Manners and proper etiquette were huge topics of conversation in my house growing up — often rising above politics, religion and even football as important discussion fodder.
In fact, one of the biggest fights I ever had with my father was over the proper way to lift a soup spoon from the bowl to your mouth. You’re supposed to lift your soup spoon away from you, toward 12 o’clock on your soup bowl — never toward your mouth, or the 6 o’clock spot on the bowl. No, I can’t remember which of us argued which point or which of us was right. It probably was Dad — why I ended that particular dinner crying in the bathroom. Though that wasn’t an uncommon occurrence when I was a know-it-all teenager.
Back then, before Wikipedia, we were dependent on Emily Post’s Etiquette book to settle such disputes. That book was as ubiquitous in Southern households as The Bible. Etiquette, originally titled Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home, was first published in 1922. The book is still in print and in its 17th edition (last updated in 2004). It has an Amazon sales rank of 5,279. Wow.
Clearly, manners and etiquette are still important to most folks. As parents, it seems we have a responsibility to pound this stuff into our kids, though perhaps not as forcefully as our parents did to us. I admit it’s not always easy, and now I understand how family dinner conversations can devolve into etiquette rule yelling matches. Oh, the irony.
When our kids were younger, our goal simply was to teach them to use “hello,” “goodbye,” “please” and “thank you” consistently and at the right times. One of the things they don’t tell you when you decide to procreate is that you’ll spend the next 20 or 30 years repeating the same sentences over and over. I bet I’ve said, “What’s the magic word?” 8 million times over the past 11 years. Although now I can give the manners offender “the look,” as my daughter calls it, and that alone usually produces a “please” or “thank you.”
When I was growing up in Atlanta, in addition to rules around soup consumption, standing up straight and looking people in the eye, replying to any and all elders with “Yes, ma’am” or “Yes, sir” was required. Not responding with the respected honorifics was a punishable offense.
And maybe it’s becoming anachronistic, but I still use those phrases, especially when I’m talking to older Southerners. However, I do not require my kids to use “ma’am” or “sir.”
Why? Because the terms seem antiquated. Also because Enviro-spouse is a midwesterner, and he didn’t grow up saying “Yes, ma’am” and “Yes, sir.” Also, now that I’m a “certain” age, I get a little offended when slightly younger men call me “ma’am.” It makes me feel old. Won’t you call me “sweetheart” instead?
However, my parents still expect my kids to use “ma’am” and “sir.” Although my girl rebels and says using them makes her uncomfortable, though she’s unable to define exactly why. But I push her to do so anyway, at least with her grandparents. It’s a good lesson in the power of language and how people respond to your words. There’s a time and place for certain words. In Atlanta, we use “ma’am” and “sir,” and in the privacy of our home, we’re allowed to use certain other words that we don’t use anywhere else.
Manners seem to come more naturally to our son than to our daughter. Possibly because he’s naturally more manipulative, and he learned early on that being polite to adults could get him a long way.
That said, we’re currently working on table manners. It’s a challenge to get my kids to sit still anywhere, though if they’re hungry enough, they can manage their fidgets for up to 10 minutes at the dinner table.
What they can’t seem to master is napkin use. For some reason, they’d rather wipe their greasy hands on their shirts than on the cloth napkins I put in their laps. Nor do they understand the rudeness inherent in talking with their mouths full. I get that, sometimes, just after taking a big bite of pizza, there’s something really, really important that pops in your brain that you need to tell your mom before you forget. But showing me your half-chewed food or spitting carrot pieces at me doesn’t predispose me to care.
I guess this teaching manners stuff is going to take a few more years of repetition and consistency. If we can get our kids somewhat civilized, or at least, less generally offensive, before they leave for college, perhaps we’ve succeeded as parents — even if it’s not quite at the level desired by the previous generation.