Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Preparing Our Children: Why Good Manners and Behavior Matter So Much

Each month, our son's preschool sends home a newsletter filled with all the happenings our children are enjoying together as a group. This month's missive contained avid descriptions of adventures in the dark with flashlights, the feeding stations the children take care of for the birds and squirrels, and a list of upcoming events. Attached to the newsletter was a one-page parenting article from "Grandma Says", a free e-newsletter from Growing Child, a company which publishes very balanced and informative newsletters and books on raising children.

Having become familiar with "Grandma Says" over the past few years, I thoroughly enjoy these short articles on parenting. They seem to have a sense of timeliness and acuity; whoever "Grandma" is, she is living in the same world the rest of us are and noticing some of the same trends in parenting. Yesterday's handout was no exception: Grandma is noticing something that many of us notice and are pretty uncomfortable with--children who are allowed to run amok in public and while visiting the homes of others while their parents, flummoxed and uncomfortable, try to ignore the misbehavior. This could be anything from failing to answer or acknowledge other adults and relatives who are speaking to the child and trying to interact with them, or worse, being allowed to become a considerable disturbance to others in public places.

I have to say that I had to agree with Grandma when she states that this is a 'modern' problem. Too many parents, perhaps, feel that even preschool-aged kids are 'too young' to be corrected or expected to mind. Recently, a friend shared a story of a four-year-old child who was being extremely rude to their parent as well other children. Instead of correcting this  immediately, the parent of that rude child shrugged their shoulders and dismissed it, sighing that "all kids are rude at this age".  To some, this would seem to be a discouraging thought; for me, I perceive it more as a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we expect rudeness, if we accept rudeness as the norm, that's what we are eventually going to get--as the norm.


This complaint wasn't an isolated incident. Over the past few years, our own family has had more than our fair share of dinners ruined by questionable parenting choices. We've had parents playing slap-fight with their kids less than a foot away from us as we were eating. We've seen diners almost lose their dinners to toys and frisbees being flung about in their vicinity. I've even heard a mother repeatedly threaten her son that they would leave "the next time you do....", and we all wished they would leave, already. Poorly behaved children have climbed into our booth, have tried to tickle-- and then choke-- my son. They have  been allowed to 'hang out' by our table, to use profanity around us, have been allowed to run around restaurants and climb onto counters...I want to be clear that these kids are in the minority, but it is, disconcertingly, a growing minority.  When the unchecked mayhem takes over a space, it makes a nice meal out  become a miserable disappointment. It's like giving wild animals the keys to the zoo.


So, it was nice to know that "Grandma" is  noticing this too, and recognizing how maddening it is for the rest of us. These days, parents are sometimes criticized for expecting even a minimal sense of decorum from children.  This is frustrating. We understand kids need to move, to talk, to be seen and heard.  We do want to include our children in public activities, and we want to show them how to do it in socially considerate ways.  Kids aren't born with these skills, so they need us to teach them how to act when they are out and about, and to set expectations accordingly. When we see parents choosing to ignore their children's  bad behavior it makes for an uncomfortable situation, to say the least.   A few years ago, one woman shared with me her secret dread of hosting social gatherings for a group of friends. The adults were nice enough, but they wouldn't keep their kids out of her bedroom. Instead, these children were given free access to a stranger's house, and even when the children were getting into closets and drawers, their parents would not correct the situation.

This isn't right. Not at all. 


Perhaps I'm dating myself, but I remember what it was like to go 'visiting' as a child growing up. You said hello to the adult, then were quiet and found something to do. Mom would bring us some coloring books or other quiet activity and then the host family usually had a few games for us to play. Our job was to keep happily busy, not raise a fuss, and to mind. Visiting my own grandparents, we knew that anything on the mantle was not for our hands, nor was the candy jar full of bridge mix on the end table, nor the huge collection of hanging bells--they weren't for ringing. If you really wanted to see something closer, you asked. You minded the rules of the home you visited, and even if they weren't the same rules you had at home, you didn't complain or argue. Complaining to adults was rude; arguing with adults other than mom and dad was verboten.


While I'm not advocating for rigid manners for all children, I have to wonder, as "Grandma" did, how we are preparing our children for future experiences and interactions if we are afraid to correct them. Furthermore, what do children experience when we fail to prepare them for interactions with strangers? When we allow them to misbehave or be dismissive of others, we are allowing them to have very negative interactions to build upon and to recall during future social experiences. By not showing a child what is socially appropriate and requesting behaviors that in keeping with each setting--be it visiting relatives or out at the library or at a theater-- we make others uncomfortable. The public's  response is not lost on the child; when our most subtle responses telegraph disapproval and discomfort or anger (which is a reasonable feeling in this sort of situation), the child is very aware of this and may feel that they have failed in some way, although without the sort of awareness or clarity of thought an adult might experience after having bombed socially. Nonetheless, I strongly believe that children walk away feeling that interactions with adults (besides their own permissive parents) are to be avoided. Truly, this is very sad for the child. 


So much of this bad feeling could also be avoided if those affected by a child's behavior could see that the parent was actively working to correct and help the child. When we see a parent stopping to help their child through a hard time, to correct a misstep or mistake or to take a wiggly or upset child outside for a few minutes to calm down-- we relax. We can see that there is a responsive, responsible adult tending to the situation and our own demeanor changes. Our feelings grow more positive and accepting toward them  because we know the parents are showing respect for their child, for themselves, and for those around them. Choosing to stop what we are doing and help our children makes a tangible positive difference for everyone involved. Other parents are more likely to give a sympathetic smile or comment, because we've all been there and feel far more understanding and compassion now that the problem is being remedied.


Zooming out into the bigger picture,  the situation begs a different question, one of much more gravity than our immediate inconvenience: how does this lack of guidance prepare our children for kindergarten and their school situations? Likely, not very well. We can't expect the teacher to teach our children to sit where they are asked, to be considerate of other students while they work,  or to answer questions when spoken to if we haven't laid the groundwork for these actions. A teacher may have great classroom management skills, but it's unreasonable for a parent to expect teachers  to do all the work of introducing basic self-regulation and social skills. Young children need for their parents to have introduced and  previously provided a strong foundation for good behavior and minding at home, no later than age three and preferably sooner. This consistency is essential for our children's success in the larger world. 

How our children interact with other adults may have other social consequences as well. Few parents are excited to invite a badly-behaved child over to play.  There is plenty of lip-service paid to giving all kids a fair shake, but as someone who has worked with families for as long as I have, I know that parents will choose time and again to discourage those friendships which they feel may be a  negative influence in their children's lives.  Many parents face a very real dilemma when their child's desired playmates  are rude, disrespectful (sometimes to the point of stealing and lying, even flagrantly) and refuse to cooperate, mind rules or manners, or address adults respectfully--if at all. A hard situation for any loving parent, we want our children to be able to choose their own friends, but when our attempts at normalizing an out-of-control situation are not met with mutual concern from their own parent, it is natural for us to encourage our children toward other friendships which feel happier and healthier.

We are raising children,  children who will eventually become citizens that will need to have strong pro-social skills. They will need them throughout their educational journey, they will need them to be able to move forward in their respective careers. (Let's be honest, no one really wants to work with a jerk.)  They will need these skills as they become parents themselves, the customers we will one day sit next to at a restaurant when we ourselves are older and wanting a nice meal.  I want my son, and all of the children I have cared for and taught, to be able to look adults in the eye, to say hello and smile, and to go forward with confidence and make a good impression in the world.  Preparing our children now by teaching them  the simple acts which show respect and awareness for others will strengthen our children and give them strong positive experiences to draw from as they go forward. The right time is now, before bad habits become the norm. Even Grandma says so.

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