Monday, October 15, 2012

Teaching Manners

Jason and I enjoy new ideas. We like experiments; we're not too afraid of failing. The notion that making mistakes quickly is a good way to a workable solution appeals to us. The upside is we almost always have something to talk about; the downside is we make lots of mistakes. Parenting has offered many avenues for making humbling mistakes.

Before we had children, before I started teaching, I read many books on child development. The theories I happened onto that made a lot of sense to me were more of the "adults must stay out of the way of the natural goodness of children" or "children will do all the things they need to do naturally if we give them the space". Two months into teaching, I was already doubting these theories. Given complete freedom, most of the children in the school where I taught preferred playing and socializing to academic pursuits. Non-violent communication did not beget non-violence among the students who liked to express themselves physically. For the ones who liked talking more than math, the "peace corner" was a perfect place to spend the morning. There seemed no natural leanings toward watching out for less able, younger, or confused peers.

The thing with theories is they sound so good on paper, and you can always find someone who has the experience to back up one theory or another. So, if you're already biased, you're pretty likely to believe the supporting arguments. There is nothing like personal encounters to blow theories out of the water.

Ezra did not sleep when he needed to; it seems his little baby and child self benefited from an adult facilitating sleep- even when he was three and four and twelve. The girls definitely followed a similar pattern. Letting a small Ezra or Phaedra or Sylvie experience the cold due to their inadequate clothing choices proved to be another asinine theory. Each of them might have blue lips and chittering teeth as they claimed they were not cold and, "No, I don't want a jacket, shoes, shirt...."

Admittedly, some things worked. I do not cajole the children to eat; I've never begged them. I have occasionally insisted on one bite. I think I have pretty good eaters with very few table tantrums on the books. Their table manners still need work.

And manners is what this post is supposed to be about.

Along with the idea that they would sleep when they needed to and ask for a coat if they got cold, was the idea that if we modeled good manners they would copy us. I cannot even count how many times I read on the Mothering boards some scathing comment about a mother who made her three-year-old say please, thank you, I'm sorry, excuse me. Why! If that mother only knew how she was scarring her child into hating manners and how much more gently she could do it by simply providing a good example. If everyone would do this there would be peace in the Middle East!

Here I sit with three children who have heard me say please and thank you, hello and good bye, excuse me, welcome!, and so on and not a one of them has developed the habit. I'm surrounded by just those sort of haters who MADE their dear little toddlers mouth these meaningless words and phrases until it became habit- and the fact is their children are much nicer to be around.

All these little habits are more easily impressed on little ones, and for them, they are most likely meaningless. But I'm one person who feels delighted when a visiting child says, "Thank you for having me over." I wish I had seen the foolishness of omitting this bit of direct teaching.

So now, I'm having to teach and explain that these little words are just to make people feel better and they are the oil in the social bearings. I'm having to whisper cues in the ears of children old enough to be embarrassed by promptings. We have to review social niceties before we go into a store or a lesson- things like "make eye contact, say thank you, always yield right of way to pregnant women and elderly people". Maybe these are not the same rules you would enforce; maybe my children will talk to their therapists about the year their mother got manners; maybe no one else actually cares afterall. And still, all I can think is that it's about time.

1 comment:

  1. Maybe this will just lead to the kids being more conscious about when they should be polite and when it's better to be forthright.