How to Teach Manners Without Having to Teach Manners – Kveller
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How to Teach Manners Without Having to Teach Manners

I wrote a piece for another website a few years ago (and a chapter in my book as well) about how I don’t force my kids to say please and thank you, and how all of that social pressure is not the only way to get a “polite” child. Well, people flipped out and called me a horrible mother and said I am the worst person ever and have no respect for society blah blah blah.

Besides the fact that RIE and other progressive parenting philosophies teach this kind of approach, the notion is that modeling polite behavior (which I do very consistently) works if done strategically. I have great “results” with my boys, who are very polite and sensitive and have even learned the art of “Thank you for this gift, Bubbie and Zaidy” and whispering to me after, “I don’t like it, Mama.”

That being said, I sometimes find myself in situations where I wish I was the kind of mom to give order about politeness since I really want my boys to act a certain way and don’t want to hope they have seen me model it enough.

Take the other day.

We went to visit my great aunt in Brooklyn. She’s the matriarch of the family, the oldest living person in my family, and she’s around 90. She is the last sibling alive from my grandmother’s family, and she is really important to me. She was at my wedding and it was like having my bubbie there (she had passed away several years before), she is a model of frumkeit (religious observance), and she is a real piece of history: she survived the war in hiding in Hungary; she knows every sibling’s history and path; she’s amazing.

Here’s what I wanted from the visit: I wanted a picture of my boys with her. I wanted them to have Hungarian-accented sweet-bubbie-style forcing of food, and I wanted to have them sit nicely and quietly while she showed me pictures of my family and told me stories of the old country.

I resisted the urge to drill them like a sergeant, so here’s how we set the stage:

1. I told them we were going to see my bubbie’s sister. I told them she’s about 90 and has a very strong accent and that she is really special. I stopped there. I was wise.

2. They didn’t dress in regular clothes. I was hoping imparting some specialness to their clothes might give them a notion of specialness. I was right.

3. I made declarative statements about my needs and desires. “I’d love a picture of you with Tante Feigi,” rather than, “Go sit with Tante Feigi for a picture.” My instinct was good.

We arrived via three trains to Ocean Parkway dripping wet (I have no rain coat and my husband apparently does not believe in taxis and I was too wet and grumpy to argue). The boys were presented with more fruit and nuts than any guests could ever consume, but lucky for Tante Feigi, my boys are vegan and they love all fruit and nuts and ate a bunch. They loved the pretty china plates she gave them and her teeny tiny forks. We looked at pictures. Fred had to poop from all of the melon. He liked her big bathroom. Then he and Miles got bored. It had been less than 30 minutes.

My husband played chess with Fred (Fred rules) and I started to sweat; we were only there a short time and they were already antsy!? I took a deep breath. My cousin Chanie came over. We took pictures. I knew the boys were going to explode without any toys in the apartment and with the Transit Museum next on our schedule. We had to go.

I told them I wanted to take a picture. Even typically shy Fred did not hesitate. Okay, I did have to tell him he could see himself in the picture if he agreed to be in it (3-year-old logic!). He gingerly went to her but with no fear or anxiety. She held them. She kissed them with her shaky delicate hands and an accent you could cut a Hungarian streudel with. They didn’t cringe or flinch when she grabbed their plump cheeks and called them “sveet boys.”

We did it. We set the stage for a special day with special clothes but with no demands or threats or expectations. And they know enough. They have seen enough. They are emotionally intelligent enough and sensitive enough to sense a special moment, and a special woman, and a special embrace.

I’m so incredibly imperfect as a mother, and I credit my boys’ resilience to my imperfection more than I credit myself for their behavior today. But I hope that in some way, the things I believe in–such as not riding them hard on manners–works for them in their lives. I know that on that day, for that hour with Tante Feigi, it worked exceptionally well.

I will remember that hour for a long time: collared shirts on rosy cheeks, a look of trepidation and joy, restless boy energy, and sweetness. And mango. And walnuts. On Ocean Parkway. With Tante Feigi.


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