Six years ago, as I was getting ready for my third maternity leave, one of my bosses in the Washington Post advertising department asked if my team could take on an intern. The girl was a senior at a prestigious all-girls private school. At The Washington Post, it’s a colossal pain to hire interns because of newspaper guild rules. But we did it as a favor to my boss, the girl and her family.
Our intern showed up for her first day of “work” wearing shorts and flip flops. Luckily for her, I’d just given birth. She would not have lasted long if I’d seen her flip-flopping on the sales floor amidst the hardworking reps and marketing analysts in suits, ties and pantyhose taking precious time to teach her about the world of work.
This story resides in my mental archives next to memories of children who call and bark into the phone “Who’s this?” when they’ve called my house. And the neighbor’s nine- year-old who loudly asked where the goody bags were at the end of my daughter’s birthday party (there were none). And a recent favorite – a local swim club that had to suspend a member’s child for being rude to the staff at the snack bar.
Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Namely – where are these children’s parents? Don’t they understand they are sending children out into the world and the workforce without a basic understanding of how to behave at work, at others’ homes, and in public places?
I know “it takes a village to raise a child.” However, I am not in the fulltime business of teaching other people’s children how to dress professionally, speak on the telephone, or behave to people serving food. Trust me, I’ve got my hands more than full teaching my three children to treat others (including me) with respect.
Teaching manners and etiquette to children is hard work. It takes years of repetition, time and patience. It is boring. There is no immediate gratification, since most children immediately forget your instructions and need to be told again (and again) to say please and thank you, to place the napkin on their lap, to tuck in their shirts, to look adults in the eye when speaking.
The way we parent today does not lend itself to teaching children manners. Most children’s daily lives seem characterized by rushing to and from activities and errands. Who has time to nag children into holding the door, thanking their soccer coach, writing a note to their teacher, or smiling at the nice person who hands them the chocolate milk at Starbucks?
We also are concerned, rightly so, with making our children feel special. No wonder we sometimes inadvertently teach them they are more special than everyone else. Why bug them to write thank you notes for birthday presents or call grandma when she sends tooth fairy money? Do they really need to say thank you to the cashier at McDonalds? Aren’t they perfect just the way they are?
Here’s the rub: etiquette is hardly an empty, perfunctory set of social rituals. Manners are not about who sits where at a formal dinner party. Being polite is recognizing that we are all part of a greater community, at work and in our daily lives. Toll booth operators we’ll never see again, a waitress who prevents a meltdown at California Pizza Kitchen, a new kid at school whose name we can’t seem to remember, the security guard at mommy’s office, that great-aunt we know only over the telephone -- these people matter. Simply because they are people, like us. That’s the heart of etiquette – mutual respect, consideration, and kindness.
Teaching children manners is giving them a life skill they’ll take into their first internships, first dates, first jobs, first marriages. I’m ranting about this for myself as much as everyone else. I’ve finally caught on that the endless reminding and gentle nagging I’ve done for years – and will continue to do for many more – is part of parental morality.
Do you see it the same way? What are your tales of random acts of rudeness at work, school and out in the world– and your plan to eradicate them?