Manners maketh… what exactly?
Sam Wilson wonders what the big deal is about enforcing manners.
(Tammy Gardner)
Let me start off by saying I have been blessed with truly lovely sons. Seriously, they are a joy. Sure, they kvetch and get 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 people.

“Yeah, 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.


The other 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.)


At some 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.


“Well, that depends,” my father smiled, giving me a wink. “What’s the magic word?”


Ben smiled right back.


“Now,” he replied, holding out his hand.


Oh, oops.


But, back 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.


(In his 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.)


And that’s 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.


So, there we were with friends in the Spur a few weeks ago. Not Constantia Uitsig. The Golden Spur.


<Burp> goes Joey. “Pardon me,” he says automatically, with a happy smile.


So what, 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?”


Now don’t 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.


I don’t 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.


Am I 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.

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