To learn good manners, kids must see them

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 24, 2006

While we were having breakfast in a small eatery recently, a group of teens came in. They saw that there weren’t enough seats to accommodate them, so they departed. When we left the restaurant a few minutes later, they had gathered in a parking lot across the street, presumably to decide where to go next.

Their discussion was loud enough to be heard at a good distance, and it was sprinkled with language that most still would find offensive.

My reaction was the same that many others would have. I mutter about the decline of manners in young people. In 1997 when Public Agenda, a non-profit, nonpartisan research organization, asked a nationwide sampling of adults what came to mind when they thought about teen-agers, nearly 70 percent answered “rude.” A follow-up survey two years later found that the picture hadn’t changed much.

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Has there really been a decline in manners or are we just being grumpy? Perhaps it’s a little of both.

An ardent defender of individual rights, I nevertheless find myself agreeing with Judith Martin, who writes the Miss Manners column in the Washington Post. She says that “…civilization requires some training in restraint so that we can get along.”

That train-ing has to come early. Children are by nature self-centered, and I have watched my own children and the parents of other young children working to teach their children some of that self restraint that is a large part of manners. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “Good manners are made up of petty sacrifices.”

I recall that instilling manners was a part of the educational process, too. In the elementary school lunchroom, there were tables of six or eight pupils. No one could leave the table until everyone had finished, and the teachers encouraged children to eat slowly. If you wanted to play ball during the lunch break, you had to make certain you sat at a table with people who also wanted to play. Sometimes it was agonizing to sit a table with a slow eater and watch some of your classmates troop out to the playground.

It was a lesson in patience, though, one that was reinforced at my grandparents’ house, where you didn’t leave the table until my grandfather finished. He was never in a hurry.

At the lunchroom table other lessons were taught, too: Eating with one hand in your lap, not putting your elbows on the table, not talking with your mouth full, and using a napkin. Some kids were learning those same lessons at home, and school was simply reinforcement. For others, though, etiquette was learned at school.


other places we learned that using “sir” or “m’am” with adults was not a sign of subservience but of respect. We learned that saying “please” or “thank you” was not a cave-in.

We learned that there is such a thing as “polite conversation” and that consideration of others’ feelings is not weakness.

If our teen-agers have failed to learn some of those lessons, it might be because too many adults have forgotten them. I can’t think of many behaviors we observe in teens that we don’t also see in adults.

Drivers tailgating in traffic, cutting off other vehicles, making obscene gestures at other drivers are hardly setting examples of civility. Supposedly mature adults interrupting and shouting past each other on television talk shows is the opposite to what we once considered as common courtesy. The pay packages and popularity of radio personalities – we used to call them disc jockeys – seems to be proportionate to the amount of profanity they use on the air. That person carrying on a loud cell phone conversation in a restaurant or movie theater is as likely to be an adult as a teen.

I ran across an observation by Fred Astaire that merits consideration: “The hardest job kids face today is learning good manners without seeing any.”

-Bill Brown can be contacted at 377 Quail Hollow Drive, Dadeville AL 36853 or by e-mail at