Dancing feetIt’s only natural to start thinking more about manners and their importance when you’re responsible for shaping and guiding a young life. Now that my daughter is old enough to express herself verbally, as well as through body language and facial expressions, I find I’m becoming ever more aware of the differences between the way I was brought up, and the way my friends, peers and I are bringing up our children.

Some of what I’m noticing is a cultural difference, given that I was brought up in Australia and I am raising my daughter in Norway, but much of it is the inevitable generation gap; probably every generation feels that the next one is cruder, less considerate, with worse manners. But I can’t help wondering, in this age of obsessing about whether our children are well-adjusted, confident and happy above all else, are we actually ensuring they will be less polite?

I was brought up in an age of social change; it was the 70s and parents were, perhaps for the first time, beginning to be mindful of how their parenting impacted on the feelings of the child, rather than only how their child impacted on the lives of those around them. I probably felt some of this more acutely, given that my father is a psychologist and was then a guidance counselor in the education sector.  He was also a very hands-on father, which was a fairly new attitude at the time. However, I was still taught to be considerate of others, to say “excuse me” when I was inconveniencing someone, whether it was my fault or not, and to say “please”, “thank you” and to call adults by their last name (Mrs Smith, Mr Jones, etc.).

This combination of values and attitudes has led me to want a good balance for my daughter, but I find I am often at a loss to know where that balance lies and how to achieve it. I want her to feel that she has a voice, that she is important and that her needs are valued, yet I also want her to acknowledge the needs and comforts of those around her, and this is where I think we’re starting to lose ground.

So, what does it mean to have good manners? At its most basic level, it means putting the needs of others ahead of your own. Making sure those around you are as comfortable as possible, even if that means you are less comfortable. That might sound strange, or extreme, but if you think about some rules of politeness, you’ll see that this is what it boils down to. For example, there is one piece of cake left. You want it, but it’s the polite thing to do to offer it to everyone else before you take it. It is then the polite thing for everyone else to deny that they want it, and only take it after repeated assurances from all others present that they absolutely don’t want it. On more than one occasion I’ve seen this last piece of cake thrown away because no one will be the “rude” person who took the last piece.

But would today’s children take the last piece of cake? What I often find myself doing as a parent is putting the desires of my daughter ahead of my own most of the time, and I’m not the only one. Many, if not most, of my friends with children do this too. That’s not to say they are lax with discipline, indulgent parents, or parents who spoil their children. But they do put their lives aside for the sake of their children. They give up leisure activities, hobbies, travel and all sorts of things they previously enjoyed because they feel, for whatever reason, that their children should always come first. Don’t get me wrong, when it comes to welfare, children must come first, because they have no control over their lives and it’s our responsibility as parents to make sure they have everything they need. But the key word here is need. What I’m talking about goes beyond need, and isn’t even really about want, but more about satisfying a desire on the parent’s side to be a present, engaged and active parent.

In our desire to be these active, engaged parents, are we making our children rude, selfish people? Not because they have it in their nature, but because we are teaching them that whatever they need or want should be catered for immediately. What is going to happen in a world where everyone thinks they are the most important person in any room at any time?

Previous generations were less afraid of the emotional impact of their actions on their children; a parent was expected to put the fear of God into their children to behave well in public, and children usually did. They were also spanked, put in cupboards, sent to bed without dinner… we must acknowledge that times have changed. The old-time punishments are no longer acceptable (and illegal in some countries), but our expectations of children seem not to have changed. We still want them to behave themselves in public, but there is less motivation for them, especially when we send them mixed messages about whose needs are most important at any given time.

I always thought I would be a strict parent, mostly because I really can’t stand bratty children. But one of the biggest challenges for me as a parent is to remember that our daughter is only the sweetest, cutest little girl in the entire world to us. When she sings a little song about balloons at the top of her voice on the bus, I think it’s adorable, and can’t believe it when some jerk rolls his eyes because he just wants a quiet journey home. I need to remind myself that I used to be that guy. I didn’t stop to look at how sweet that little girl was, I just wanted a peaceful journey.

So what is the answer, when we are no longer willing or able to use threats of violence to control our children’s behaviour? Children are often not capable of seeing why they should put the needs of others ahead of their own, and they need further motivation to do so. I certainly don’t have a definitive answer. The way I have chosen to deal with it thus far is by explaining to my daughter that seeing other people happy is a good thing, and will make her feel good too. At two years old this is a difficult concept for her to grasp, but it is one I want her to be aware of as early as possible. I also try to instill in her a sense of fairness and equality – if she lets another child go first on the swing, it will be her turn next and then everyone will have a chance to have fun. The reward (and motivation) is sharing joy.

I also try to be on my best behaviour around my daughter, because she is a small mirror: everything I do, she wants to do too. If I model polite behaviour, she will (in theory) copy me. This means at home as well as in public. I say thank you when she does what I ask of her, I give her compliments about her behaviour, attitude and helpfulness, and I try to be mindful not to take a bad mood out on her. Or her dad (this one is a real challenge – it’s so easy to turn on your partner when you’re frustrated!).

Politeness is a lesson I need to remind myself about constantly even as I teach it to my daughter. The more we are aware of it as parents, the more our children will learn it from us and model our behaviour. It also taps into their sense of right and wrong – young children love to feel they’ve done the right thing, and when politeness and fairness is rewarded and encouraged they will want to repeat it.

NOTE: Remind me to read this again when my sweet little girl is a teenager.

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