules to teach and enforce:

  1. Keep your hands to yourself.
  2. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
  3. If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.
  4. Do not whisper in a public setting. Anything you need to say to your neighbor can wait until you are alone.
  5. Do not interrupt people when they are speaking. Your turn will be next.
  6. Never talk about religion or politics at a dinner party (or in the lunchroom).
  7. Do not address private matters in public. (I do not want to know what goes on in your bedroom. Did you want to know what goes on in mine? I didn't think so.)

If these seem simplistic let me share a story. I had a couple of children in my choir that were bullying another child. They weren't using their fists. They were using their tongues. They were teasing this young man because he was overweight and it was getting to be a weekly occurrence to find this young man in the car crying. This kid was a "tough guy", but he'd never lay his hands on a girl and he wasn't witty enough to take them in a battle of wits. It was very frustrating and hurtful.

Finally, I asked my husband to address the problem with the girls' mother and the girls themselves. He asked them if they knew the "Golden Rule". They replied that they did not. He taught it to them, had them explain what they thought that meant, and then explained that they needed to abide by it whenever they came to practice. Pretty basic manners, right? Yet, the mother was furious, saying that he had humiliated her children and sent their father to me to complain. He told me, "We just don't do things like that anymore." I responded, "Maybe we should." Let me further explain that these girls were not young hoodlums, they were middle-class suburban dwelling girls. They definitely, in my opinion, should have known better.

I know that I am certainly guilty of treating people with a lack of respect when they displease me. I have gotten very sloppy with my manners in the past few years and I did not enforce them adequately with my children. But I intend to redouble my efforts.

What about you?

Just a little plug for one of my favorite children's manners books: "Miss Manners' Guide to Rearing Perfect Children". Not only is it hilarious (and, therefore, a good read,) it's invaluable information for every age your child will pass through all the way through college. Let me also say that when we follow Miss Manners' advice things really do run more smoothly around here.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, it's very much a shame many don't see the value of the golden rule.

    When I was in grade school bullies were dealt with swiftly. A good punch in the nose got the point across. I don't remember to many bullies, until the schools started a zero tolerance for fighting. This made it impossible to defend yourself without getting into trouble. That seemed to be the opening to allow the bullies to pick on others with no consequences.
    Trying to delegate politeness doesn't work. Some people just don't get it and need a swift kick to the rear or a sock in the nose.