I used to question my son’s commitment to good manners, and my own ability to teach them. I figured some of it is my kid’s fault – something I’m not shy about admitting – and some of it is mine and Mom and Buried’s (but mostly mine, of course).
It’s easy to agonize over how well you’re instilling this stuff, until you realize what toddlers already know:
Manners are bullshit.
It took a couple of years of watching my toddler in action, but his bizarre tendency to be Kermit with strangers and Animal with us made me realize what I should have long known: good manners and politeness are largely a facade.
My son is a con artist.
Eddie Haskell is the poster boy for fake manners. He was the two-faced ass-kisser on “Leave it To Beaver”, playing nice with parents when it suited him and raising hell out of earshot. He’s the stereotypical suck-up. But the fact is, we’re all Eddie Haskells. We use good manners because we’re supposed to, we’re trained to by our parents and teachers and other adults who hardly use them themselves anymore. And even when we do use them, it is still just an act. We switch it on and off as easily as three-year-olds.
The only difference between me and my toddler is it took my most of my life to figure it out and he’s known it from day one.
Detective Munch says “please” and “thank you” and “you’re welcome.” He’ll “bless you” if you sneeze and he’ll excuse himself after a burp or if he’s squeezing past you in the hall. He’s memorized his lines and has got the courtesy catchphrases down.
But when the spotlight is off? When the metaphorical cameras aren’t rolling? He goes from Miss Manners to Mr. Hyde.
Every parent knows their kids are generally better behaved with strangers or teachers or grandparents. And it’s great when my son uses his manners when we’re out in public – at the very least it makes us look like good parents. But that doesn’t mean he’s not faking it. The problem is he hasn’t yet learned to fake it with us.
As soon as he walks through our door, he becomes Godzilla. And Godzilla doesn’t ask nicely. Not only does he bark orders like R. Lee Ermey, he suddenly forgets to say “please” and in lieu of saying “no thank you, Daddy,” he goes into fire-breathing, building-stomping meltdown mode.
If you’re a parent, you’ve seen this movie:
MY DINNER WITH TODDLER
INT. DINING ROOM – EVENING
DETECTIVE MUNCH sits across the table from DAD AND BURIED, a plate of [insert his favorite food] in front of him.
DAD AND BURIED
Have another bite of [favorite food].
(generally responds like someone has thrown acid on his face)
DAD AND BURIED
Outside our walls, among people he’s less familiar with, he’s pulling the same scam as everyone else: putting his best self forward; making a good first impression; doing his best to be his best. We adults do the same thing. Think about it: you’re different at work than you are at home. You’re different on a first date than you are when you’re married (sorry, honey; you break it you bought it!). We all have a variety of personas, and our young children are no different. They just change costumes more easily.
So no, the well-mannered Detective Munch you see isn’t exactly the same one I see. But don’t feel bad, he cons everyone! From his grandparents and uncles to his teachers and babysitters, even the doctor he saw earlier this week; everyone raves about how well-behaved and polite my son is. It can be infuriating to hear about what a little angel he is when just hours before, or hours later, he was/will be terrorizing us because we wouldn’t/won’t let him wear his Superman cape to sleep.
With you, he plays it up. He gets method with it and is utterly convincing. With us, he goes from Oscar winner to scenery chewer. Gone are any pretensions towards politeness; he might as well be a caveman.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for my son’s ability to Daniel Day-Lewis his way through his life, fooling his audience into thinking he’s the picture of civility. I just wish he’d stay in character when he gets home. Or at least help me clean the food off the walls.