Children’s Manners, Past and Present
We hear a lot today about the fact that people seem ruder and more obnoxious than ever before, and observation seems to bear this out. We cut each other off on the roads and then make obscene gestures; we talk over each other; we don’t even bother to say “please” and “thank you.”
The rudeness of adults is also apparent in their children. Teachers complain of having to spend most of their time “civilizing” little savages, rather than teaching them.
Is there really a difference in manners today? And if so, why should we care?
There’s no question that manners are not much in evidence any longer, either among adults or children. The reason why is mainly because of our lifestyle. Our culture has accelerated dramatically and costs have escalated along with it. The result is that in most families both parents work, leaving little time for the children. Single-parent families are now much more common than they were in the past; in addition, the casual nature of American culture, with its insistence upon individual expression, means that “there are few cultural norms and expectations.” (Walsh, PG). In other words, nobody expects much of the children, and so they don’t give much in return.
Part of this, of course, is that young people, even young children, are immersed in a culture in which they want to be “cool” and “hip”, and such youngsters – often with rock or raps stars to guide them – not only don’t bother with manners, they find in their environment, it’s expected that they be rude, offensive, sexist and violent, at least in their speech. Was it always like this, or has there really been a change?
It’s axiomatic that each generation “rebels” against the one preceding it. Every young person has to distinguish himself or herself from their elders; it’s part of becoming a complete individual and forming one’s own identity. And each generation of parents thinks that its children are absolutely dreadful, and wonders where they came from. “Did the fairies come in the night and take away our little angel and replace her with Butt-head?” they ask. But aside from the normal conflict that arises as part of growth, is there a change in children’s manners? It would seem the answer is yes.
Young people today are much ruder than their parents and grandparents, and Walsh is of the opinion that the problem lies largely with the older people, as well as our culture. The idea of teaching etiquette and deportment is completely foreign to us today, even though such classes as ‘cotillion’ (ballroom dancing) were still part of the curriculum in the 1950’s and 1960’s. These formal classes taught boys and girls not only how to dance, but also how to relate to each other in a social setting. This then carried over into a society that was in general more mannered than it is today. People were expected to be civil to each other; it was simply part of life:
“Older generations used to learn manners by osmosis from their families and the surrounding culture. Many took dance lessons in their communities, while others learned to dance by teaching each other and practicing at home with parents and siblings. Dancing was an omnipresent part of the culture, and rudimentary social skills were a given, until the 60's turned American culture on its head.” (Walsh, PG).
The most important phrase there is “rudimentary social skills were a given.” They were not something unusual or outside the norm of behavior: it was generally expected throughout society that people knew what good manners were and how to use them. The sexual revolution, the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, and more recently the gay rights movement have had a profound effect on society; they have wrenched it apart. And in so doing, they have also dismantled the mechanisms by which children learned manners: “Pundits too often lament the lack of civility and manners in our society, without noting that the teaching of these traits is often neglected in our culture.” (Walsh, PG).
Until we, as a society, reestablish the importance of teaching manners, we will continue to have rude and surly children sired by rude and surly parents.
In order for society to raise children who are as well mannered as they were 30 or 40 years ago, some fundamental changes will have to occur. First, we will have to understand the value of politeness: it is nothing short of one of society’s most civilizing influences. Second, parents will have to understand that they are their children’s primary teachers, and that if they want polite children, they themselves will have to be polite. This means that parents will have to reinvolve themselves in their children’s lives, something that our hectic pace of living has curtailed. And finally, both parents and society must raise their expectations of children’s behavior. When expectations are high, people rise to meet them.
Finally, why does all this matter? It matters because a polite society is a less violent society; a society in which people understand one another and can reach one another; a society in which problems are solved more easily and more quickly. It is to everyone’s advantage to regain some of the “classiness” we’ve lost.
Walsh, Catherine. “Perspectives—Need to Teach Manners and Social Skills to Children.” America 11 May 1996: 5. Retrieved 21 May 2003 from The Gale Group, San Diego Public Library, San Diego, CA: http://web2.infotrac.galegroup.com/itw/infomark/617/996/37581577w2/purl=rc1_ITOF_0_A18280771&dyn=11!xrn_11_0_A18280771?sw_aep=sddp_main
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