Thursday, November 5, 2009


A Little Respect - Erasure (mp3)
Do You Believe - Charn (mp3)

Wanna know what one of the biggest points of disagreement about raising our children used to be? The definition of "politeness."

Raised in the South by two very Southern people from lower- and middle-class backgrounds, I was taught to believe politeness requires showing respect to all people you meet, to all people with whom you interact. You say "please" and "thank you." You say "Yes sir" and "No ma'am." You hold doors open for people walking behind you -- yes, especially for women, but even for men. You wait for everyone else to be served their food before you start eating yours. You stand up when a guest walks into the room. You shake hands and look people in the eye.

The only permitted exceptions to these rules, at least where my parents were concerned, were for close friendships. You didn't have to follow these rules with true friends in a relaxed environment.

My father was good friends with the man who was his boss. When they were at work, my father would address him as "sir" in all interactions. When they were lounging around on weekends drinking whiskey and soda at my dad's very 70s lounge bar downstairs in our house, you heard no "sir" used. No sir you didn't. I have no idea whether my father's boss found this practice annoying, empowering, or if he even noticed.

My wife, on the other hand, was raised in a different manner. One only needed say "yes" or "no" (rather than "yeah" or "nah") to be considered polite. One needed not include "sir" or "ma'am." And the uses of "please" and "thank you," while certainly appreciated, were not as ubiquitously required as they were in my family in order to be judged a polite and decent human being.

We are both still very much the products of our upbringing, although my wife has gradually fallen into my way of thinking either because she gave up trying to fight something so pointless or because she began to see it much like certain people view heaven: better to teach your children to err on the side of too much politeness instead of too little, y'know, just in case.

Further muddying the broth is how quickly I can dredge up examples of students or kids whose use of proper politeness tags is impeccable yet whose actions and behavior sans adults belies someone more two-faced than Two-Face. Which means I'm stuck believing in something with little more reason behind it than the nauseating "because that's the way I was brought up" excuse.

But... but... what's wrong with a little respect?

I can't help but believe that one part of the problem with much of our educational system is that the worst parents worry more about their children's self-esteem than they do about their child learning in an atmosphere of respect for their peers and their leaders. And I'm a little worried about our place in history where my writing those words makes me fear that my German roots are showing through. If you're a good parent, it's very likely your children are plenty respectful to most adults, thus freeing you up to worry about those other things in their proper perspective.

If the "Broken Windows" theory of crime has the slightest bit of validity, isn't there room to believe in a "Broken Windows" theory of manners, that the more we expect our children to adhere to the small details of politeness, the more likely they'll be aware of and display those important notions in the big moments?

Lest my opinion seem inflexible, the following are names given to me by students I truly loved and whose company I frequently enjoyed: "Bambi," "F-word," "F-bomb," "Uncle Billy." Some teachers would vomit themselves before allowing their students to address them so casually, and I doubt I would ever allow my children to do so to any adult I didn't know incredibly well. But I tell myself that these boys, who gave me these names, had already moved past the first level of manners, for the most part. They knew how to color in the lines. They knew how they were supposed to treat their authority figures and fellow man and woman, and now they were stretching out those boundaries, experimenting, playing. Once you learn the basics, you can advance.

Is it possible that respect and courtesy are like muscle tissue that must be worked out and built up over time? That one need not start out saying these things with sincerity, that the habit builds first, and the sincerity follows?

Or do I just need to get out of the South more often?

Charn's song is available thanks to the band's promotional team providing BOTG with their album, which is darn good, actually. As for "A Little Respect," I can remember exactly where I was the first time my classmate -- who came out of the closet five years later -- introduced it to me. I can even tell you the subject, the classroom and the seats where we sat. It's weird shit like that that keeps me from remembering people's names when I meet them now.


Daisy said...

I live in the South geopraphically, but not so much culturally. The majority of my neighbors are from the other side of the Mason Dixon line. I have heard a heard a mother say to her child "I don't care what the teacher told you, we do NOT say ma'am!" When did being polite become a sign of low IQ?

Another North vs South issue: When your children were pre-school age did their friends call you by your last name? I would instruct my young kids to call you Mr. Billy, but have found that this also causes offense.

I remember lots of weird random shit too, but I'll save that for another day.

Hank said...

The "Mr. Billy" form is ok for children to use when addressing young adults or very close family friends, as long as the child's parents ok it.

troutking said...

I think saying Yes sir and No ma'am is a bit like working out at the gym. It's a good habit and most people who work out are healthier than those who don't. However, if they are also eating all kinds of bad food, then it could be a superficial health. And, there are plenty of people who eat healthy and maintain active lifestyles and are overall in good health and never go to the gym. I never said sir or ma'am growing up in Chicago, but I was definitely taught and observed respect and politeness. I guess, there are many polite and respectful ways to skin a cat.