Sam Wilson wonders what the big deal is about enforcing manners.
start off by saying I have been blessed with truly lovely sons. Seriously, they
are a joy. Sure, they kvetch
over-excited and climb things they shouldn’t and talk absolutely constantly…
but through all that, I think you can always tell that they are really nice
yeah,” I hear you say, “every parent says that.” And yes, that’s true but then
I (like most parents, I suppose) know I am right. Which is why I am kind of
ambivalent when the little blighters are tripped up by their manners.
day, we were having a lovely Newlands* forest walk with my parents. The sun was
dappling down through the trees, the dogs were behaving themselves, Josef had
found a very useful walking stick… it was shaping into one of those mornings
where you just feel so smug-full of family you want to smile at everyone you
see. (Which I was doing.)
point, we settled by a little mountain stream to enjoy a picnic. While we were
all unpacking, my father sprung open a Tupperware of chicken kebabs, which made
my youngest, Benjamin, perk up no end.
“Can I have
one of those, Grandpa?” he asked, sweetly.
depends,” my father smiled, giving me a wink. “What’s the magic word?”
replied, holding out his hand.
me up here… am I the only one out there having difficulty getting my children
to adhere to social convention? I mean, in the forest/ kebab example, Ben was
being polite, in one sense – by not being grabby or whiney and by asking gently
with a smile – but by forgetting ‘the magic word’ issue, he found himself being
rude without really realising why.
defence, I must stress that we don’t call please ‘the magic word’ in our house.
At home, when one of the kids forgets to say please we just pause significantly
until they remember.)
just one example. Josef, my eldest, really enjoys a good burp. In fact, I think
his professed Grapetiser obsession may be based solely on the bubble rather
than the taste factor.
we were with friends in the Spur a few weeks ago. Not Constantia Uitsig. The
goes Joey. “Pardon me,” he says automatically, with a happy smile.
you might think? Well… he did it 17 times. Seriously. I didn’t know there were
enough bubbles in a Grapetiser to fuel 17 burps but apparently there are.
Now again, social
convention maintains that burping in public is seriously uncouth. Especially
repeatedly. But I find myself watching his shiny little smile, as he launches
quite inoffensive little burp after another and thinking: “Why is this so rude
again? I mean, I know I am supposed to get him to stop doing this – but can
someone remind me why exactly?”
jump to conclusions and think that I am advocating a move away from manners. I
believe many of the conventions of etiquette that we pass down from generation
to generation are simply there to steer us in a more thoughtful and
community-minded direction, whilst perhaps sanding off our more selfish
corners. And that’s fantastic.
But I have
also seen parents humiliate their children for forgetting to say please at a
crowded dinner table, by drawing out the error for everyone else to singsong play
along with. I have seen others lean over to smack the hand of a child who
innocently stretches for the last biscuit on the plate, causing little cheeks
to purple with shame and embarrassment.
know about you, but to my mind, isn’t that kind of reaction kind of defeating
the point? Isn’t etiquette all about respecting, and not trampling on, the
feelings of others?
I think so.
So while I will continue to pause significantly at Ben when he reaches out,
smiling but wordless, for a glass of juice and gently tut at Josef when he
embarks on the 3rd burp of a bubbly drink… I just can’t muster up
any real parenting ire in this regard.
missing an important boat here? I’ll get back to you in ten years. In the
meantime… my boys really are lovely little people.
This article first appeared in Cape Town’s Child magazine.