Once upon a time, a long time ago, I went to college. Hofstra University, located in scenic (not really) Hempstead, NY, is my alma mater. I was a liberal arts guy but Hofstra was primarily a business school. Far be it from me to come across as anti-business or even anti-business student but you could always tell the business majors in liberal arts classes. Particularly in subjects like English Lit., History, and, especially Philosophy, the business students were the ones who were there because of those nagging liberal arts requirements they had to deal with in order to graduate. In general, they could present themselves in one of three different ways in class. In fairness, a good number of business students got really into the classes. They were genuinely interested and engaged in the subject matter. Another group of business students was engaged in the subject matter but they thought the subject was stupid and expressed that sentiment as directly and often as possible. These were the folks who were put off by the fact that in many of the liberal arts, there were no concrete, black and white answers to questions. In English Lit classes, they would demand that the professor explain exactly HOW that poem means what you say it means. WHERE does it say that? I don’t see where it says that! Is it going to be on the test? The third group were the ones who made no bones about their lack of interest in the subject and would put their heads down on their desks and snooze the minute the lecture started.
During my freshman year, I was taking Introduction to Philosophy with Dr. Leon Pearl. Dr. Pearl looked exactly like you’d expect a philosophy professor named Dr. Leon Pearl to look. He was a short, old man with a long grey beard who very patiently tried to explain Bertrand Russell and other deep thinkers to a class consisting in large part of business majors. One day, a bigger chunk of the class than usual was drifting off to sleep and Dr. Pearl couldn’t take it. He stopped his lecture and said “Class, manners are more important than anything I’m going to teach you this semester!” I’m guessing that most of the students resented what they saw as a professor’s patronizing attitude. In fact, I probably resented it too. But he was right.
Mind your manners, kids!
Most kids cringe when you bring up the subject of manners. I’ll confess that when I hear the word, I think of my mother nagging me about them or I just form an image in my head of a person roughly resembling Dana Carvey’s Church Lady, casting a disapproving eye on my behavior. But cringeworthy or not, developing manners that ascend at least to the level of “adequate” is vital to all kinds of success, not the least of which is social success with your peers.
One reason most kids react so negatively to the topic of manners, aside from the fact that manners are something they’re compelled by adults to use – which adds one strike against them right away – is that adults don’t often explain why they’re so important. To me, when people use manners, not in a slavish or obsequious, or overly formalized way, but in a genuine way, they express a certain level of respect and consideration for others as well as an acknowledgement of other people’s autonomy. When you say “please,” you’re acknowledging that the person you’re asking has the option of saying “no” and that you appreciate that. Even when that’s not necessarily true (i.e. “Johnny, please take the trash out now”) it carries a less dictatorial tone that takes the edge off the prospect of doing something unpleasant.
For all kids, quirky and otherwise, I think it’s important not only to teach manners but also to explain to them why each particular instance of common courtesy is important. It’s one of those areas that might not yield immediate positive feedback from kids. For example, you’re probably not going to hear little Johnny say “Geez, thanks for explaining the concept of ‘thank you’ to me, Mom. I really appreciate it.” But it’s going to pay dividends in the long run if the explanation they get goes further than “Because I’m your dad and I told you to.”
I’ve been harping on this topic with the kids I work with this summer. In the summertime, we run a small day camp. We use vans to bring the kids on excursions everyday and many of my orations about manners come down to ways of making the van rides and transitions less of an ordeal for everyone. I’ve had three rules that I’ve tried to drum into my kids’ heads all summer. They are 1) When walking in or out of a door with a group of people, hold the door open for the person behind you so it doesn’t smash into their face, 2) when getting into the van, slide into the seat as far as you can so people don’t have to climb over you and 3) use deodorant! I work with the teenagers and it’s summertime so #3 is a biggie! Maybe they think it’s funny that I put using deodorant on the same level as the other two rules, but they haven’t minded my harping on these issues. In fact, many of the kids have begun reminding others of them as well.
Growing up in a Jewish household as I did, I became very accustomed to hearing my mom urge me to “be a mensch.” Mensch is a Yiddish word and, according to Wikipedia (so it must be true, right?), it means “a person of integrity and honor.” That may be true in a literal sense but in our house, being a mensch usually referred to behaving in a way that demonstrated concern or respect for others. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. If you’re watching TV with your family and you go into the kitchen to get a snack, and you bring snacks in for everyone else without being told to do so, that’s being a mensch. The hard part for some kids is that when you’re trying to be a mensch, you have to do it without the expectation of immediate reward. I think the idea of being a mensch, or using manners, can be explained to kids as being similar to the idea of opening a savings account. If you put your money in a bank account that pays interest, you’re not going to see dramatic, tangible results in a hurry – particularly with the rates banks are paying now. However, over time, it adds up and makes a difference. It’s an investment. Same thing with using manners. It’s important to explain to kids that when they use manners or treat others with respect or consideration, it creates a perception in others of a kind, trustworthy person. Eventually, those perceptions can lead to positive changes in the way people treat you. It’s asking a lot of quirky kids to respond positively to this idea right away. It involves nuanced, abstract ideas, some theory of mind skills, and (horrors!) the idea that gratification might not be immediate. But for those reasons, it becomes even more important to stress these ideas and their explanations.