When my son was little, and I was on older mom (I had him when I was 40), my mantra was to pick my battles. I decided I didn’t care if he used the couch as a jungle gym, or refused to eat anything but noodles and apples and bacon. I did care though about safety and teaching him not to hurt other people. And manners. Manners were important.
So I made him say please when he wanted things, and thank you when he got them, using that old trick of asking for the magic word. He has always been a quick study, so pretty soon the magic word was an emphatic “please and thank you”, said really fast. He figured if he said all the magic words at once he would get results.
When he went to primary school it turned out manners were not the only thing required – there was in fact a colour-coded wall, emphasising kindness and respect and responsibility, among other things. Those all seemed to me to be good things, but perhaps overly complicated for small children to comprehend and encompass.
Codes of conduct
I thought a lot about codes of conduct then – after all, they are everywhere. Many shops have versions of them enshrined at check-out counters, and big institutions spend lots of money on staff get-togethers where such things are workshopped. Even (and this will give you pause) South African public servants have one.
And yet all around us people are plainly not living according to codes of conduct. That might be because none of us are all that good at living according to complex sets of externally imposed rules.
So, based on my experience as a parent I suggest something much simpler. A code of conduct that works in any set of circumstances I can think of goes like this:
Say please – that means you don’t expect things to be given to you with no work on your part. So no entitlement, no stealing, no grabbing. No commanding people to do things for you. No expecting someone to have sex with you when they don’t want to. No expecting people to keep house for you with no recognition of their work.
Say thank you – that means living with a sense of gratitude, of humbleness and of respect for other people. Taken together, please and thank you mean that you have truly looked at the other person, and seen what they give to any situation, and that you have fully bedded down the idea that things are not due to you just because you exist. Think how that might transform situations in which privilege is at play!
Tidy up after yourself – that means tidy your room, tidy the communal kitchen when you have made a sandwich, pick up after a picnic. It means corporations thinking about the environment. It implies taking responsibility for your actions, in everything you do in the world. You leave things better than you found them.
Of course, these ways of interacting with the world have to go deeper than a surface appearance of good manners. When we teach small children manners, we start with the externals, but a central parenting project is to bed these attitudes down so that they are second nature, and are a reflection of respect for people and for the planet.
And that’s it. I would suggest that if everyone, from the president down, lived with these three things at the centre of everything they do, we would not be the mess we are in.
As to my son, to this day people tell me he has beautiful manners. We are still working on tidying up though.
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