Manners are important. Common courtesy is important. Especially to parents.
It’s gratifying when your kids display those traits, especially toddlers, since they are sociopaths. Nothing makes me more proud than when my son answers someone’s “Thank you,” with “You’re welcome,” or when he deploys an “excuse me” as he squeezes past someone on the stairs.
We stress that kind of simple politeness for a few reasons. For one thing, it’s a simple way to display our parenting skills. If your kid is polite, people automatically assume you’re doing something right. For another, we operate under the assumption that ingraining good manners into children at an early age will make it stick.
But does it?
I’m gonna have to say no.
Because despite how obnoxious and out of control and rude and selfish my toddler often is, he’s often more polite than most adults I encounter, including Yours Truly. At least my toddler has an excuse for those times that he behaves badly: he’s a toddler. What’s ours?
Despite having been taught to as a child, my wife rarely says “bless you” after I sneeze. It’s one of the reasons for our eventual divorce. Despite having been taught to say “you’re welcome” as a child, I still say, “no problem” or “no worries” more often. It’s one of the reasons people think I like Jack Johnson.
The list goes on and on, for all of us. You didn’t hold the door open for me as I walked in behind you; I didn’t send you a thank you note for the gift you gave my son; she never returned her phone call like she promised she would; he didn’t stand up to offer the pregnant lady a seat on the subway. These are all offenses of varying severity, and, unless you’re the pregnant lady, not really a big deal when taken on an individual basis. But societally, it’s death by a thousand cuts.
There’s one example of this that really rankles me. I’ve been looking for a job recently (HIRE ME!), and after being away from the 9-5 world to stay at home with my son for a year, I am often forced to step out of my comfort zone and take some chances to find opportunities. I’ve reached out to friends for networking help (thanks everyone!), worked with my wife to rearrange our tricky childcare schedule so I could visit with potential employers (thanks honey!), and even traveled out-of-state, on my own dime, to chase a position or two. I have little gratitude for them.
I’m not complaining about not being hired, no one gets every position they put in for. And I’m certainly not trying to put the burden of my job hunt on any of the companies to which I’ve applied. Job hunting is tough, and it’s the nature of the beast these days to have to jump through a lot of hoops to land a good position. Not only do I understand that, I have been more than willing to take a gamble and put some money down to chase even the dimmest glimmer of a potential opportunity, and I will continue to be. I just wish these companies put as much effort into being decent as I have into being noticed. Instead, after following up and reaching out and sending thank yous, I get: silence.
No one likes to get rejected. No one likes to get that phone call or that email explaining that you didn’t make the cut. But it can be even worse to be ignored. Aren’t I entitled to some kind of response? Couldn’t I at least get a “thanks but no thanks”? Most of the time I’d be happy if someone from Human Resources dropped their business card and a flaming bag of dog poop on my door and rang the doorbell. At least then I’d know!
In the old days, by which I mean the prehistoric times of ten years ago, if you went in for a job interview and hadn’t heard anything back, nine times out of ten a rejection letter would be in the mail, in transit. The actual mail. These days, snail mail is obsolete, so when you don’t hear from HR after two or three weeks, odds are you never will. Even if you bought a round-trip plane ticket to attend the interview.
Nowadays it’s the exception, not the rule, to actually hear something back after an unsuccessful job interview. It’s so rare that it’s almost a bonus when you actually do get rejected! One less thing to stress out over or foolishly hang onto some hope about. Because if you haven’t heard yet, there’s always a chance they are still considering you, right? How could you know? I once got a job two months after my interview. It happens. But not often. Usually the people you interviewed with have chosen not to follow up.
We sit here and we raise our kids to be polite. We impress upon them the importance of manners. We train them to bless someone when they sneeze; to say excuse me when they burp; to offer to share their food and their toys; to thank people for their kindness and their generosity, even for their time. We force them to do it over and over because we want it to become habit; instinct.
We want our children to be nice, polite, courteous people who do those things because we appreciate those things ourselves. As adults we know how satisfying it is when someone is apologizes for stepping on your foot while you’re in line at Starbucks, or when you let someone merge into traffic and get that special wave of gratitude, or when a stranger opens the door for you so you don’t have to set down those boxes. Those little moments make a big difference, because they’re so rare. Increasingly rare. So we teach our kids to display some common courtesy, then we drop them off at daycare and we go out into the real world and ignore our own advice. Then when we get slighted, we wonder, “whatever happened to a little basic decency?”
Kids are smart. We can lie to them all we want about Santa Claus, but eventually they’ll figure out that it’s just Mom and Dad smuggling the presents under the tree. They see our actions betraying our words and they realize that all that talk about Kris Kringle is just lip service; they realize Santa is just a nice fairy tale parents use to get children to be better people.
The same goes for good manners. They are helpful tools for raising well-behaved kids, and they are very important to us.
Until we grow up.