We used to call them manners.
Manners are social graces designed to reinforce respect for others, especially elders (or in the old world, betters) and people in positions of authority. They establish codes of behavior that cultivate characters of decency and humility.
Sometimes manners involve nonessential techniques, like spooning your soup to the back of the bowl, or drinking your tea with a pinkie extended, or buttering your bread one bite at a time. Most times manners address ways to deepen appreciation for all those around you that keep you mindful of how much you depend upon them for your welfare. They remind you that you are not the center of the universe.
Today “manners” sounds like something your grandmother insisted upon in a day gone by. But looking at the behavior of some of our children, they need to return as a day come again. Recast them as “social skills” if you must, but rediscover them, please.
Our society has become too child-centered. Parents fear for a child’s self-esteem. They want kids to be happy. The best way for a child to experience happiness, however, is to teach a child to be good. And teaching a child to be good means teaching a child to obey parents, respect authority, and practice politeness toward others. Children need to learn gratitude for what they have and for what others do for them, rather than allowing them to expect that the world owes them whatever they want.
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother” — this is the first commandment with a promise — “so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.” For this is right. If we parents want what’s right for our kids, we need look no further than this Bible wisdom.
The next verse continues: “And fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Yes, fathers and mothers are subject to the same self-discipline they want to teach their children. We can’t ask them to behave well if we behave poorly. That builds resentment. But if we model grace and manners, we can and should expect the same from them.
Dr. Barbara Howard teaches at pediatric medicine at Johns Hopkins. She believes manners are crucial to human growth. Says Howard: “As a pediatrician, I worry about the trajectories of children’s growth and development: measuring a baby’s head size, weighing a toddler, asking about the language skills of a preschooler. Manners are another side of the journey every child makes from helplessness to autonomy. And a child who learns to manage a little courtesy, even under the pressure of a visit to the doctor, is a child who is operating well in the world, a child with a positive prognosis.”
Many problems we bemoan these days in the schoolhouse, the courthouse, the workplace, and the neighborhood can be traced to the house adults grew up in as kids. Teachers need parents to assume they have their child’s best interest at heart. Public authorities need parents to reinforce respect for their offices. And bosses need future employees to respect the company they work for more than just see it as a chance for them to succeed.
We need our kids to be ambitious for personal success, but that success must be defined with deference for others. No one should be considered a personal success who is a social failure at the same time. Successful people make people successful.
Parenting is hard work. Having a child is nothing compared to making a child. When we make children, so to speak, we are forming them for a life that is good — which turns out also to be the good life for us all.
George Mason is pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church. The Worship section is a regular feature underwritten by Advocate Publishing and by the neighborhood business people and churches listed on these pages. For information about helping support the Worship section, call 214.560.4202.