Manners are classist. Let’s just go ahead and get that out of the way. Throughout history, the way people acted has been a signal of how polished their upbringing was. Perfectly wonderful and kind people have found themselves the target of snubs simply because they didn’t exhibit an acceptable level of refinement.
We should take care in judging people based on the way they behave. Years ago, I worked for an organization that kept an accountant on retainer. This guy was the picture of unkempt. Messy clothes, greasy hair, gruff personality, old clunker for a car. I was surprised that a businessman would appear to care so little about the image he was projecting given how much my parents drilled into me the importance of “putting your best foot forward.” Well, the joke was on me (and my parents), because that accountant was a wildly successful millionaire CPA.
When it comes to kids, it makes sense to want to build in them the traits that make family life run smoothly. Genuine care for one another results in things like kindness and helpfulness. But, what’s expected of kids is politeness… the ability to navigate social expectations we’ve all apparently agreed are good. There’s a lot of learning to be done and, for some kids, it just never clicks. Manners are confusing! They were confusing for me as a child. The idea that I should practice social choreography in order to merely appear like I cared about people made so much less sense than just bypassing the trappings and honestly caring about people. Why did it matter if I said “yes ma’am” when I was going out of my way to do kind things for my mother? It still doesn’t make sense to me to this day. Personally, I’d rather we be in true relationship with each other and treat people the way they want to be treated.
Manners are really nothing more than modern day chivalry that harken back to a time when people were very careful not to reveal their true intentions. That doesn’t sound like anything I want my children involved in. Nonetheless, children do need to understand the expectation and be able to “play the game” so to speak. They need to be given the words to say and practice the actions to take, so that they have the tools they need to succeed in a world where people who despise each other are still required to be polite to each other in the workplace. There are real life implications and consequences, and children are better served to be told the truth than to be coerced into being polite for politeness’ sake.
So, for our purposes in fostering genuineness in our children, I propose we buck the system and encourage kindness instead of politeness. I say we demonstrate to our children, through modeling, to pay close attention to what’s happening around them; to comfort the sad friend, to help the stranger whose hands are full by opening a door, to listen intently when someone is speaking, to gently hand money to the clerk instead of tossing it carelessly onto the counter. In short: treat people like they are deserving a dignity and respect.
And, when we notice children – any children, not just our own – with “bad manners,” let’s be extra kind to them and treat them respectfully too. Show them what it’s like to live in community and in relationship with people who deeply care about their wellbeing.