Random Acts of Rudeness.

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?



Its more about how the children speak to others more than dress code or etiquette, although so many seemingly simple things are all important. The tone of voice, asking nicely rather than demanding or bossing, not grabbing, saying "may I.." and listening without interrupting. Not raising your voice. Cleaning up after onceself, not littering, etc... My wife and I endlessly repeat these things - my wife even resorting to role-playing which actually sometimes has worked! Manners are clearly learned. I agree, the hard thing is having the patience to teach them in an increasingly hurried, rushed, two-parent working family situation... In some ways we must rely more on schools (or daycare, preschool whatever) to reinforce these core tenets so that our children "act like human children, not like a wild-beasts" as my wife often says....


I try to teach my children basic respect and manners, even though it probably seems like a lost art. I don't expect perfection, but it's not out of line to instruct my son to hold the door for the family following us into church, or for my daughter to retrieve something that someone in front of us in the grocery store dropped on the floor. My biggest fight now is trying to explain to them why they get the door slammed in their faces, or why someone will walk right into them without an "excuse me!"

The clothing subject is a sore one with me- I am not very old (37), but I turn into a crotchety old lady when I see how unprofessionally some of my co-workers dress, especially on Fridays. There are so many categories of casual dress nowadays (business casual, dress casual, resort casual, smart casual...) that no one seems to grasp what "casual" means anymore. If an outfit is appropriate for a pool party or a day of cleaning out the garage, it's probably not OK to wear to work, in my opinion (unless you work at the pool or as a garage cleaner!)


I didn't think my mom was strict about manners until I saw her with my own daughter. Then I realized that it was just part of my upbringing so I didn't know any other way. When I went to college, moving from Ohio to New York, everyone thought I was "too polite and too nice". Now I'm so grateful my mom made sure I was "too polite." I still have a backbone, but I'm not a jerk, and now I'll make sure my daughter isn't either.


I have two boys (4 and 8) and they are every kind of energetic and mischievous. They get out of bed and hit ground literally running, have contests on the loudest burp, and wrestle constantly. But every time they are out of the house, I get huge compliments on their manners and how friendly they are. They always say please and thank you, stop to open doors for people, and help anyone who drops something to pick it up. I have simply chosen my battles - all the burping you want at home, wrestle until it's bedtime, etc. But when you leave the house, you put on your outside face. And they get such positive feedback from strangers that they actually like being nice!


Your comment about the intern and her "dress" hit home. I work for Career Services at a college and we had a student visit our county Commonwealth's Attorney office to inquire about an internship straight from the swimming pool. Swimsuit cover-up, wet ponytail, flip-flops! Guess what! She didn't get the internship. She was annoyed when I addressed the clothing issue with her and told me, "I didn't really need the internship anyway." YIKES.
Reece-March 2005
Ava-May 2007


I heartily agree that too often parents just look the other way and don't want the hassle of teaching proper decorum. That being said, I was thrilled this weekend when a 20something lifeguard booted a kid from the pool after he yelled, "You suck" at her when she announced that it was time for "Adult Swim." In fact, I went up to her afterwards to congratulate her on taking a stand. Too often we all just take it.


I'm with you, Leslie -- this sort of entitlement mentality drives me nuts. Some of it is simply parents making things a priority (like phone manners -- how can a kid learn how to answer a phone without being taught?). But rudeness is just one part of it; to me, the bigger issue is the complete lack of empathy or perspective -- the It's All About Me approach to life. I want my kids to understand that all of these other people they see every day have just as much right to respect and decency as they do.

Sunday we were caught in the massive backup when a tractor-trailer went off the Bay Bridge. We were all getting fussy after taking 2 hrs to go 8 miles -- especially my 7-yr-old, who had been looking forward to her cousin coming over as soon as we got home. So she started whining about how the accident had ruined her day. I just stopped her. I said, "do you know who's having an even worse day than you?" She couldn't fathom that. I said, "the truck driver, because when you drive off a bridge, you can get hurt really badly or even killed." Pretty much stopped her in her tracks.


The easiest way to teach manners is to lead by example...and coach constantly, especially if you have a pre-schooler!


While I don't remember my parents explicitly teaching me manners as a child (though I am sure that they did), my most formative experiences were in customer service-oriented first jobs. I spent two summers as a camp counselor, and another as a bank teller. Talk about the two things people get the most worried about, their children and their money! I was treated poorly by people so often that I resolved never to put someone down like that myself. Experiencing it firsthand made me realize just how far a genuine act of kindness can get you. So while I'm constantly reminding my daughter to use a napkin or stop fidgeting with her dress, I know that some of the bigger lessons may have to wait a bit longer to gel for her.