RSS Feed

Missed Manners

81WA7TBJMGL._SL500_AA240_[1]I grew up in a family in which manners extended well beyond “please” and “thank you,” and the placement of one’s napkin on one’s lap. I answered the phone “Graham residence, Ann speaking” and said “excuse me” before I interrupted adult conversation. I was also expected to recognize adult conversation, and to refrain from interjecting my own opinions or anecdotes unless they were requested. I was never encouraged to believe that I had the same rights as adults in the household, and consistently taught to consider “the other person” in matters which ranged from sitting through dull stories told by old people to expressing great joy upon receiving a(nother) knitted hat for Christmas.

My brother and I were not allowed to chew gum, yell or play loud music in the house, or to thump up and down the stairs. We wrote thank-you notes, ate what we were served as guests and held doors for people. My mother disapproved of containers (milk, catsup, salsa, soda bottles) on the table, and required that condiments be decanted, and that we knew which forks and spoons were used for what purpose. We could sit through a concert or lecture without getting up or rattling wrappers, and we could eat at a nice restaurant without disturbing other diners. If we had to, we could sit still while the adults drank (endless) cups of coffee after dinner  and discussed people we didn’t know. We were not allowed to use the words “fart” or “butt” or to comment in any way about the passing of gas.

n220494[1]We were well-loved, thoroughly supported and doted upon; we were simply expected to behave well in most circumstances. The basic premise of our upbringing was that the opinions and activities of children are interesting mainly to those children and their immediate families, and that adults outside of that circle should not be discomfited in any way by their presence. Charmed and entertained, absolutely, but not disturbed or annoyed.  Under the guise of “manners” we were being taught to be civil, compassionate members of society – to listen patiently, think of others and be grateful, gracious  and helpful.

In my present family, the rules of my childhood are largely dismissed as archaic, artificial and repressive. My husband was raised on a rural farm with five other children, and while his parents both have lovely manners, they were lucky to keep napkins on laps and elbows off the table without concerning themselves with the vulgarity of gum chewing or inquiries about who had “cut the cheese.” I believe we have taught my son to behave well in public and to consider the feelings of others, but his manners at home are sometimes appalling. He has the questionable gift of being able to adhere to all of my parents’ rules at their house, and then to slip back into ill-mannered sloth at home.

kid-gum[1]While some of the rules have fallen away at my house for reasons of expedience (my life is too short to decant catsup)  others are rejected on the basis that the rules were just plain weird to begin with. Gum was made to be chewed! Who wants bored kids sitting around fidgeting while adults try to talk? In addition, there is the ever-popular refrain “no one does that!” Apparently I am living in a door-slamming, gum-chewing universe where children are encouraged to recite the complete play-by-play of favorite Disney movies in the middle of adult conversations and announce every ingested bean and every resulting emission with great relish.

I have also been advised by both professional and lay analysts that the rules of my upbringing were a way of squelching my natural impulses and denying my true self, and that children must be free to express themselves, and simply “be.” If that means throwing a football in the house, or interrupting grandma’s monologue about her walking tour in Denmark, so be it.

In the context of my house, I am suffering from battle fatigue. I am told so often that my inclinations are snobbish and outdated, that I tend to save myself for egregious behavior. My son chews gum, plays loud music, and thumps on the stairs with impunity. For now, I am trying to be satisfied with the fact that his manners in the Great World are decent (aside from a baffling inability to move a napkin from table to lap), and he is an essentially a kind human being. That should mean that the important lessons are being learned, and that we can work on refinements.

goodlittleboySm[1]Secretly, though, I delight in accounts of well-mannered children carrying the torch of etiquette. I devour stories in the New York Times about children who are sent to special schools to learn how to behave at the dinner table, how to meet and speak with adults, and how to behave at the theater. I nearly wept tears of joy when I called an old friend and her daughter answered with the familiar “Smith residence, Alice speaking.” Call me repressive, old-fashioned, or simply “weird,” but I believe that manners are an embodiment of civilized society. I would hate to think that there is no longer any place for them in the world in which I live.


About imagineannie

I feel like I'm fifteen - does that count? I'm lots of things, I get paid to be the Managing Editor for a local news publication, and I love my job. I am also inordinately fond of reading, animals (I have four), elephants, owls, hedgehogs writing, tramping in the woods, cooking India, Ireland, England, avocado toast, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Little Women, Fun Home, Lumber Janes, Fangirl, magic, Neil Gaiman, Jane Austen, YA books, not YA books, classical music, Salinger (OMG SALINGER), Brahms, key lime pie, indie music, podcasts, sleeping in, road trips, marmalade, museums, bookstores, the Oxford comma, BBC, The Miss Fisher Mysteries, birdwatching, seashells, kombucha, and stickers. Not a huge fan of chewing gum, jazz, trucker hats or dystopian and/or post-apolcalyptic fiction (but I'll try anything).

7 responses »

  1. I will call you none of those things! We are pretty strict in some of those areas. Todd, especially at the dinner table….I cringe sometimes as he constantly corrects the table manners…and we are working on phone manners currently. I also cringe at the people who dismiss it as “old fashioned”. I agree with all of your assessments, while I personally hate to hear people chew gum, they can, but it drives me crazy (but that’s my own personal crazy). Another great article!

    • Michelle, I think hearing other peoples’ gum is my most serious pet peeve. I really do not ever want to hear or see anybody chewing ANYTHING. It is exhausting, the constant correction, but I have to say that I have gotten lots of places in my life, from invitations to jobs just because I have nice manners. It’s worth it.

  2. I do miss manners!
    I tried very hard to instill some in my children (now grown) with mixed success. I always told them that what I wanted to see on their school reports was that they were polite and kind. (Those words did frequently appear.)
    I adore their 5 year old Godson (they were both chosed to be God Parents – very flattering). But his manners! He not only jokes about farting – his parents laugh. He hits his parents – they laugh! He spits out food if he doesn’t like it and they say nothing (at least they don’t laugh).
    Sorry – bit of a rant.
    I don’t think you are old fashioned. You love your child and you want everybody else to see him at his best.

    • I understand that rant; I see a lot of it, and my response ranges from shock to outrage. I particularly fail to enjoy that kind of behavior in public places, like restaurants. It does children a great disservice not to equip them with the manners necessary to succeed in life.

      You are dead on about why I want Sam to have nice manners. I am hoping that some day he’ll “get” that instead of thinking that he is being raised in an oppressive regime. 🙂

  3. You were not alone in being raised with those manners. Nor are you alone living in the aftershock.

    I am satisified at this point to have children who understand the difference between public behavior (which includes eating at the dining room table at home) and kitchen behavior. I guess it’s a compromise I’ve learned to live with.

  4. Good manners do seem to be rare anymore. But, I think they are really important too. Manners are the foundation for empathy and respect. So, in my mind, saying “please” and “thank you” (at least) is a preschooler’s start to environmental and social ethics (it lays the grid work for noticing that one’s actions affect others). As you say, it is important, too, that we give our kids the skills to succeed in life…which includes being able to sit through a meal in a restaurant (although I also agree with you about the excessiveness of lengthy coffee talk afterward).

    Great post!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: