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White Knuckle Parenting: The Manners Initiative

Does anyone else feel like they are constantly fighting a battle to teach their kids manners?

There is a lot of emphasis in our society on manners, especially as it applies to children. Children are supposed to be quiet in quiet places; responsive when asked questions; and able to say "please," "thank you," and "it's nice to meet you" on cue.

At least, I assume this is how children are supposed to act based on the looks I get when my kids do the opposite of those things.

I am going to start out by saying that while my kids' manners are sometimes lacking, their moral compass is straight. Last week my 10-year-old told a gossiping classmate that he wasn't interested in spreading false rumors. My middle son accepts any person who is kind, no matter their age, social status, or appearance. (He especially loves strange men sitting alone at highway rest stops. It is actually a little bit of a problem.) My youngest son is the rudest of my three, but he radiates joy and an eagerness to be a good person.

That said, they could stand to be a little more pleasant.

I am looking forward to the day when I don't have to narrate our outings with a running narrative of how to be polite.

For example:

My kids: ping ponging off of the walls in an office building. Me: "This is a place of business! We walk in a straight line in a place of business! Walk to the right in a place of business!" Repeat.

Don't worry though, all three of them are already well versed and compliant in the "stand to the right; walk to the left" rule for Metro escalators. All DC metro area children learn this by age three.

My running narrative started a few years back when my autistic middle son used to randomly grab strangers in public and I would use the narrative to try to explain to him in the moment why that wasn't acceptable and simultaneously let the grabbed person know that I wasn't excusing his behavior.

The sentence that I say probably more than any other in life is, "Watch out for people!" It's like my kids are oblivious to the fact that people other than them exist. They have an uncanny knack for veering into passers by. There could be one person in a store and one of my children is guaranteed to nearly trip him. God forbid we end up in a crowded space. It's like pinball.

It's not intentional, it's not malicious, it's just a complete nonunderstanding of the fact that other people share the Earth's space with them.

Then there are the times when my kids are too polite. How is that possible, you ask? Oh, if any kids can take being polite full circle back to not polite, it is mine.

See, my oldest son is learning how to hold doors for people. He's pretty good at it, although he has been known to unintentionally drop doors right in people's faces. The problem is that sometimes he doesn't understand that holding the door for too long is just as bad as not holding it at all. Many a time we have ended up in a standoff with an adult who is just not okay with a child holding a door for him and my son, who is trying his hardest to get the grown up to just walk through the darn door already.

Then there is the autism issue. There is a whole different set of expectations when it comes to autistic behavior, communication, and manners. One of the biggies for us is known as "scripting." People with autism often repeat phrases from books, television, or other scenarios to communicate things in the moment. 

For example, my son will often let me know that he doesn't want to go back to school by saying, "I hate Mondays." If you are familiar with Garfield, you may be aware that he says that fairly regularly. Garfield is also the reason we eat lasagna for dinner every Thursday, but that's another story. Scripting has its benefits in terms of helping my son be able to communicate, but sometimes his choices aren't the best.

Garfield is a little too sassy when his words come out of a 9-year-old boy. Actually, pretty much anything a 9-year-old will watch or read and find funny is not the most polite thing in the world. It's not a problem if your child reads it, laughs, and moves on. It is a problem when your child repeats it every 14 seconds for the next month.

I'm not a total stickler for manners, but I do think that kids have to learn manners and figure out when they are essential (anytime we're at Dad's workplace) and when it's okay to let them slide (dinner time at my house). I also try to teach them one of the most important rules for dealing with people in public: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." 

If you could remember that last one when you see me, I'd appreciate it as well.

If you see me out in public—you'll recognize me because I'm the lady shouting, "Be mannerly!" to three zigzagging boys—just know that I'm trying. Also know that if your child is misbehaving and I smile at you, I am not judging. I am feeling camaraderie—and maybe hoping that your kids' behavior makes mine look a little bit calmer.

Jean, a.k.a. Stimey, writes a personal blog at Stimeyland; an autism-events website for Montgomery County, Maryland, at AutMont; and a column called Autism Unexpected in the Washington Times Communities. You can find her on Twitter as @Stimey.

Jill September 13, 2012 at 12:14 PM
I don't know any kids who have what would have been considered good manners when I was growing up. Hell, to hear my parents tell it, I didn't have good manners when I was growing up and neither did any of my cousins or friends. Not that we were horrible children, we just felt uncomfortable around adults that we didn't know well, especially if they gushed about how big we'd grown and treated us like babies. All kids hate it when adults treat them like babies. My mother-in-law used to force my son to greet her friends by physically grabbing him when he tried to duck behind her and gripping his head so he had to look at them. He still probably hasn't gotten over that. With all the hysteria over "stranger danger" it's amazing that kids don't run screaming in terror from every new adult that they encounter. I'd say your boys are doing fine. Anyone who frowns at kids who are just being kids or who gives you the hairy eyeball when your sons are being a bit high spirited is just a big old grumpypants.
Kristine Vosecky September 14, 2012 at 05:51 PM
"The sentence that I say probably more than any other in life is, "Watch out for people!" It's like my kids are oblivious to the fact that people other than them exist. They have an uncanny knack for veering into passers by. There could be one person in a store and one of my children is guaranteed to nearly trip him. God forbid we end up in a crowded space. It's like pinball." I am so glad that my kids aren't the only ones. :) Thanks!!

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