I always knew that I’d be a stickler for good manners as a parent. In my opinion parents don’t make life easy for their kids if they choose not to worry about things like saying please and thank you – everybody seems to respond better to people who automatically know how to be courteous. And I realised late last year that, by emphasising the importance of good manners from young toddlerhood, Hattie and Joe would never remember a time when they didn’t know that you always say please when asking for something, or thank you when receiving something.
Of course they’re only little kids and teaching this kind of habit is a slow process: we still have this kind of exchange several times a day…
Child: “I want milk!”
Adult: [silence; or a querying look; or a reminder about needing to ask in a nice voice, using nice words]
Child: “Please could I have a drink of milk please Mummy!” (This double please thing is their own convention)
Sometimes they get it right first time, which is great. And they’re given absolutely nothing until they’ve asked nicely. The same rules apply with saying thank you, although they’re very good at saying that unprompted nearly every time. Tristan, Nikita, and I all handle the please and thank you thing in the same way, and I’m sure that the consistency has helped a lot.
However, I am quite sure that our approach of never letting the kids get away with not using their manners probably looks like a whole lot of nagging to some people, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it might even elicit some eye-rolls from other adults who witness it and secretly think “For God’s sake, the kid is two, and one missed ‘please’ isn’t the end of the world”. And that would be a fair enough attitude. I know that me thinking something is important isn’t the same as it necessarily BEING important, and other people may emphasise other behavioural elements of childrearing that I’m probably totally neglecting. I also know that most kids will develop decent manners in the fullness of time, if only because they’ll realise that life is far easier if other people like dealing with you. I guess I’m just trying to shortcut that process for Hattie and Joe. And when we do feel the need to remind them of how to ask nicely, or the importance of saying thank you, we don’t do it in any kind of angry way – we know that they’re just little and are still learning everything. But that’s what I see as my job: teaching them how to function in the world, and, for me, understanding the importance of good manners is one of the fundamental elements of knowing how to play nicely with others.
We also emphasise and recognise other courteous behaviour, like making sure that we acknowledge kindnesses like sharing, taking turns, voluntarily doing nice things for others, and generally just being lovely:
The next big good manners challenge ahead of us involves teaching the importance of replying when people say hello. I don’t expect a great dialogue, but if they’re with me and somebody greets them, they should say hello back, even if they don’t say anything else to that person. This is proving to be a much tougher nut to crack than the whole please/thank you thing, even with people that they know really well.
Another courtesy-related issue we face involves Joe’s occasional tendency to declare a wholly irrational dislike of somebody, often before he’s even met them, and then demonstrate his feelings by glowering at them when he sees them. Combatting that is a work in progress!
There was an interesting conversation recently in a Facebook group to which I belong – a heated discussion about whether it’s a big deal if children use swear words, and whether parents do anything to manage their children’s exposure to ‘bad language’. Now, I swear like a drunken sailor on shore leave whenever I’m not around the kids, as anybody who has ever spent time with my on campus, or seen me after a glass of wine, can testify. However, I work very hard to moderate my language around the kids, and I honestly don’t think that I have sworn in front of them more than a tiny number of times. My confidence regarding this comes from the fact that neither of them have said a swear word – and they are total parrots, particularly with regard to my use of language, so if I was cursing around them, they’d be cursing as well. My reason for this is simple: I think it takes an adult’s maturity to understand when it is appropriate (or not inappropriate) to swear, and when it is just inappropriate. I know, for example, that my 18 year old class mates or my twin mum friends finishing a bottle of wine with me won’t turn a hair if I swear, but I also know that my 60-something lecturer might not feel comfortable with swearing, so I moderate my tone depending on my audience. It’s the basic reason why swearing in public has traditionally been beyond the pale, I think: you don’t know the sensitivities of the listening audience, and it’s not good manners to risk offending people. In my opinion children lack the maturity to understand when it might or might not be inappropriate to swear, and so the best strategy is for them to not be around the language and, if they do hear it, make them realise that it’s only something that grownups say. So I have asked people in my house not to swear, and I’ll continue to do so if they kids are still up. After 7pm you can say what you want, of course!
Despite some ongoing challenges, I feel pretty happy that we’re raising two little people who are going to have sufficient knowledge of social graces to function well in the world. And we’ve had one good breakthrough this week: both kids have recognised the importance of saying “excuse me” if they fart in public. Winning!