A world where manners matter

By Kris Ferrazza | Jul 13, 2018

Civility has been in the news these last few weeks, and it has me thinking about bad behavior and good manners.

When I was a child, manners mattered. In our house, we often were reminded to keep our elbows off the table, chew with our mouths closed, be respectful of the people around us, and my personal favorite: “sit like a lady.”

It was the 1970s, and children still were seen and not heard, for the most part. The adults in our world didn’t want to hear a lot of commotion or witness loads of ridiculous behavior from the kids in their lives. When the five of us got rambunctious in the house, we were told to go upstairs, or head outside where “you can run around and make all the noise you want.” So we did.

Back then, adults had a very low tolerance for roughhousing indoors, backtalk, noise or general rudeness. Or maybe that was just at my house. Either way, when we went out in public, or company was coming, we all had to huddle up for what my folks called “a little pep talk.”

It was a preemptive strike on the part of my parents. My mother would say things like, “Be on your best behavior,” “Use your best manners,” and “Behave like young ladies and gentlemen.” My father would take a different tack, warning us not to embarrass him and issuing dire warnings of what was to come if we acted up. (Basically that we’d never leave the house again until we were 18.)

A retired cop, my father liked to point out children who were misbehaving in public and say, “See that? That is what I do not want to see.” He would tell us to observe this terrible behavior, and make a mental note never to do it.

He also preached that any bad behavior on our part reflected poorly on them.

“Do not embarrass me in here,” he would warn before we got out of the car.

Bottom line: it was effective. They weren’t spanking us or verbally abusing us. Instead, they talked until they were blue in the face about manners. It must have been tedious and exhausting. (I know it was for us.) But in the end, they got five well-behaved children. At least out in public.

My mother likes to tell a story about the seven of us going to visit the neighbors one day. Once the social call had begun, our host craned his neck and peered behind us.

“I’m just trying to see where you wind them up,” he joked, commenting on our angelic manners. We were like five little dolls. My parents beamed. And so did we.

“We could take you kids anywhere,” my father, now 89, still boasts. “Where would you ever see five kids as well-behaved as you were?”

Apparently this apple didn’t fall far from the tree, because I often channel my parents and give my daughter, Elizabeth, pep talks, especially when we are going out in public or company is coming to visit. I want her to know manners matter.

She got the point. And quickly realized she could use it to get my goat. One morning my preschooler randomly announced, “I’m not going to say thank you anymore.” I feigned lack of interest. Another day she said, “I have some good news and some bad news.” Taking the bait, I asked, “Well, what’s the bad news?”

“I’m not using good manners anymore,” she said. There was no good news.

The truth is, she is polite by nature. So even if she wanted to be an ill-tempered little girl, I don’t think she has it in her.

When she was 3, she became obsessed with the book “Grover’s Guide to Good Manners.” I’ll bet we read it 10 times a day. Manners were on her mind all the time

So one morning we went to a story hour at a nearby library. While the children and their parents waited for the story to begin, a few of the larger boys started roughhousing a bit. A pillow got tossed, then another. Soon, a small pillow fight had broken out in the middle of the room, with two boys battling it out, gladiator style.

The parents seemed oblivious, and continued chatting. Enter Miss Manners.

Elizabeth saw the confrontation and walked right into the middle of the melee. She put one hand on each boy’s shoulder. They were on their knees wrestling and seemed to be caught off-guard when a curly-haired girl half their age toddled up to them. Looking the first boy in the eye, she firmly said, “No.” Then she turned to the second boy and repeated, “No.” They looked at her, surprised at the authority in her little voice.

“Stop,” she said. “We have to be nice.”

All eyes were on my daughter now, parents and children alike. The pair looked at my little peacemaker as if to say, “Who the heck are you?” In that moment, a third boy threw a huge pillow from across the room and it hit Elizabeth square in the head.

Barbarians. Stunned, she looked at me and then retreated to my lap. Sometimes it’s best just to stay out of the way.

Just because she preached good manners didn’t mean hers were always perfect. Not by a long shot. We had an evening routine where my husband would get home from work and he and Lizzie would head right outside to play for a bit while I made dinner. They would visit our chickens, gather the eggs, play on the swings and pet our dog. Eventually, I would call, “Dinner!” and end their fun. It was a special time they shared, and Elizabeth looked forward to it all day.

One night I already had dinner in the oven, and decided I’d join them for some fresh air. But the moment I headed out the door behind them, my daughter turned to face me.

“No,” she said, adopting the same tone she had used with the library boys. She held her little hand up like a tiny traffic cop. “Not you, Mama. Not you.”

Not the nicest way to get her message across, but I got the point. Over the years I’ve struggled with the notion of teaching her to be polite and kind, but also direct and truthful. I want her to assert herself, but not come off as rude and bossy. Where is the line?

Is there still a place in today’s society for “ladylike” behavior? I think so. I’ve certainly told my daughter to “sit like a lady” when she was unwittingly sitting like a frog while wearing a skirt. And I discourage her from engaging in potty humor, gossip and petty arguments, urging her to rise above it all.

But a parent’s love and guidance can only go so far. And as I’m sure my siblings and I at times embarrassed and disappointed our own parents, Lizzie has pulled a few tricks out of her hat.

At TJ Maxx one day she walked straight up to a well-dressed lady and looked up at her. My daughter was very young and looked like a little doll with her blonde curls and pretty dress.

“Well, hello,” the lady said, smiling down at my child. I beamed with pride.

“I cut the cheese,” Lizzie said simply.

And the beat goes on.

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