Psst… Manners Are Racist and Ableist Too.

It’s surprising to me, sometimes, which of my posts take off. It’s never the ones I expect. Last week, I wrote about manners being classist. I knew that my post might ruffle feathers because I was suggesting that children are deserving of respect whether or not they have good manners. I did not anticipate the amount of blowback I received at the very concept that manners are classist. I even read multiple comments where people suggested I was being classist myself because I was insinuating that “poor people” couldn’t teach their children good manners. Oh my! I would never.

To be clear, I condemn the origins of manners and the people who use them to disenfranchise others… not parents trying to prepare their children to live in a brutal culture where even good manners do not ensure inclusion, preservation, or prosperity.

Manners are the behaviors we engage in when we understand the etiquette expected of us. And, etiquette is the social code we’re expected to adopt based on our cultural values. The word “etiquette” comes to us from French and it referred to a physical “ticket” that was provided to visitors of the royal court giving them a list of rules and regulations for appropriate behavior. Apparently, Louis XIV became angry when visitors trampled through his gardens. He posted signs (etiquets) warning people off the flora, but they didn’t pay any mind. Eventually, the King issued a royal decree that no one would be allowed to step on his grass. In time, the etiquets became handheld documents indicating what was allowed and what wasn’t. Unfortunately, if you weren’t in the in-crowd, you wouldn’t gain access to the etiquets. In that way, etiquets served as a barrier to isolate “cultured” people from “uncultured” ones.

Manners were prescribed by the ruling class for everyone else. While that hierarchy has changed with time, the manners we observe today remain classist by their origin. They are inherently othering. We talk about manners in moralistic terms of “good” and “bad.” Do we really believe there is no transference of moral discrimination to the person whose manners don’t live up to our expectations?

Some of the basic issues I have with manners include:

  • In the human brain, politeness is linked with the system governing aggression, whereas compassion is linked with the system involved in empathetic responses. Put plainly, politeness is a muzzle whereas compassion is a loving response to others.
  • Etiquette is big business. Finishing schools exist to provide people (primarily women, go figure) with comprehensive protocols on how to comport themselves. The existence of this industry further enforces behavioral expectations across all classes.
  • Social expectations aren’t consistent even across various geographies in the same country, much less internationally. And, the United States is an international country. Manners are cultural, not universal, so the acceptance of difference is a moral obligation.
  • “Good” manners do not preserve people of color from racism. Only empathy and understanding from those with the power to effect genuine change (read: white people) can do that. Not too long ago, white people (i.e. “ma’am” and “sir”) regularly warped the language of manners to undermine the dignity of Black people (i.e. “girl” and “boy”) and manners continue to be used in the same way today where whiteness is threatened. Further, calls for Black people to be “compliant” in the face of police brutality and to be more polite when speaking about upsetting topics are fundamentally racist.
  • “Good” manners may not be accessible to disabled people, like those who can’t tolerate eye contact and, as a result, may be viewed as deceptive or worse. And, the inability to tolerate touch make handshakes pretty tough. There are many social expectations that are unkind to neurodivergent people.
  • Manners derive from antiquated and oppressive ideals. For example, some theorize that the over-attention to manners in the South has resulted from a culture of “honor.” You know, like defending a woman’s honor so her father can still marry her off to the most profitable suitor?

I’m not saying you shouldn’t teach your children about manners. Yes, teach them manners. Give them a leg up in society to the best of your ability. Let them know how their behavior is perceived. But, at the same time, teach them that it is a privilege to have access to information about how to move effectively through social spaces and to be able to effectively perform “cultured” behavior. Teach them not to make assumptions based on a person’s behavior and, instead, tap into empathy and grace in getting to know others. And, model understanding and consideration for others.

That manners are classist, racist, and ableist (and defensibly sexist too) means our children need to know and understand them to be changemakers. Please and Thank You are nice, but revolutionary empathy is so much more important. Besides, respect and politeness are natural byproducts of viewing all people as worthy equals, even if you aren’t up on your Ps & Qs.

Kids Don’t Owe Anyone Good Manners

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.

Click here to read the follow-up

Disrespectful Expectations

Several weeks ago, a friend told me this story about an interaction between her tween son and her mother. Since many of us are gearing up for big family events tomorrow, this topic is something worth thinking about. My friend, a 30-something-year-old Black mother of two in Texas, had this to say:

So today she apparently asked my 12 yr old if he could help her get 2 gallons of water from her car and he said no. She came to snitch and I’m sure was trying to embarrass him and I just said “I’ll help you.” He seemed annoyed she interrupted our conversation to tell me that. My family has no respect for children. I honestly assumed he didn’t feel like it. He had just gotten home and rode his bike from school today and he was getting his snack together. I wouldn’t want to stop preparing food to get water either when it can wait. It wasn’t perishable food she was asking for help with but it honestly didn’t matter to me. I teach them ‘you can always ask but sometimes the answer is no.’

She explained further that there is some background between her son and her mother. It seems she oversteps her bounds and tries to impose her ideology on the children. My friend’s son receives her actions as judgmental. When she asked “Do you want to help me with something?” he answered literally “No” because he was busy.

I can almost see the pearl-clutching! I come from a very Southern, very authoritarian background where adults owned all rights to the labor of children and children had no right to refuse. It was considered the height of rudeness and deserving of quite a spanking. I’ll grant that a young boy who had the strength to ride his bike all the way home from school surely has the strength to go outside to grab a couple gallons of water. Plus, it’s perceived as rude not to be considerate of an elderly relative’s wishes.

Before we had our children, Peaceful Dad and I created family guidelines, and one of those guidelines is “We always choose to help.” We teach our children that we are the heart and hands of Christ to our world. We help out of love. Not obligation. And never because someone wants to assert a flawed belief that my children should be subordinate. I don’t entertain discussing my kids negatively like this grandmother did, no matter who the adult is. I will always ask the adult to speak directly to my child if there’s been a problem. I can be there for moral support, but my child needs to be part of the conversation.

Had this scenario happened in my house, I probably would have broached the topic with my son to understand his perspective while affirming that no one is obligated to help anyone. I would want my son to know that there are relationship consequences for refusing a request for help, particularly since there exists a social expectation that children are to serve adults. This is something children need to be aware of, and it’s something worth discussing as we guide our children through the trials of childism.

Her entitlement was completely inappropriate. No one has a right to anyone else’s labor. I imagine my friend’s son would have graciously agreed had his grandmother asked, “When you finish eating your snack, would mind helping me get some gallons of water out of my car?” So, let’s flip this around. Is it not also rude of an adult, knowing this child was tired and hungry, to demand assistance with a non-urgent matter while the child is in the middle of making himself something to help him recover from his long day and his long ride? Could the request not have been made in a more understanding and compassionate way wherein both of their needs could have been met?

The trouble here is that, for many adults, the outcome isn’t as important as the interaction. They say they like seeing kind, cooperative, and respectful children, but what they really expect is deference and obedience.

That’s childism!

Rudeness is a matter of perception. In this case, the requester ultimately got the help she was requesting, so the problem was solved. I don’t want to suggest that kids be encouraged to break social “rules” for the sake of being controversial. I think it’s important for children to be aware of expectations and cultural consequences. But, at the same time, we also need to be holding adults accountable for how they interact with kids, and we need to instill self-confidence and self-worth in our kids so that they know how to navigate social expectations with grace and wisdom.

If a child is uncomfortable with a request being made of them, we can be there to help guide the conversation. Otherwise, we can give kids room to work out their own relationships and support them in upholding boundaries… even with elderly relatives. And, even at big family events.

I asked my friend what had changed since her own childhood that caused her to support her son in his interaction with her mother. She said:

In the past I would have felt pressured into forcing him to do something he didn’t want to do. When my daughter came along I realized that I was raising my kids differently than I was raised and than the kids in my family were being raised. One day my grandma asked my 1 year old for a hug at easter and my nephew who was about 4 said she “don’t do hugs.” My granny said “I don’t care, come give me a hug girl!” It was right then that I was like “oh hell no!” She is not about to force herself onto my child and traumatize her and then leave me with the job of cleaning up. So I stopped her in that moment and said “we don’t force physical contact on people,” and I looked at my daughter and said “can you wave bye bye to granny?” And she didn’t do that either and I said “maybe next time” and shrugged it off. That’s when I started looking into ways to fend off my pushy relatives because I knew there would be more situations like these in the future.

I went from spanking my son to not believing it was necessary I hardly ever took my kids out during nap time or would leave when they got tired because they just slept better at home and to prevent putting them in situations where they were over tired and would act out. Long ago, I decided that just because something is the way we’ve always done it, that doesn’t mean it’s not wrong.

Just because something is the way we’ve always done it, that doesn’t mean it’s not wrong. That is an entire lesson right there on its own! We can teach our children how to say, “I’m busy right now, but I’ll be with you as soon as I finish.” We can foster relationships in our children’s lives that meet their needs and those of the adults they care about. When the challenge in a child’s life is a social expectation, let’s allow genuineness and honesty to win out. It’s ok for children to say “not now” or even “no” to adults. Unclutch those pearls!

So, how do you instill a sense of selflessness in your kids? How do you foster the development of a human who enjoys being helpful whenever possible? I’m sure there are many ways families are doing this every day (and I’d love to hear from you in the comments!) I’ll mention one of the ways that has been invaluable for my family. We include our children in our everyday lives. Sounds pretty simple, but it takes planning and patience. It can be difficult to allow kids to help in their own developmentally appropriate ways. It’s messy and time consuming, but it is wonderfully affirming for your child! If you’d like to try it out, the key is to resist the urge to do things for your children. Don’t take over. If you want to insert yourself into the activity, help out! Demonstrate by modeling what’s expected. Openly speak with your child about the expected outcome, step by step. Children don’t know the process to get to an end result until they learn it. For example, including children in putting laundry away might look something like this:

  • Parent invites the child to help
  • Child accepts
  • Parent quickly explains what’s about to happen – “We’re going to take the clothes out of this laundry basket, fold them neatly, put them back into the basket, and then put them into their drawers. I’ll help you!”
  • Parent demonstrates how to fold an item of clothing and hands some clothes to the child
  • Parent and child go through the steps together

Many children will likely not be able to fold to an adult’s expectation, be able to open drawers and sort, and the like. Some direction is helpful, but allowing the child to try and accepting their effort as is goes a long way to instilling a love of helping in a child. And, start young. Thank your infant for helping you pick up toys even if it becomes a game. There are so many ways to include and appreciate kids. You and your child will figure it out together.