Edgy Mama: Yes, ma’am, we’re teaching our kids some manners

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.

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19 thoughts on “Edgy Mama: Yes, ma’am, we’re teaching our kids some manners

  1. Wozie

    Southern or not, you are bestowing your children with grace they will appreciate down the road. It will also pay early dividends when they return from a friends and the mother says “what a nice child”. Still, an occasional salad fork under the table into the thigh is a nice reminder not to talk with a full mouth…as learned by me sitting at Mama’s dinning room table.

  2. Mama

    Good manners: The noise you don’t make when you’re eating soup. ~Bennett Cerf

  3. Good manners = the art of making others comfortable…..by not doing saying /doing annoying things.

    A well mannered southern gal, learns to tell others, “eff you” in such a way as to make the target feel they’ve just been complimented. It’s a real art form.

  4. Betty Cloer Wallace

    And if you really must tell someone to “eff off,” always precede your comment with “Why, bless your little heart……”

  5. “And if you really must tell someone to “eff off,” always precede your comment with “Why, bless your little heart……”

    By all means, “bless your little heart”, makes the f.u., even more pungent. lol

  6. chops

    “she’s unable to define exactly why”

    I suspect it makes her feel inferior. Respect is a two-way street. Do your parents use ma’am and sir with your children?

    When I first moved to the south, I too, was uncomfortable with some of the lingering conventions of the old south — specifically those customs that foster superiority or discrimination.

  7. “When I first moved to the south, I too, was uncomfortable with some of the lingering conventions of the old south—specifically those customs that foster superiority or discrimination. “

    Are you suggesting this is something that only the South has an issue with?

  8. chops

    I’ve never felt that particular type of uncomfortable anywhere else.

    But, other places have issues, too. I’m not quite sure what you’re asking.

  9. Wozie

    Bless your heart Chops! Kindness, consideration and respect for others is the antithesis of discrimination, superiority. Welcome to the south – had I known you were coming, I would have baked you a casserole :-)!

  10. Ash's Dad

    I loved this. I read it to my house-mate and all she said was, “I was known as the ‘Warden’ at home.”

    Her kids are very polite and use the proper and respected honorifics.

  11. skatam1

    I was raised in the south most of my life. But my mom is from the west coast and my dad New England. So southern culture was by no means natural for us. The one thing that was beat into every fiber of my being, was the importance of respecting others, especially ones elders. To this day, the one fear I remember the most from my childhood was being rude to an adult, family member or complete stranger alike. Fast forward 30 years, and to this day I am constantly told by people that I deal with from all over the world, that I am one of the most polite people that they have ever meet. Yet my close friends and family would tell you I am a very passionate, fiery, strong willed, fighter, that takes crap from no one. So why the contrast? Respect. I am a firm believer that “EVERYONE” deserves respect. That is until the disrespect you. At that point the gloves come off. And it is actually not very often that they have too…

  12. Walt

    Chops, it’s all a matter of context.

    For an adult, the honorifics are a very valid way of showing respect for another. However, what’s *essential* is that the honorific be offered voluntarily, as a sign of the speakers respect, not under duress, as a sign of the listener’s ego. Southern hospitality involves working to make others feel comfortable and equal, not putting others in their place.

    One unfortunate truth, though, is that in order to develop the instincts to use this hospitality correctly, non-adults often have to be put under duress (i.e. – made to use “ma’am and sir”). I still say, though that the duress should *never* come from the person addressed, as that, once again, shows only the listener’s ego. In other words, it’s perfectly fine for me to apply a salad fork under the table (grin – you got that also? thought that was just my family) to my offspring for training, but ask/tell me to address you as “Sir” or “Ma’am” and see how far it gets you (had this conversation with a sherrif’s deputy once. He lost.).

  13. Wallace

    Walt, The deputy like the judge shouldn’t have to demand respect even if they wouldn’t otherwise deserve it, they are due it by the nature of the office. And likewise they should speak to you with respect. Granted they do not always meet my expectation. I saw a local police person ask far too many questions of a teen driver at a bad accident without waiting for a parent to arrive. He should have protected the minor’s rights by simply saying we can talk once your parents or lawyer is present. It is a shame we need to teach kids when it comes to protecting their legal rights politely saying nothing is always best and cops should not be trusted. I am sorry officer but I am not supposed to talk until my parents arrive or my lawyer. I am sure you understand, sir.

  14. Travis

    I make my children (4 boys) ages 7-18 use good manners at all times. They are required to say yes sir, no sir, yes ma’am, and no m’aam when responding to all adults. Yup, nah, and yeah are not allowed. They know that they must attach a proper sir or ma’am when ansering questions. If I call their name, they are expected to respond by saying either “sir”, or “yes sir”. Maybe I am strict but I have 4 handsome, athletic,and well-mannered boys. I also see to it that they have neatly kept short haircuts and no body piercings of any kind.

  15. skatam1

    OK Travis, you had me at respectful kids, but hair and tatt’s??? You do realize respect is a two way street right?

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