Call me old-fashioned, if you like, but I still believe in them. I’m a normal modern mother in most other ways. I believe in disposable nappies, nursery education, vaccination and fluoride supplements. But I do seem to be out of step on one important subject — manners.
Many parents today are prepared to teach their children how to do advanced maths on a computer, how to play a musical instrument by the Japanese method and how to spell difficult words in magnetic letters on the fridge. Teaching manners, though, is not on the current syllabus. In fact, manners seem to have gone out with other traditional cultural practices like prophylactic Vick chest rubs in winter and the Friday night dose of California Syrup of Figs.
Your children didn’t ask to be born and ought not
to spend their lives being grateful
Now, when I say ‘manners’, I don’t mean curtsying to Grandma or calling your father ‘Sir’, I mean plain ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ with perhaps a smattering of ‘may I’.
The prevalent theory seems to be that ‘honest’ is more important than ‘polite’, because to be polite means, by definition, to be insincere. A baby wants milk, so cries for it; a toddler wants an apple, so points and says ‘give me it’. If you want something, then, you say so without wrapping it up in a hypocritical request: ‘I wonder if you’d be so good as to pass me that apple, please…’
I’ve met progressive parents from America who firmly believe in a manners-free (like meat-free or lead-free) life. The same philosophy seems to be catching on over here, too — namely, that your children didn’t ask to be born and ought not to spend their lives being grateful for this unrequested gift. You owe it to them to provide the things they need, and therefore it is wrong to make them beg for food. ‘Please, Mom, may I have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?’ would be thought eccentric only because of the word ‘please’. ‘Gimme the cookie jar’ is quite acceptable.
Wouldn’t it have been better to ask?
The natural extension of this no-thanks policy is that the child stops asking — politely or otherwise — and helps herself to whatever she likes. I found a young visitor browsing through my fridge for refreshments. Wouldn’t it have been better to ask?’ I ventured. ‘No nee« she replied, ‘I know where everything is.’
Then there’s the business of table manners. Here again, I feel like the last dinosaur on earth. I’m not talking about passing the port to the left or insisting on sung grace before meals, or even prohibiting elbows from the table, but waiting till everyone has been served and making sure that your neighbour on each side has been offered everything before you dive in. I think it teaches young children to be a bit patient, a bit thoughtful, and it gives a few minutes for hot food to cool down. Besides, it ensures that the person who’s serving actually gets a couple of mouthfuls in before the early starters are holding out their dishes for seconds.
The argument that’s often put to me is that if you have to keep reminding your children (and you do): ‘Here’s your biscuit, Bobby, what do you say?’ or ‘What’s the magic word when you want a drink of water, Wendy?’ then it’s just automatic, not from the heart.
Certainly, it’s true that when mine slide from their kitchen stools, the littlest one saying ‘Thank-you-for-the-ruverry-runch-Mum-may-I-get-down’, the whole phrase is finished before their feet hit the ground. It is automatic. But what’s wrong with a bit of automatic gratitude? As a mother, it makes me feel better when I’ve been thanked for a meal I’ve. I don’t mind where it comes from.
I also know that when they are spontaneously grateful, instead of automatically grateful, one of them may well turn back at the kitchen door and say: `Thanks Mum, that was a really ruverry runch.’
They get offended when some precocious pipsqueak
addresses them by their Christian name
Some kinds of manners are worth teaching for other people’s sakes. Like calling folk of your grandparents’ generation ‘Mr’ and `Mrs’ Whatever. It’s not fashionable but they get offended when some precocious pipsqueak addresses them by their Christian name.
Persuading your youngsters to stand up for grown-ups in crowded buses and trains also seems reasonable — after all, the adults have paid full fare. Finally, they should learn not to make ‘personal remarks’, as my Gran called them. Even if the boil on that man’s neck does resemble a squashy strawberry, it would probably hurt his feelings to hear that it had been noticed.
So, some manners are for other people, and some are for the children’s own benefit. If you put it to them thus, they can see the sense of it at once. How much more likely you are to be offered a second iced fancy if you’ve responded to the last one with: Thank you, Granny, your cakes are brill’. How much more probable that your visiting Godfather will remember your birthday again, if he’s told that this box of Lego is just what you’ve always wanted. Children can suss out self-interest straightaway.
‘Burying things when they’re dead’
My feeling is that you owe it to your children to send them out into the world with a reasonable set of manners, as you would send them out with a clean vest and a pair of matched socks. It makes them acceptable, likable — socialised. I’d rather invite a please-and-thank-you-er than a wordless snatcher, taker-for-granted or fridge-pilferer.
I suppose the trouble is that the manners I’m advocating were invented a while ago, for a different world. We need to rethink a pattern of politeness for today. Just ask any group of kids what they would consider good manners, and you’ll be surprised. ‘Burying things when they’re dead,’ was one lad’s reply. ‘Sharing your sticker swaps with your sister.’ ‘Not burping after you’ve drunk Coke.’
Perhaps our children will work out their own ways to be civil to one another, a reworked set of values and a wholly new code of behaviour for those not to the manners born.