Good Manners and Mixed Messages

alpinist rope I do not work with young children but being a parent of two young girls has caused me to become more interested and active in researching different aspects of development during this time frame. I found that I have some real disagreements when it comes to how the larger culture expects young children to act and the assumptions that drive the thinking behind these expectations. I recently came across this article, which appears to be a re-post of an article written for Parents Magazine a year earlier, on manners. There were a few items on the list of manners in the article that caught my eye.

Do not interrupt grown-ups who are speaking with each other unless there is an emergency. They will notice you and respond when they are finished talking.

Never use foul language in front of adults. Grown-ups already know all those words, and they find them boring and unpleasant.

When an adult asks you for a favor, do it without grumbling and with a smile.

emphasis added by me

The last one almost made me spit iced tea out of my mouth and onto my screen.

One thing that my work with trauma survivors has taught me is that programming kids to automatically respect people because they are older can open up some bad doors.  Automatic respect based on some arbitrary value like age leaves folks open to being more vulnerable.  Teaching young children who are still not fully aware of “how the world works” to live according to this idea pushes their thinking about relationships away from reason, reciprocity and evidence to values that may not only be irrelevant to context but even dangerous.

Manners are rules of engagement that are expected to be followed in social situations. In order for them to have any meaning or value, everyone in the game needs to play fair.  Being that there is no “enforcer”, this expectation is built on nothing more than blind faith.  As adults I know we all understand this but young children don’t think that way.

Which brings me to my next point about manners; they set up expectations on how other people will behave. Young children have not yet developed the capacity to understand the whole idea behind “trust but verify”.  When you tell them this is how people should act, they assume that this is how people will act which can create confusion when the expectation falls through.

This is not to say that the items on the list are always bad or always wrong; in fact I have probably talked to my kids about most of what is on there.  I think the problem is more about having a list of “to-do’s” with regard to social relationships that are expected to be followed without consideration of context or relationship.

So I decided to come up with a different list.  These aren’t a list of manners; it’s more about how I handle my parenting when it comes to social expectations and relationships.

I don’t compel my children to refer to adults as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” .

I know the argument. Using “Mr.” and “Mrs.” teaches kids to respect their elders but, what are you teaching your child when you compel them to demonstrate a higher level of respect to someone who hasn’t yet earned it in any meaningful way?  My kids refer to adults, other than their family members, by first name.  We explain that the titles they call family members have more to do with roles they play in the family – whether they grow to respect, trust and love their family members will be a product of the relationships they have with each of them.  Our kids go to private schools and so we are clear that referring to their teacher as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” is a rule that the school has – it is a sign of authority but that authority has limits and it is accountable to a higher authority, namely their mother and I.

I don’t compel my children to disclose to adults or show affection to them if they do not want to.

The relationships my children have with their extended family are probably no different than what you would see in other  families. It is clear, however, that they are more open and trusting of those who have been more present for them than those that have not. Our children have the freedom to make those decisions and act accordingly. They have the right not to like everyone they are related to even if we like them.  We don’t force them to kiss family members or hold conversations with people they are not comfortable with, regardless of who they are.  Forcing kids to behave in ways that feel disproportionate to the real value and meaning of the relationship teaches the lesson, again, that their investment in relationships does not need to be earned.  We also run the risk of confusing the decision making surrounding acts of affection or disclosure of information.

I don’t compel my children to return a strangers “hello”.

We tell our kids time and time again not to talk to strangers and then I see parents pushing their kids to interact with complete strangers on the check-out line at shop-rite.  Parents can effectively model resisting behaviors for their kids by telling strangers who attempt to strike up conversations with them something like “Hey, nothing personal but we teach our kids not to talk to people they don’t know.” “Do as I say and not as I do” isn’t always a bad principle – there are things adults can and should do, that young children should not be allowed to do.  But, where possible and relevant, modeling allows kids to observe the behaviors we ask them to engage in.

I don’t compel my children to “share” with people  that have not historically returned the favor or who have been mean to them.

This is about self -respect. Children can learn early on that relationships are not a one way street. Pushing children to go above and beyond in their generosity to others without expectation of return may set them up for some pretty nasty relationships later on.  This also reinforces unrealistic expectations about relationships for the other child – sending the message that they could be mean and still get what they want. I get there’s a whole lot of theology working against me here but given what I’ve learned about relationships over the years, I’m going with my conscience on this one.

I encourage my children to be assertive in telling anyone about a behavior or action that they don’t like.

Allowing them to be open to adults about how they feel and having permission to set boundaries makes them less of a target. It also provides rich opportunities to develop key interpersonal skills. If they go too far, you can talk to them about bringing it down a bit after the fact- I want my kids to make authentic mistakes because it opens the door for authentic and substantial growth. I know it’s a lot harder than telling them to follow a list of rules but the payoff down the road will be well worth it. I have to understand that how my 4 year old sets a boundary is going to look a lot different than how I would, but my job is to praise the courage she demonstrates when communicating the need while providing guidance on how it ought to be done in a given context.

I allow my children to face the natural consequences of their relationship mistakes.

If my daughter acts badly towards another child and becomes upset when that child no longer wishes to play with her I try to explore, using language she understands, the cost of her behavior.  She can continue doing what she’s doing but she runs the risk of losing friends and getting in trouble with teachers.  I also inject our family’s values into the discussion and tie their importance to the current situation, reinforcing the idea that values have pragmatic benefits as well as costs that need to be balanced according to the situation in front of them.

I don’t let table manners get in the way of dinner.

My oldest is 4 years old (this list applies mainly to her at this point) and to be honest, my table manners leave a bit to be desired..but I’m doing ok for myself.  Do I point out egregious behaviors or pick on moderate to minor infractions here or there? Sure.  But my goal in life is not to appear on some sort of reality TV show as the poster parent for good manners.  When I’m on my death bed, “My children had impeccable table manners” is not the crowning achievement I hope to have rolling around in my mind.  Table manners are fine but the real value to meals is the relationship building that happens during them.  Part of it, of course, is negotiating and modeling respect in the way we conduct ourselves at the table.  But, like any other social situation, being relaxed and rolling with the punches is equally if not more valuable to the purpose of the interactions taking place.

I remember that my children are young girls.

I constantly explore whether I would let a behavior go or actually encourage a behavior if my children were boys.  I have to be mindful that I was raised in a culture that had very different expectations of boys and girls.  Some of these I agree with and hold onto because they have wisdom and make practical sense to me but some of them are just plain horrible.  I tend to be most mindful of the urge I sometimes have to push my kids to show more restraint, be less active or be quiet which has helped me bite my tongue on more than a few occasions.

I try to point out, reinforce and model the idea that being polite doesn’t mean you like or trust a person.

This one is hard to explain without using an example.  About a year ago I had a really annoying situation with my bank.  I received a notice that my car was going to be repossessed because they failed to have me sign a form when I purchased my car.  I never missed a payment; in fact I pay early and usually pay more than what is required.  When I went to the bank I expressed my dissatisfaction with the way they handled the matter and indicated that I was strongly considering changing banks as a result.  When we left, my daughter looked at the bank employee and said

Bye-Bye little guy

I had her apologize for the remark and later explained why the remark was hurtful. I also explained that we can be angry and firm with people without being insulting.  That by insulting others, we could make things worse for ourselves.  Lastly, I explained that the bank rep didn’t really have anything to do with what happened but that I communicated my aggravation with the whole thing to him so he could talk to the people who made the decisions.  I reminded her that I shook his hand and thanked him for his time.

The intended take away for this post isn’t that you agree with how I do things or that you buy into my values.  It has more to do with encouraging folks to drop “lists” or rigid expectations as a way of teaching kids how to behave and to focus more on value informed thinking and self interest while actively seeking opportunities to help children negotiate these principles using situations and problems as they come up. My list isn’t a “what you should do” but more an example of how to approach the issue in a way that is both value driven and contextual.

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