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I'm Not Your Friend, I'm Your Parent
Helping Your Children Set the Boundaries They Need ... and Really Want
By E. D. Hill
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2008 E. D. Hill
All rights reserved.
P—T—E: Please, Thank You, and Excuse Me
Bad habits are like a comfortable bed, easy to get into but hard to get out of. —Author Unknown
There was an uproar a few years ago in Chicago. The owner of A Taste of Heaven Café posted the following sign:
Children of all ages have to behave and use their indoor voices.
I wouldn't think anyone needs a sign to state the obvious, but in this age of permissive parenting, they do. Offended mothers mounted a boycott! They were shocked that anyone would dare insinuate that their children didn't have every right to climb onto the counter and start waving saltshakers over their heads. Their contention? Perhaps it's a display of their individuality through creative dance and, besides, it makes little Taylor happy.
People make a big deal out of the lack of manners in children today, but have you taken a look at the behavior of many of the adults around them? A recent survey by the Public Agenda indicated that 79 percent of Americans feel lack of respect and courtesy is a serious national problem. An ABC News poll in 1999 showed 73 percent of Americans thought manners had declined in the past twenty to thirty years. And who do people blame? Parents.
Too often we expect others to do as we say and not as we do. Dinner service in a crowded restaurant is slow, and you snap at the waiter. You're running out the door when the phone rings; so you grab it and say, "What do you want? I'm busy." Do you treat friends and strangers with equal consideration? Even if your manners are generally good, everyone slips from time to time, but that, too, offers parents the chance to highlight their own mistakes in front of their children, own up to them, and say how they will change their behavior in the future. If we model good manners, our children will be quick studies although some people question whether parents are even capable of handling this responsibility anymore.
RIGHTS IN FLIGHT?
If you've flown in a plane recently, you've probably experienced the persistent nudge of little feet as the child in back of you kicks your seat. When we get on a plane with our horde, we always try to put our potential seat kickers directly behind someone in our own family. If that isn't possible, we ask the person sitting in front of our little one to please let us know if there is any seat kicking or anything else that bothers him. I don't like someone else's child kicking my seat, and I'm sure no other passenger likes it either. But I'm sure you've seen the parents who think it's their children's right to kick anything they want, throw food, and jump up and down. Their feeling is that, since they purchased the tickets, their kids can do whatever pleases them. Any flight attendant can tell you horror stories.
Our children haven't always been angels, but when they err, we immediately point it out and have them correct their behavior. At times we have made them apologize to the people that might have been bothered by their behavior. Because of that, there are numerous times on airplanes and in restaurants where employees will actually thank us for having such well-behaved children. I always think that highlights the plight of manners in our society. I constantly have to correct their manners, and the thought that they are better than most is pretty scary.
While punishing bad behavior is necessary, there should also be a focus on acknowledging good behavior. One waitress came to our table and in front of our children detailed the bad behavior and poor manners of children who had been at a nearby table. She then thanked our children for behaving so well. I think it really made an impact on them to hear it from someone else. They realized that good manners do matter to more people than just their parents. (And what do parents know anyway?)
Manners expert Emily Post says, "Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use." That's right. Manners aren't only about which fork you use for fish. They are the rules of behavior that keep societies civil. Some people make the mistake of thinking manners are used only by a certain set of people—rich, worldly, full of self-importance. That misses the point of manners entirely. What constitutes good manners varies slightly from one era to the next, but the basic thrust remains the same—to show respect and consideration to the other human beings with whom you share the planet.
A GROWING PROBLEM
Think of throwing a birthday party. You invite the entire fifth-grade class. You want to wait to eat the cake until after the presents are opened, but one kid can't wait. And he's hungry. While everyone else is watching the present opening, he messily cuts a large section of cake and eats it. The remnants don't look too appetizing, and the other kids get angry. At the next party, someone else who doesn't want to miss out on cake decides to quickly dig in before others get to it. Pretty soon everyone is out for himself, no one is getting along, and they all are wondering what changed. Bad behavior begets more bad behavior.
"Manners are of more importance than laws. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in," said Edmund Burke. And how right he is.
If you've gotten into the manners-teaching game late, you know that once children develop bad manners, it's very difficult for them to change. There's no doubt about it, it's easier not to have any manners at all. You do what you want without regard for whether you are impacting others. You say whatever you want to without any consideration for the feelings of those around you. You eat with your fingers, wipe greasy hands on your pants, and do whatever pleases you without thought to your actions and their impact on others.
According to the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the absence of manners is a growing problem. In a "Good Manners" report to parents, the Association tries to teach adults how to improve their children's social behavior, including these:
1. Stress the importance of treating others the same way you like to be treated.
2. Help your children understand the harm caused by thoughtless, unkind words and actions.
3. Role-play difficult situations to demonstrate how your child should respond. (I think this one sounds nice but would fail the reality test. I don't know a child who doesn't think role-playing with his parents is one of the worst forms of torture.)
4. Establish a list of basic good manners.
5. Teach your children how important it is to think of others, and take time to express gratitude by doing things such as writing thank-you notes.
Manners seem silly to young children and even many teenagers, which may be why permissive parents, who are desperate to keep their kids happy and carefree, don't insist that their children either learn and/or display civilized behavior. That has created a problem so big that the state government of Montana actually publishes a how-to guide instructing teens how to behave when they apply for a job. Clearly kids weren't learning manners at home, and that was impacting their job-hunting success. So the state posted "Pathways to Work for Young Adults" on the Internet to instruct young job applicants how to create a good impression. A few suggestions included were these:
1. Be courteous to the secretary.
2. Control giggling.
3. Make eye contact.
It's shocking to me that even these basics must be so infrequently used that it became necessary for a state government to address them. It's not just Montana though. I'm sure every state could benefit by following their example. Manners are not inborn. If you want your children to have manners, you must teach them manners yourself.
Children will not learn manners if their role models (that's primarily parents) don't exhibit them, or they use good manners only on special occasions. As Lillian Eichler Watson said, "Don't reserve your best behavior for special occasions. You can't have two sets of manners, two social codes—one for those you admire and want to impress, another for those whom you consider unimportant. You must be the same to all people."
Further, if you don't expect your children to display civility, they won't. One of my sons, J. D., has manners better than most businessmen, but when he pulls my chair out or opens my car door, one of our other boys teases him about "sucking up." I ignore that child and simply express my appreciation to J. D. I know the other son is watching, and while he may wish J. D. weren't "raising the bar," so to speak, at some point he will be won over by the positive comments he hears from everyone about J. D.'s politeness. My children have been taught good manners, and I expect the kids to use them.
My dad was the consummate gentleman, and I guess it made an impact on me. I expect people to display good manners, both men and women. Growing up in Texas, I remember the looks a boy would get if he wore a baseball cap indoors. His mother would almost immediately tell him to take it off until he did it automatically.
I worked as a check-out person at the Tom Thumb grocery store for a summer, and every person (except the man who was furious when I mistakenly put in the code for grapes when I was weighing his watermelon, resulting in my ringing up a twenty-five-dollar watermelon) would say thank you when I handed them their change. People would begin requests with the word please. Considerate, polite language and good manners were instinctive, and that really is what we should strive to display.
Dame Edith Evans once said, "When a woman behaves like a man, why doesn't she behave like a nice man?" And that brings up the whole women's lib movement, which was before my time. I've certainly benefited from the equal opportunities that it brought; however, somewhere along the way a gentleman's display of manners became viewed as sexist, instead of a considerate human behavior. While I'm fully capable of opening a door for myself, I like a man opening the door or standing up and offering me his seat.
I recall when I was eight months pregnant with my first child and taking the subway to my graduate school class. The car was full, and not one man offered to give me his seat as the old subway car creaked and heaved from side to side as we barreled under the Charles River. At one point my belly, which was so large it was reminiscent of one of those exercise balls used in yoga classes, was prominently displayed two inches from one man's face. He still didn't budge. He was close enough to risk being hit by one of the frequent, random baby kicks. If anyone ever offered me a seat, it was usually another woman who knew what I was going through.
Even as a boy, George Washington recognized the significance of civility. Before the age of sixteen, he transcribed a document called Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. While certain parts need to be left to history, such as children not speaking unless spoken to, the vast majority of the rules withstand the test of time. One of the most basic rules is that everything you do in front of someone should be done in a way that is respectful of that individual.
RESPECT IN ANY LANGUAGE
Knowing what is and is not respectful has become a bit more difficult. That does not excuse ignorance. It simply means you need to learn more and pass it on to your children. The reality of the new America is that it doesn't look the way it used to. The immigrants don't necessarily come from countries or cultures that have customs with which we are familiar. What is common to us may be inconsiderate to them. Displaying manners means you are respectful of others. One of our local school districts sent home a list of the native languages represented in the student body. There were almost one hundred different primary languages spoken in the students' homes. Since their first language isn't English, chances are that some of the basic rules of etiquette are different, too, and it helps to educate yourself and your children about them.
My family members are huggers. We greet people with big hugs and pats on the back. However, that is offensive to some people, and good manners dictate that you try your best to not put other people in uncomfortable situations. In Muslim households, for instance, good manners and cultural sensitivity dictates that you leave your shoes outside.
The no-shoe rule holds true in traditional Japanese homes too. Mealtime is also different from American households. The "help yourself" way of doing things is highly discouraged. You wait for others to ask if you need something. You pour the drink for your companion, and vice versa, instead of pouring it for yourself.
Here's something the kids loved—and, in fact, they think it should become an American tradition—slurping. When we travel with the kids, we love basically getting lost in a town. We look for out-of-the-way places to see, stay, and eat. At a very basic noodle house in Japan, the kids were shocked when everyone around them at lunchtime began to very noisily slurp their soup. It explained a confusion I'd had since childhood when one of my mother's friends, who was Japanese, would make noise while at our house for dinner. Since I don't speak Japanese, I wasn't able to ask people in the restaurant why they did it, but it is common.
As anyone who knows me is aware, I certainly don't advocate changing America to suit the people who come here, but at the same time, whether interacting with someone who is just like you or someone who is different from you, it is a simple courtesy to avoid behavior that will obviously offend.
INTRODUCING GOOD HABITS
I'm not sure what magical spell comes over several of our kids when they are introduced to someone. Normally chatty kids go silent. While they are usually ready to share what's on their minds at the drop of a hat, all of a sudden they have monosyllabic answers.
The habit was cringingly apparent when I took one of the kids on a school interview. We were waiting in the foyer of the admissions office, and naturally, when the man walked in, I stood up to introduce myself and shake hands. I assumed my son was in lock step. Nope. His bottom was glued to the seat, and he had that slump that teens have perfected. With a smile on my face, I quickly turned toward my son and gave him the teeth-showing, clenched-jaw signal. It's the same face I've seen on the handlers at the Westminster Dog Show when their prized pooch breaks rank and begins adoringly sniffing another dog just as the judge steps up to them.
Finally, my child pulled all his limbs together as if that were a chore and stood with a limp hand extended, eyes gazing somewhere between us and the clock, which I'm sure he hoped would speed ahead quickly. What had happened to the firm hand that can guide a football thirty yards with the power of a missile? Where was the confident young man I knew? I was aghast and felt the much-sought-after admissions spot at the school slipping away.
For the next few weeks I began introducing him to everyone we saw and making him shake hands and say hello. He realized the only way I was going to stop was if he started doing it properly. He still slips, but it's better than before.
Another one of our boys, who generally is much quieter, turns into the exact opposite personality when introduced to people. When a person enters the room, he springs to action. Big smile, solid handshake, good eye contact. Good boy. Sit. Seriously, he could be onstage. He acts perfectly.
What causes the difference between the two? We'd sent both to the weekly manners and dancing class over at the community house during the school year. The fox trot proved a formidable foe, and they both gave up that fight. The manners, we thought, were the easy part. Get out of your seat, introduce yourself, and seat any girl near you before sitting down yourself. After a great deal of discussion with the boys, we think we've hit on the difference. At one of the boys' schools, there was an employee, Mr. Cosby, who would stand at the entrance each morning and greet the children with a handshake and a hello. It became routine and normal. Collin says he just does it automatically now because he's so used to it. That ability to confidently and respectfully introduce himself and greet someone will stand him in good stead as he becomes a young adult.
Excerpted from I'm Not Your Friend, I'm Your Parent by E. D. Hill. Copyright © 2008 E. D. Hill. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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