I have previously written about how I would rather my daughter only say thank you and please from the heart, rather than because of societal enforced politeness. Well, I lost that battle and I have to admit that I am rather pleased I did.
I am a thoroughly modern mother in that I read a wide range of parenting books. However, I also made the decision to return to the land of my birth, Kenya, so that she would be raised by a community.
I am telling this story Tarantino-style so let me start at the beginning. Despite the modern predilection for independence and individuality, I am increasingly aware that our parenting actually starts many generations before our children are born.
My grandfather on my mother’s side was a Victorian missionary and Canon in the Anglican (Episcopalian) Church. Tall, well spoken, always perfectly turned out, manners mattered and his were impeccable.
My parents continued in this tradition. We were raised with manners that to some may seem archaic now. They were the perfect blend of African respectfulness and colonial sensibility. We stood up when people older than us entered the room, gave courteous hand shakes, used please, sorry and thank you and were continually reminded ways in which we could be more polite and thoughtful. Consequently when I was in school in the U.K. many of the adults I encountered remarked that they would like to meet my mother because it was clear that she had raised us so well.
As the free spirited, ultra-polite liberal I turned out to be (I offend everybody equally), I wanted to bring my daughter up with the love that I had experienced as a child, but wasn’t so sure about the whole manners thing.
If manners and politeness were a religion, I was decidedly agnostic. On one hand, I missed the gentlemanly ways I had been brought up with—men who opened doors and stood up at the dinner table when you rise to go to the ladies room. Yet another part of me felt I could open my own doors, thank you very much!
Initially, I would respond positively whenever my daughter was polite and “did the right thing.” Once I even waited nearly an hour for her to apologise to someone when she knew she had done something wrong. Because I didn’t insist but waited patiently, I still believe that the apology was more genuine than if I had wrangled it out of her—the adult in question felt the same. But overall, I didn’t enforce manners all that much.
Soon, though, it became clear to me, highlighted by the interventions of my community, that there are also quite a few situations where the growing child simply does not know the appropriate societal norms. Children are intuitive, bright and master imitators, but they are also still learning and sometimes they need to be taught. I have discovered that some things, like manners, are a matter of habit and training and unless instilled early they may become a lifelong struggle.
(At this point I know I sound exactly like my mother).
Thankfully my daughter is being raised in a society that helps mothers train their children. I soon found myself repeating my mother’s words and getting her to practice phrases and “The Art of Being Polite and Kind.” “No” became “No, thank you.” “Can I” became “May I.” Politer still was “May I trouble you …”
As so often with children I had no idea whether or not the work that my community and I were doing was getting anywhere. There still seemed to be so many occasions when she was being reminded what to say and do. Certainly when the two of us were alone, I did not insist on the same standards that I did when we were with others. Then quite unexpectedly the feedback started to trickle in.
An air hostess sought me out to say that when my daughter had gone to ask for a snack. “She was very polite and said please and thank you.” We were leaving a birthday party and an aunt of the birthday girl informed me my daughter had turned down the offer of sweets “very politely.” Despite myself, I beamed with pride. I really can’t take the credit for it though—my focus had been to raise a child with heart. Thankfully the wisdom of my predecessors and community had shone through. Without them, I would have literally been throwing the baby out with the bath water.
I still do not know what type of adult my child will be, but hopefully one who brightens people’s days even a little because she took the time to appreciate them through her actions and words.