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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Are our kids getting ruder?

My mother had an amazing ability to freeze the atmosphere instantly when she disapproved of something.  Heaven help me if I should fail to say please, thank you or excuse me; she never needed to punish me for such omissions, because my fear of that Kelvinator look was enough to jog my memory before I opened my mouth.

Add to that the fact that she always demonstrated perfect manners herself, and there was never any question that her children would grow up to be ill-mannered little thugs. She was an awesome mother, and I was hell-bent on pleasing her.

Perhaps my upbringing wasn't completely typical, but I do know that back then, both my teachers and my friends'  parents had a low tolerance for other people's children who forgot their manners.  And they didn't sit and stew, either- they had no hesitation in correcting such children quite firmly. 

Have things really changed so much these days?  Why are parents and teachers complaining about children's manners, or lack thereof? And why do parents feel less free to correct or comment on other people's children when they behave appallingly?

Maybe it's as simple as the constant stress of being a working parent, being all things to all people, torn in too many directions at once.  We forget to teach manners, or just don't have time.  Maybe our own manners have been swept away by the 21st century's pace and problems. 

And maybe we're too scared of the prospect of conflict with other parents to open our mouths when someone else's child is rude; certainly there seems to be a much greater range in parenting styles than was once the case, and convictions about parenting are deeply held and defended.

Anyway, let's be proactive- what can we do to make sure our own children have good manners, and how can we encourage other people's children to treat us with respect too?

When was the last time you asked your child to do something? Did you add a 'please', or did you just issue an order? What about your partner- do you say please to him or her when you want something?

And last time your child actually did what you asked (or did something nice spontaneously), did you thank him? Or did you just expect him to obey you without question, and accept his obedience (or his pleasant behaviour) as your right as a parent?  Do you thank your partner too?

Some parents do believe that children should just do as they're told.  But be warned- you will reap what you sow.  Unquestioning obedience has gone out of style, and in my view it was always flawed anyway; children will copy what you model, and it was ever thus, so if you want a child who issues orders to his peers and teachers and consistently omits the 'please' and 'thank you' until reminded, go right ahead and behave that way yourself. But most of us would find that result rather embarrassing.

Be the change you want to see in your child!  Sure, we all start giving orders when our polite request has been ignored- but start out by modelling perfect manners to your children when you first ask them to do something, and take a moment to show your appreciation when they do the right thing.  That's respectful parenting.  You didn't create a little servant when you had that baby.  It's a little human being down there, and it's listening to every word you say and watching every single thing you do.

Once you make a habit of using your manners with your children (and your partner!), you have every right to pull up Miss Four very smartly when she demands rudely that you get her another drink, or whatever, and explain extremely firmly that THAT is NOT how to get what she wants.  I have developed quite a good line in selective deafness when children demand something rudely, and if I accompany it with a silent stare it seems to have miraculous powers to jog a child's memory- perhaps I inherited some of my mother's sub-zero powers!  Even toddlers can learn to say please- but you have to keep insisting- be gentle with this age group, prompt them and give them a second chance, but be consistent.

And don't budge! Don't get that drink for that four-year-old! Second attempts should not be rewarded at once- send her away for five minutes or so before you'll listen to a repeat attempt with a 'please' in it, or tell her to get the drink herself. You are not your child's servant.  If you can remember your manners, it's fair to expect a four- to five-year-old to start remembering theirs.

I also keep a firm hold on whatever has been asked for until the 'thank you' is forthcoming.  The silent look works well here too, or a raised eyebrow and 'Pardon?' will usually press the correct button. I'll say it again- be consistent! Don't let go if there's no 'thank you' forthcoming- put that biscuit back in the packet if necessary!

And reward good manners with your own positive words and body language. Save your very best smile for  children who say 'please' and 'thank you', and comment to them on their lovely manners. Comment later to your partner, in your child's earshot, how pleased you are that he's remembering his manners at last. That encourages repeat performances.

But what about other people's kids?

Certainly there's a taboo these days on correcting other people's children.  I admit to not feeling this taboo myself, but maybe that's because I work with other people's children all the time and I would go mad otherwise! But it does have drawbacks; I once put on my 'teacher voice' and asked a strange (and seemingly unaccompanied) child at the supermarket to please STOP using her bare hands to fill her plastic bag with soy crisps, as I didn't want to share her germs thanks, and was promptly verbally abused loudly and at great length by the child's mother, who was in fact in the vicinity- she obviously took umbrage at my perceived criticism of her child's self-help skills. 

This sort of strenuous negative reaction to any criticism of their child by anyone at all, however well-deserved, seems fairly common amongst parents.  Are parents really that hypersensitive?  Yes, it appears so!

So how can we deal with rude children who aren't our own?

Yet again, the bottom line is creating a positive relationship with your child's friends. You don't have to be a gooseberry in your child's relationships- far from it! Stay out of their play unless invited!- but it's incredibly important that you greet and farewell your child's friends politely and show at least a little interest in them as people.  There's nothing to stop you commenting positively on their clothes, their new hairstyle or whatever else might come to mind, as long as it's authentic and honest (they will smell a fake comment a mile off!); there's nothing stopping you asking them what they like to eat before preparing a snack or lunch, and responding, and remembering next time.  (Asking them about their parents is NOT showing interest in them, by the way.) They may not be used to being spoken to like this, though, and may seem embarrassed or shy, or reject your interactions completely- all you can do is try, and persist in your attempts to be civil.  (You are the grown-up- you can take a few rejections!)

The next step is to praise your own child's good manners in front of their rude friends, and praise the good manners of any other friends in a group situation.  If you keep this up, eventually your child (and possibly your child's other friends) will notice that there's a problem- they may even correct their rude friend for you! -or they may come to their own conclusions about the desirability of that friend.

And there is a point where it's not okay for someone else's child to behave abusively towards you. I'm talking about really bad cases here- kids who run around smashing things, hitting others, using foul language and so on.  Treat them the same way you would your own child- ask them firmly to stop, and explain why.  If they repeatedly ignore you, it's time to part company- ring the parent to come and take them home, or go home yourself, but don't forget to explain to your child what's happening and why.  You don't have to accept unacceptable behaviour, and it's a valuable lesson for your own child to show where your boundaries are. 

Your child may protest if you end a play date early or send a friend home from their birthday party- they will probably protest!- but you have rights too.  Ask how they'd feel if another adult was being horribly rude to them, and you let it go on and on- would that be okay?  Of course not! 

And don't forget to at least try to explain the situation to the other parent.  Not an ideal situation- but sometimes you do have to draw a line in the sand.  Don't be afraid to do so.  Your child is watching you, and if you let his friends abuse your limits, guess who's likely to test those limits next?


  1. I am incredibly anal about manners. there is no excuse for bad manners IMO. I loathe a certain schoolmate of Lotties, as she is so terribly rude. I pulled her up the other day for not saying 'thank you' after I handed her a drink, and both her AND her mother looked dumbly at me. grrrrr.

  2. Well, continue to pull her up then... and praise Lottie extravagantly in front of her when L says thanks and please... that's all you can do! Commiserations!

  3. I was not raised to be polite. If people said please and thank you to me I would sometimes say them back, but not always. It wasn't until I got married that my husband sat down with me for a talk about it. He told me that he was raised to be polite, and that he wanted our children to be polite as well, and that meant that I had to set a good example. So I learned it, because he had a point. And it helped me a lot in my interactions with others; politeness can give you something to say when you have no idea what to say. It taught me how to enter a room, something I was terrible at and dreaded before. Our daughter has been given many compliments on her politeness.


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