Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Uninformed Child in the Information Age

"Mind your manners!” “Be polite, honey!”

I heard this non-stop from my parents and my grandparents as a child. I recall being sent to an etiquette type program along with my friends to try and perfect the art of the curtsey, the hand shake and placing my napkin on my lap (all with spiffy white gloves on, mind you!). “Please,” “Thank you,” and “May I” were phrases that became ingrained. Maybe I could have recoiled from it all, but I didn’t dare: I had too much respect and fear of adults to do anything otherwise.

As a child in the late 1950’s and 1960’s, I got my information on manners and everything else from my parents, my teachers and maybe Captain Kangaroo on the television. That was then and this is now. Today’s children receive information from a much wider variety of people, places and things.

I think, however, from personal experience and observation, that today’s child can and is apt to recoil more than their parents did; to question often; to defy the adult suggestions on basic interpersonal manners.

About 10 or 12 years ago, when Kenny and Blake were young, a friend of Kenny’s who lived in our neighborhood in Weston, used to walk in to our house not only uninvited, but unannounced. I would turn around and jump when I found him plopped down in front of our t.v. or on the floor of our playroom, sans Kenny or Blake.

“Hello Matthew,” I’d say. “What are you doing here?”

He’d merely shrug. No “Hello Mrs. Evans. How lovely you look today ”or “Oh, hi! Kenny invited me over. Thanks!” The child would then proceed to open our fridge as if it were his own, hang about for a couple of hours and leave as stealthily as he had arrived. It goes without saying that he left without a “thank you.”

Jack had a buddy over a while back who didn’t care for the snack I had prepared, and, in making no bones about it, inquired as to whether he could have something else. Since I’m not a short order cook, I explained that that was it; sorry.

“Well, do you have cherry juice boxes? I don’t like the grape kind.”

It took all of my years of being informed not to conk the kid on the head.

Trust me: my own kids have manner slips and faux paus all the time. And it is frustrating as we have informed them – sit up straight, say “please” and “thank you,” announce when you come in the door from school, look adults in the eye when you speak with them, shake hands, etc. Yet they don’t do it as instinctively as I believe their father and I did as children, or perhaps we’re not banging it into them as often as our parents did with us. Or maybe Jon and I are sub-consciously rebelling about the repetitiveness to which we learned manners as children; maybe we are being more “friend” than parent. And, of course, there is all the other information on the television, movie and computer screens our children view to the contrary: kids speaking rudely to authority figures, running amuck, questioning the point of being polite.

It is most likely a stew of all of the above. I know it’s not 1965 anymore, nor would I want it to be. But when I sneeze in the company of my children – even the 20-something year olds – it would be nice to hear, “Bless you.” After all, it’s just polite!

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