Teaching Children Manners

BARBARA KAY

There's no mystery to spinning the charming pottery of civilized adults out of the lumpy clay of vexatious children. It's simple.

On the very day their wee ones learn to say "Gimme," parents must introduce them to manners. And once embarked, they are then obliged to exert a maximum of tenacity, consistency and conviction in following through on the project until their children move out of the house. As I say, simple.

Left untutored in the social arts, children remain barbarous, their playrooms red in -- well, not tooth and claw, exactly -- but annoying screams and grabbing fingers. Unlike other words, which children acquire by osmosis for pragmatic ends, verbal tics signifying empathy, humility and self-control, abstract ideas with no obvious utility for toddlers, must be artificially implanted by parents.

Novice parents with lofty ideals of behaviour, but a principled aversion to nagging, quickly discover that simple role modelling does not produce considerate children. Be they ever so polite to the child and each other, parents' behaviour won't trump a child's natural solipsism.

No, it takes sheer repetitions: 50, a hundred times a day if necessary ("And what is the magic word? Hm? Sorry, screaming will not get you this glass of juice. Use your words ... "). Boring, but the only reliable (humane) way.

Parents who resist this tedious chore, vindicating their pedagogical laziness with pious reproaches against mannerliness' artificiality and hypocrisy, or ducking behind liberal shibboleths of "innocence," and "freedom," do their offspring a serious disservice. They have rendered their "authentic" children ("I want a cookie! GET ME A COOKIE!!") unlovable to others, and potentially unlovable to themselves, a handicap with negative implications for their entire lives.

The finer points of etiquette can be acquired in adulthood. But basic manners -- "manners maketh the man" -- must be acquired early to work their sensitizing magic.

And so, because they oil the wheels of children's personal progress through life, and at the same time make them contributing citizens to what's left of the civilized world, teaching children manners produces parents' single greatest return on their investment.

Which are the rudimentary manners even a young child can and must learn? I'd agree with widely consulted education guru James Stenson, who cites four locutions children should assimilate to become worthy pillars of civilized society: "Please," "thank you," "I promise" and "I'm sorry."

When a child internalizes the need to preface requests with a ceremonial "May I please ... " before she gets what she wants, she has acknowledged that the satisfaction of desire is not a given, but always contingent on respectful behaviour toward others. Recognition of one's modest place in the scheme of things: within the family, the community, the universe -- that is to say, the lesson of humility -- will not stunt the growth of a healthy ego. On the contrary, the virtue of humility prevents the overswelling of an unhealthy ego.

"Thank you" inculcates the habit of expressing gratitude for life's blessings, beginning with the small ones of milk and crackers and birthday presents, later for the real gifts. If one has not learned to experience gratitude, one cannot experience joy.

"I promise" is the foundation block for trust, and the sine qua non of a confident society. Children are devastated when promises made to them are broken. Communities are devastated when institutions break their promises. If one's word is not one's bond on a mass scale, the public forum is an alienating space.

Perhaps most important of all, teaching a child to say "I'm sorry" (while knowing he doesn't feel it and may not for a long time to come) is the greatest gift of all. The ability not only to feel, but willingly to articulate remorse is an infallible sign of maturity. Paradoxically, as with humility and gratitude, forcing the articulation of remorse before the child feels it is the necessary precursor to the ability to feel it later on. Admission of remorse and objective self-criticism go hand in hand. And self-criticism, in society as well as in the individual, is the key to moral and cultural evolution.

Manners begin as form and end as essence. They become the desirable second nature that tames and humbles our selfish first nature. Of course manners are artifice, but artifice in the service of a higher civility is no vice. Just as people are free from social anxiety and self-consciousness when they feel appropriately dressed for an occasion -- clothing is artifice too, after all -- people with deeply ingrained manners are society's most socially relaxed and attractive members.

And so, because they oil the wheels of children's personal progress through life, and at the same time make them contributing citizens to what's left of the civilized world, teaching children manners produces parents' single greatest return on their investment.




ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Barbara Kay "'Please, mother, may I have some more peas?'" National Post, (Canada) 6 January, 2009.

Reprinted with permission of the author, Barbara Kay, and the National Post.

THE AUTHOR

Barbara Kay is a Montreal-based writer. She has been a Comment page columnist (Wednesdays) in the National Post since September, 2003. She may be reached here.

Copyright © 2009 National Post




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