"Your kids are so well-behaved. You've done an amazing job with them."
During last summer’s trip around the Santa Fe area we heard this no less than twelve times. No exaggeration on my part. Now, this is not to brag. We appreciate the sentiment. But after the sixth or seventh time of hearing something along those lines, I began to feel saddened by the comment. For it was not as much a commentary on our children or parenting as much as it was on the collective state of other children’s manners.
Permit me to back up for a minute. Way back.
I grew up in Southeast Texas. You addressed everyone as "ma'am" or "sir". This was not some sort of surrender to subjugation or show of reverence. Very simply, it was just good manners and polite. Now, I can recall on one finger the number of times I recall my mother being complimented on my manners. This is not because my sister and I were inconsistent. It's because this is how pretty much every kid around us acted - regardless of social status or ethnicity.
Sure I had my problems. Some of my friends were royal toots, some painfully spoiled, and some shared mini-adventures that left me lucky to be alive (think Goonies in SE Texas without pirates). But we all minded our Ps and Qs in front of our elders - so basically anyone over the age of 18 was a recipient of some Southern charm.
I'd like to enforce that we were a middle-class family. My parents worked hard, we had long days in daycare, then the latch key days (for which I'll always be grateful), and we were miles away from any interaction with those upper-middle class types. I'm not even sure they existed in Southeast Texas in the early 80's. Nonetheless, we were Texan. We sweated in the humidity, knew how to drive in the horizontal rains, and thumbed our noses at improperly baiting a fishing hook. Those were our sources of pride. The manners thing was just an expected 'given' in day-to-day life.
Flash forward to my Junior/Senior years of high school while taking a couple trips out of the Lone Star State for college stuff. In a matter of days I could count on one hand the number of times someone said something along the lines of "Ma'am? Oh, don't call me that. You make me feel old! I'm not old enough to be a ma'am” or “Mr. Jones? Please call me Bill. My dad is Mr. Jones”.
I'd nod in slight embarrassment, but my internal monologue was something along the lines of "What did I just do? I didn’t mean you were old. I was just being courteous. What has my family done to me?!?"
It became painfully obvious that my upbringing was not America's upbringing. Sure it was a part of the upbringing for my high school buddy who moved down from Cleveland in 8th grade. Or my wife who was born in Bakersfield, CA and grew up in the center of Los Angeles back when the streets were navigable. So it's misleading to call my manners a strict result of my Southern upbringing. Which leads me back to present day.
My son looks adults in the eye when speaking to them. When they ask how he is, he returns the inquiry. And he has come to mean it. He actually listens. It sparks conversation; it hones his listening skills. My daughter, a tougher nut to crack in this regard, finally made the simple courtesies a habit. And she, like her brother, began to understand that you’re treated differently. Treat someone with respect, and 9 times out of 10 they’ll do the same.
We’re not without our challenges. Under our roof it can be a herculean effort to get either of our children to display consistent initiative with something as simple as making their bed or wiping toothpaste out of the sink. But outside of these walls, they know there is little room for error. Perhaps it’s because they are impacting others, not just themselves.
So many parents snowplow the road for the children. Or they raise them without any restrictions, firmly believing that childhood is meant to be a constant form of free expression no matter which restaurant, pew, or public space they’re in. Or they glue a tablet computer or cell phone to their tiny hands at a tiny age — and there it stays. Regardless of those choices (which I’m sure I’ll write about another time), there are a few simple things that will help keep this crazy world a bit more civil. As adults, they’ll look back in gratitude for having been made to implement those simple things. Use manners, hold doors open, say ‘thank you’ a lot, acknowledge others, and, most importantly, be kind. After all, we’re all in this together.