Manners and Children as People

Today on my Facebook page, I ran across a thread on children and manners. I run across this from time to time, and it nearly always irks me, although I rarely get very upset about it. People feel differently about manners, and people feel differently about how to teach children things. Fine. This thread got me particularly bothered, though, and rather than reply defensively in my friend’s thread, I thought I’d expand on it here. There are two aspects to my feelings here – one which relates to childcare in general and one that’s about my own childhood.

The original comment went like this:

I don’t get the whole “I don’t force my children to say please/thank you” nonsense. It’s not oppression, people. It’s manners. When your kids deal w/ me, they better damn well say please, thank you, and call me ma’am.

This isn’t that unusual, and my initial reaction is just to assume that the adult expressing this view has control issues and leave it at that. In the first place, I just don’t get being hung up on “manners” (which is a separate issue from just being nice to one another). And second, I don’t understand the vigor to which this idea is applied to children. I rarely hear adults saying “please”, for example. If someone at a party is headed to the kitchen for a drink, it’s not weird for another adult to say, “Hey, would you bring me one, too?” No one seems scandalized at the lack of a please, and I’m 100% certain I’ve never heard someone reply to an adult, “What’s the magic word?” or “How do you ask nicely?” That would be absurd, and it’s absurd (and ironically, rude) to do the same to a child. On the other hand, if you are a person who habitually says please, your children are going to, too, with no extra effort on your part. So I’m really just not sure what all the fuss is about.

Here’s another comment from the thread:

The major role I play as a parent is preparing my children for adulthood. I want them to have the happiest and best adulthood they can.

Here’s the childcare philosophy part. I do not think children should be treated like future-adults. They should be treated like real life people right now. Seeing childhood as a stepping stone often leads to ignoring their very real thoughts, feelings, and preferences that are occurring in the here and now. Ignoring that they are currently already complete people lays the foundation for disrespecting them and pushing them into a mold that doesn’t yet (and may never) fit. Someone who believes that children are proto-adults may argue that both things – preparation for the future and respect of the now – can occur simultaneously. I’m skeptical, though. Focusing on preparing children for adulthood seems to involve a focus on developing certain habits and patterns – habits and patterns the child may never have chosen for themselves. I worry that this gets in the way of universally desired “habits” – like having been treated like an autonomous, complete person.

None of this is new or unusual, though, and normally it doesn’t bother me too much. Here’s the comment that started to get me upset and thinking about this all a little more personally and a little more in depth:

My hope is that by the age of 10 these behaviors will be so ingrained that they do not require any prompting on my part.

This sentiment creeps me out. While a great many mainstream parenting ideas smack of control to me, this sentence is talking about desiring the control of the child to transfer from the parent to the inside of the child. I can’t think of any positive way to think about that. The hope seems to be that eventually your work on this topic will be done – you will no longer have to struggle to fit your child into the preferred mold – the child will take up the struggle themselves. The part that’s creepy is that the child will likely not perceive this as a struggle. It’s ingrained. It’s automatic. It’s over. Obviously many things become ingrained in a child through the course of childhood. The part that’s creepy here is the systematic, willful change enacted on the personality of the child by the parent.

Now for the part that’s personal: sometimes, the child does know that it’s a struggle, that it’s fake, that it is not inherent to themselves. And here I’m talking about me. Manners were drilled into me as a child. Please, thank you, I’m sorry, and calling people ma’am and sir. When I say “drilled”, I don’t mean anything that most people would consider excessive. I just had to say please to ask for things, say sorry if I bumped into someone, say thank you after receiving something, etc, in the usual ways that parents enforce these things. They became habits. They became “so ingrained that they [did] not require any prompting on my [parents’] part.”

And it was absolutely, 100% control of my body from within my own body without my consent.

It took me years to stop calling people ma’am and sir. Like a tic, I would add it to the ends of sentences completely without permission of my conscious mind, and it was mortifying to me. No one else in any of my circles – friends, acquaintances, coworkers, etc.  – used these terms, and it embarrassed the shit out of me. I still can’t stop saying thank you, and this is immensely annoying to me, too. In the course of one dinner at a restaurant, I probably tell the server thank you 20 times. Every time they arrive at my table, set something down, leave the table, offer me something, etc, I’m knee-jerking a thank you, and it’s stupid. I do the same thing with I’m sorry, and I’ve noticed that a lot of other people (especially strangers) do this, too. Someone gets within three feet of you at the grocery store, and they say I’m sorry or excuse me. It’s weird.

In some ways, I can understand the desire to familiarize your child with a sense of politeness. But, as I said earlier, if you speak a certain way, your children will pick that up. And if you don’t speak a certain way, and your child later wishes to speak that way anyway, they’ll probably be able to do that. People do that all the time, when they enter a new business situation, for example. It’s not that hard to adopt new mannerisms and speech patterns when you enter a new environment.

What is hard is removing habits and patterns that were pushed onto you before you were capable of resisting.