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“I’m making a list
I’m making a list of things I must say
For politeness,
And goodness and kindness and gentleness
Sweetness and rightness:
Hello
Pardon me
How are you?
Excuse me
Bless you
May I?
Thank you
Goodbye
If you know some that I’ve forgot,
Please stick them in you eye!”
― Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends

‘No, you can’t have a drink’ said a woman standing in the line next to me at the food court. She loomed over the little boy who had the temerity to ask and there was a controlled edge to her anger. The boy, who looked to be around six years old, took a step back and seemed to shrink into himself.

I’m not here to judge. Children instinctively know how to push their parents’ buttons so who knows what brought that woman to that point. But whatever it was, if it was anything, her behaviour did send some mixed messages.

Manners don’t come naturally to human beings; we have to be trained out of our uncivilised behaviour the moment we start noticing we are not alone. There are other people to consider and rules to follow. Our children need to begin by learning how to say excuse me and please and thank you. One of the first words out of a child’s mouth before it even knows what the word means is ‘ta.’ We hand them something and say ‘ta’ and encourage them to say it back to us. ‘Did you say thank you to the nice lady?’ we ask. ‘Thank you’ they echo after us without really knowing why they are doing it. We ask our children to cover their mouth when they cough and when they yawn and we tell them to stop picking their nose or wiping it on their sleeve. It’s an ongoing grind, seemingly never ending. But after a while our children do get it. Good manners make adults happy.

Then again, the question remains, if good manners make adults happy, why are they so inconsistent about it themselves? That is probably what the boy was thinking as he watched his mother being all smiles, and cooing gently at the woman behind the counter taking her order. Do as I say, not as I do was probably the lesson he was taking away from that incident. One that he would most likely pass on to his own children.

This boy was learning that good manners aren’t about kindness or thoughtfulness towards others. Good manners are like a garment that you put on to suit the occasion. Behave one way in a traffic jam and another at a dinner party. There will be any amount of garments for this boy to put on and take off when his turn comes. Perhaps his mother will question his behaviour and say that she hadn’t raised him to act that way and perhaps she will even believe it.

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