We all know on some level that manners are important and that our children will have an easier time socially and in the world if they learn to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and eat decently at the dinner table. There is an added depth to learning manners that we don’t always think about which will deeply affect the way that we teach manners to kids too.
On a basic level manners help us get on with people in a specific society, at a specific period in time. Manners are time and culture specific, so our discussions around manners with our children can go beyond where and when we are right now and help them to be world citizens who are able to adapt to and respect other people and situations around the globe.
Knowing the manners of a country you’re visiting can help you go further in both business and life in general. For example, in some cultures it is polite to make eye contact when speaking to someone, and in other cultures this would be a sign of disrespect. In some cultures everyone eats with their hands versus other cultures where it is polite to use a knife and fork; or chopsticks. In some cultures when somebody asks how you are it is polite to respond with “fine thanks, and you?” and in other cultures you would be considered crazy to always be “fine” and to not answer honestly with your true situation.
Before we judge someone on their manners we should try to understand where they are coming from and what their background is. This is particularly important in a country like South Africa where we have such a variety of cultural norms all mixing in one place. Our children will never learn to do this if every time their manners are not what we’d expect we blame and shame them. Teaching respect is only done by giving respect. The way to do this is by giving the child information rather than punishment. Instead of “you are such a rude little brat” we can rather say something like “it is considered polite to say ‘thank you’ when somebody gives you something”.
So we can see that on a deeper level, manners training is entirely about respect. Manners are about respecting ourselves and the way that we would like to be treated, and respecting the other people that we happen to be engaging with.
This idea goes beyond just social niceties to personal safety. For example, respecting people’s right to say “no”. Little children can be taught that if they ask for another cookie and the hostess says “no” that it is good manners to respect her answer and not throw a tantrum. This becomes the basis for conversations later on such as “Can I climb into bed with you?” An answer of “no” needs to be respected.
How can we possibly teach this to children if we expect them to respect our answer of “no” but we never respect theirs? This is particularly important when it comes to matters to do with their own bodies. “Can I wash your bum today?” No. No is no. Now you may worry that your child will always be dirty if you do this. The first step should always be to understand what they are feeling. “So you don’t feel like being washed today?” Give them an opportunity to give you more information – perhaps they are feeling irritable or maybe the particular soap burns their skin. You can then give them information. Tell them about dirt and germs and personal hygiene and being in social situations when you’re a bit smelly. Use their “no” as an opportunity to engage with your child and develop a deeper relationship.
Even when you learn baby massage, the first step is always to ask the baby’s permission. They may not be able to answer verbally, but we can still look for nonverbal cues. We should always, always be polite and show good manners ourselves when it comes to a child’s body. Even if they end up being dirty for a while. It is much more important for children to get used to having their body respected than it is for them to be eternally clean.
A lack of manners can also alert you to a problem, if you are not too quick to jump in with a scolding. For example, if a child who always says ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ suddenly refuses to do so with a particular person and won’t look them in the eye then we need to be aware that there may be something beyond rudeness at play. Never force a child to be polite. Rather discuss it later in private. “I see you didn’t feel like saying goodbye?” Listen. Share information.
Too often, in our quest to have little well behaved robots that everyone likes and reflect well on us, we miss out on important things going on with our kids. If we model good manners and we have a good relationship with our children, they will emulate us. If they’re not, find out what has gone wrong and fix the relationship rather than punishing them. If we shame and punish children, we break the very relationship that would have them emulating us in the first place.
Children know what is expected. But if we force manners, it becomes a battle of wills. Be patient. Give gentle reminders. Give information. Be a role model of good manners both with them and with everyone else you interact with. And be very aware of holding your kids up to higher standards than you expect of yourself. We all forget to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ sometimes. We don’t need a guilt trip every time we do.
Manners are about respect, and they require respect to be learned. Both respect for ourselves and for our children. Manners are about having boundaries in terms of how we teach other people to treat us, as well as respect for other people and their traditions and customs. Manners are about understanding each other and the unique situations that we find ourselves in on a daily basis. I don’t believe in forcing kids to be polite. We will never teach respect by being disrespectful.