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Do “Good Manners” Require “Obedience”?

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A cute-kid story that has moved into our family lore took place about two years ago, when Julia, then about 3, was asked what each of her relatives did for a living. “Mommy’s a nurse,” she brightly responded. “Daddy works on his computer,” she noted, not exactly understanding her father’s job in enterprise software sales. When the questioning got to her Uncle Mark, she knew right away: “He’s a lawyer!” Impressed, we asked, “And what does a lawyer do?” Julia’s astute reply: “He teaches people the rules!”


Even a toddler knows that there are rules of behavior by which we all must abide. That’s a major function of childhood—learning the rules for getting along and succeeding.


But the rules have evolved and changed over the years, and many have noticed that what previously would have been shocking and unacceptable has often slipped into normalcy. Rudeness, crude language, discourtesy and selfishness seem to characterize the deeper divisions we find among people nowadays. In 2018, Sen. Ben Sasse wrote a book appropriately titled Them: Why we Hate Each Other—and How to Heal. He documents the dissipation of community bonding organizations, echoing the findings in Robert D. Putnam’s 2000 classic Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. The loss of bowling leagues lamented by Putnam has broadened in the last decades to include religious institutions, service organizations and even the demise of the Boy Scouts.


Covid enforced months of separation and isolation, exacerbating the frustration fueling our simmering acrimony. Riots, shootings, right-versus-left conflict piled on during the last year, with the culmination of a most unusual election response, and a shocking Jan. 6 storming of the nation’s Capitol. Where’s the sane middle?


Perhaps it’s with etiquette guru Emily Post, whose name is synonymous with propriety. Much etiquette remains the same over a century, but many behaviors Boomers were taught as required courtesies have long been pitched.


Business Insider summed it up in an article, “10 Old-Fashioned Manners Kids Aren’t Taught Anymore,” with the argument that restoring these expectations would create a more considerate, understanding world. Diane Gottsman, author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life, says “Etiquette skills are much more than learning when to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ Courtesy requires thought and training, and kids thrive when they are given guidance and boundaries.” It’s more than guidance–the basis of etiquette is respect. We need to more consciously respect each person we encounter.


Or in little Julia’s view, we need to learn the rules.


Here are Business Insider’s lost courtesies that were expected a generation ago, slightly modified by me. 1) Talking by phone or in person rather than via technology. 2) Addressing adults by title and last name (rather than presuming first name is OK). 3) Standing for introductions—and I’d add, looking the recipient in the eye to truly acknowledge their importance to you. 4) Sitting down together for family dinners, which teach dining manners and foster family closeness. 5) Properly setting the table. 6) Asking for permission. This goes for adults and children—we should be cognizant of the sensitivities of those around us, whether in a superior position or not. 7) Listening before speaking, which can diminish flared tempers and gossip. Conversation is an art. 8) Dressing appropriately, which shows respect for others and elevates one’s own demeanor. 9) Good hygiene, such as brushing teeth, bathing, wearing clean clothes, covering one’s mouth when coughing, are not only healthier but show respect for our bodies and those around us. 10) Writing thank-you notes (inculcating gratitude most effectively).


My husband, a Boy Scout for four years, recalled the Boy Scout Law, which was a list of virtues each Scout pledged to pursue: “A Boy Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.” It’s ironic (and sad) that these attributes should now be smirched by outrageously immoral behaviors over years within that organization. The Boy Scouts filed for bankruptcy and are settling 95,000 sex abuse claims. But the virtues in the Boy Scout Law are worth examining.


One of them is the controversial term “obedient.” Do we want to teach children to obey? The word has flipped from a positive recognition of relationships to a disdained trigger. I was sent an email from a long-time friend, Judi Vankevitch, aka “the Manners Lady.” Twenty-five years ago, she developed a curriculum for kids teaching them manners in a fun, upbeat way, with songs and funny characters, and she gained a following presenting her programs in school districts across Canada and America.


She’s hoping to power up her programs again, and certainly there’s a need for children to be aware of courtesy and kindness. But one aspect of her email caught my eye. “Free Song! ‘We Want to Obey our Mom and Dad!’” she offered. Then she included her “’I LOVE my Mom & Dad!’ Challenge.” It contained four ways children who sign the pledge can earn coveted check marks: “1) I’ll Obey right away without delay,” “2) I’ll wear happy eyes, not ‘bad attitude eyes,’” “3) I’ll say ‘Yes, Mom!’ ‘Yes, Sir!” and “4) I’ll do the whole job—plus more!” At the end, the child affirms, “I honored my parents!”


She also has materials for parents, books for children, and a Manners Club Workshop with videos, stories, games, contests and awards. Nothing in her repertoire would be foreign to Boomer children.


But now? I decided to ask two young mothers for their opinions of the Manners Lady’s email. One called it “extremely cringe” and reacted negatively to the word “obey,” saying, “I definitely wouldn’t want my kids to orient to our relationship this way.” The other was even more forceful, calling the content “antiquated, psychologically damaging and the antithesis of everything I believe about parenting!” Both women, I should note, are raising respectful, well-mannered children.

Perhaps as a reaction to frequent rudeness, the topic of etiquette has found a new following in the world of podcasts. The notion of a “correct” outfit or cutlery on the table has become much more elastic in the last 30 years, which gives people less guidance and more to worry about. Feedspot collected the “Top 15 Etiquette Podcasts You Must Follow in 2021.” The list begins with “Awesome Etiquette,” then “Shmanners,” “Were You Raised by Wolves?” “Ethics and Etiquette,” “Etiquette Lady,” and “Dunking Biscuits.” Even as newspapers shrank, print advice columnists burgeoned, moving way beyond Miss Manners (Judith Martin), and stretching the limits of propriety. When five or six “ethicists” ponder someone’s wedding invitation quandary, you know it’s okay to go with your gut.


Still, there are those rules. And if we drill down, they reduce to respect for and sensitivity to others. We learn from etiquette that it’s not first about us, but that kindness often requires us to defer our own preferences to those of others. We should do so with a smile. Respect for others means understanding that each soul is unique and divine, and looking for that lets us relax our personal priorities.


When it comes to teaching children to be mannerly, the best method is modeling. Children learn what they see. If you treat your children (and everyone) with respect, they’ll reciprocate. At the same time, status matters—the kids need to know their parents’ motivation when restraint and “consequences” are necessary is love and protection. Rules are helpful, and establishing a family culture where “in our family we don’t use those words,” or “in our family, we wait until everyone is served before we eat” teaches that you have standards that endure even if the outside world behaves differently.


In Saving Childhood: Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence, my husband Michael and I talked about the three components of innocence: Security, a sense of wonder, and optimism. We write, “Etiquette is particularly essential for children because it provides them with perhaps the most powerful source of security—knowing what’s expected of them.”


We recall the classic 1961 Sesyle Joslin book with Maurice Sendak illustrations, What do you Do, Dear? It’s filled with silly set-ups that lead to etiquette rules, few of which children would encounter now: “You are at the North Pole, sitting in your igloo eating a bit of blubber, when in comes a huge lady polar bear wearing a white fur coat. What do you do, dear?


Help her off with her coat.” No longer is it polite to help a lady off with her coat. Nor to dismount your howdah, climb down from the elephant and offer the lady your seat.


While etiquette of former times was rooted in the now-offensive idea that women are the weaker sex, we needn’t discard the idea that anyone might need help with his coat, or need a seat on a crowded Lightrail car (or howdah). The same courtesies now apply to an expanded audience—and it’s worthwhile inculcating children in “the rules” so they might apply kindness whenever they can.



Diane Medved, Ph.D. is a psychologist, speaker and author of six books, most recently Don’t Divorce: Powerful Arguments for Saving and Revitalizing Your Marriage. Her new project is Wholesome: Raising Kids and Your Consciousness for the Better. She’s married to author and radio talk host Michael Medved with whom she can be seen walking (while collecting litter) in their Seattle suburb, likely with their children or at least some of their four toddler grandkids. Reach Diane at DianeMedved.com.

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