I was an only child of older parents so in a way I was for my parents their fondest wish come true! While that was wonderful for me, I felt very special, but it did also put some subtle demands upon me that caused me to learn how to please my parents and to make them happy. So many times I became in touch with their feelings and sometimes out of touch with my own.
My mother had many close friends and she taught me to call them “Aunt” or “Uncle” even though they weren’t related to me. I think this was because it would have been improper in those days to call an adult by her first name, and it would have been somewhat awkward to call such a close family friend by “Mrs.” So I can understand the solution my parents chose and I think it was a common practice in those days. And it was not difficult for me to call these many friends “Aunt Martha” or “Aunt Lucille,” because after all I was fond of these friends too, and I felt close to them.
Sometimes one or two of these friends would be at our home for dinner and afterwards. It would be my bed time and my mother would then tell me to say “goodnight” and give a “goodnight hug and kiss” to these friends. I remember going around the living room and hugging and kissing and bidding good night to each one as my parents beamed their approval. They were glad I was such a loving child. And truthfully, there was nothing wrong with these innocent gestures. But what was troublesome was that I didn’t really want to engage in this friendship ritual, yet I was sort of stuck. You see, I knew this is what my parents expected me to do, and in fact, it was what they told me to do.
Little things sometimes have lasting effects upon our lives, and I believe I was affected by this particular parental request. As an adult, I don’t like to hug and kiss very many people. In fact, I avoid New Year’s Eve parties because I don’t want to be faced with mass kissing! When people come to visit our home, my husband usually hugs our friends while I usually simply verbally greet them. It’s funny, too, because a guest will move to hug Peter and yet sort of physically stammer when greeting me, sensing that I’m not a hugger. The only exception to my willingness to hug is children. I don’t make children feel like they have to hug me, but I do send out the nonverbal message that I am open and ready to give and receive a hug from them almost any time.
Another outcome of my parent’s good night ritual was that I never asked my children to call my friends by “Aunt” or “Uncle.” I rather gave them permission to call my friends by their first name, just as I did. And when I started the school, I extended that “privilege” to all my students of being able to call all of us teachers by our first names. I believe the most significant effect of my parents’ request is that it caused me to feel very strongly about not requiring children to do or say these “polite” things just because they are what we want them to do. I think that mutual respect means that we are willing to show respect to one another regardless of our age or station in life. I would be insulted if my husband were to ask me to say “thank you” to someone, or like George Burns used to say comically to Gracie Allen (is anyone else old enough to remember this?), “Say goodnight Gracie.” So I would not ask or tell my children to do this either. Neither would I ask or tell them to say “thank you” or many of those other mannerly euphemisms.
Manners are important, but they need to be learned from a point of appreciation, not from being required to say or do something. How, you might wonder, do we get our children to be sensitive and considerate enough to be polite to others? Well, instead of telling a child to say “hello to your Aunt Sally,” we would model saying hello to her. Before we were to go somewhere and see a friend, we would have a discussion with our child about the coming visit. Some of the things we would discuss would be what we could do or say that might help our friend feel welcomed into our home. This would include discussing how we could greet her, where we could ask her to sit, whether we would show her our house, which rooms might be included in the visit, whether we might have made a special treat for her, or whether we plan to offer her any refreshments. These things would be discussed with the child in advance of the meeting so that the child could feel respected and that her ideas and feelings were considered. These discussions of events before they happen cause children to use their imagination and evoke their sense of compassion and kindness towards others. They act like a trial run; they give children the feeling of having experiences.
We think wrongly that the only way to teach a child manners is to request that he say what we tell him to say or do what we tell him to do when we tell him. This may result in a child learning the proper prompts but it won’t get the result possible if we would instead take the child into consideration and not make demands that only create facades of behavior.
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Director/Elementary 1 Teacher