My daughter, who’s 9, recently had a new friend over to play. I gave them a snack and was in the kitchen pouring juice when our visitor bellowed from the next room, “More chips!” I bristled, but I wasn’t surprised. As a mother of three, I’ve long had a front-row seat to children’s declining manners.
It’s not mislaid soup spoons or white shoes after Labor Day unsettling me. It’s the waning of the most basic acts of courtesy — saying “please” and “thank you,” keeping a door from slamming on the person behind you — and the waxing of rudeness extreme enough to shock. That is, if it weren’t so common.
There’s my neighbor’s tale from her son’s 10th birthday party, when she placed favors — two versions of a detective kit — at the kids’ chairs in an alternating pattern. A girl approached her, indignant, wanting to know why she didn’t get the kit she wanted. My neighbor assured her that the kits were basically the same, but the girl was unappeased. “Can you order the other one for me?” she said.
Then there’s the dad who volunteered to coach his daughter’s coed soccer team. A few players refused to participate in scrimmages if placed on a different side than their buddies. At one practice, some, laughing, pelted him with soccer balls. “They see little difference between their parents, coaches, and friends,” he told me. “My biggest take-away? Wow, kids have changed.”
Have they ever. Three-quarters of Americans think manners have deteriorated in the United States over the past several decades, according to a 2016 survey by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Generation Z, which includes people under age 22 and accounts for nearly a third of the global population, is a growing part of this less courteous climate.
The problem isn’t that parents no longer value politeness. Being well-mannered is among the top four virtues they say they wish to instill, up there with responsibility, hard work, and helping others, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center report. Yet what parents say and what they actually do aren’t always the same, and many families are falling short — including my own. No matter how much my husband and I emphasize courtesy, our children still shout at restaurants and answer grown-ups’ questions by mumbling at their shoes, if they say anything at all.
My husband and I sense we’d need to make major shifts in our parenting to raise more polite kids. But at a time when care and concern are often expressed through emojis, and even our political leaders don’t show basic signs of civility, is this investment worth it? Maybe enforcing politeness is becoming a parenting anachronism, a vestige of a time when life moved slower and parents always “knew best.”
What if we can’t even teach good manners in today’s world? Would that matter?
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Children “have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders . . . and are now tyrants.” Don’t mistake that for the griping of a modern-day parent or grandparent. Those are words attributed to Socrates, recorded over two millennia ago.
Rude kids may be everywhere, but it’s also true that complaining about the younger generation is an age-old rite of passage. David Finkelhor, a sociology professor at the University of New Hampshire, coined the term “juvenoia” — “the exaggerated fear of the influence of social change on youth” — to explain this phenomenon. He attributes it to factors including older people’s investment in the status quo and nostalgia for their own experiences. “Adults also tend to forget what childhood was like,” he says.
But plenty of things make our era unique. Take the growing amount of time kids spend using screens — a daily average of over four hours for tweens and over six for teens, according to a 2015 Common Sense Media report. We know that technology lures children away from in-person social exposure. What’s less known is their difficulty regulating behavior once they’ve unplugged. My kids turn into crabby demons when screen time ends, so I was relieved to learn this isn’t a personality flaw, but neurology. “There are social skills parents want to cultivate that technology can disrupt,” says Catherine Steiner-Adair, a Cambridge-based psychologist and author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. “Kids are interrupting more and showing decreased tolerance for frustration in ordinary exchanges because their brain is used to instant gratification.”
Virtual assistants, too, have affected manners, with parents observing that barking orders all day has made their children ruder. (To remedy this, Amazon recently released a kids’ version of Alexa that thanks its mini-users for phrasing requests politely.) Even e-readers, which seem harmless, have played a role. “When we read from devices, our brains don’t encode the same way, so we don’t read as well or as richly,” says Steiner-Adair. She argues e-books are less effective than traditional books at nurturing moral reasoning and perspective-taking — important building blocks of consideration for others.
Then there’s our culture to think about. Steiner-Adair says that a third of the time when she speaks to students at school assemblies, one will raise a hand to ask: “Could you please help us understand why every single thing you’re telling us not to do, the president of the United States does every day?”
This question highlights the increasingly indecorous behavior of public role models. It also hints at society’s growing casualness: We wear flip-flops and exercise pants everywhere; instead of “Mrs. Lipson,” my kids’ friends call me “Nicole.” My friend Bronwen tells me that when she asks her children to hold the door for someone, that person will often say something like, “Don’t worry about it!” Fifty years ago, she points out, “That same person might have said, ‘Thank you, son,’ or ‘Good job, buddy!’”
The frenzied pace of modern life adds to this challenge, making it harder to find room for imparting lessons. Roslindale father Matthew Lippman believes in the importance of manners. Even so, he laments, “I can get overwhelmed and exhausted by the minutiae of making dinner and schedules and attending to immediate needs.” Many modern parents have just one or two hours with their children between work and bedtime. “The last thing I want to do is come home and immediately get on my kids’ case,” says Phoebe Segal, an art curator in Boston. “I want to instill manners, but I don’t want to lose my whole time with the kids to arguing.”
Parents’ stress has a trickle-down effect that affects kids’ ability to be considerate. “Even more than through observation,” says developmental psychologist Dorothy Richardson, “children learn empathy by receiving empathy.” But, she explains, today’s high-speed, multitasking culture makes it harder than ever for parents to allow space for this empathy. This, in turn, increases kids’ stress. “Sometimes children’s lack of concern for others is a product of their own anxiety,” Richardson says.
Over her three decades of working with families, Richardson, who’s the founder and clinical supervisor of Brookline’s Rice Center for Young Children and Families at The Home for Little Wanderers, has even noticed an increase in parents’ stress about children’s manners. It arises like clockwork in November, she says, when family gatherings are approaching — or in January, just after disastrous visits. “Parents are worried about being judged,” she tells me. “They’re wondering: Are we failing our children?”
So am I failing my children? A meme featuring a coiffed woman in 1950s pearls showed up on my Instagram feed recently. “Behind every disrespectful child,” the woman opines in big letters, “is a parent I’d like to slap.” At first I found this funny. Then, it sent me into a spiral of self-judgment. One more thing to add to my parental failures, like forgetting to make my kids floss and letting them read Captain Underpants.
“We can say whatever we want to our children about manners, but more importantly, they’re following our lead,” says Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert and author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life. “If we want them to be thoughtful, they can’t hear us talking unkindly about others in the living room.”
Likewise, before judging our children’s technology-related rudeness, we must examine our own. J. Stuart Ablon, director of the Think: Kids behavioral therapy program at Massachusetts General Hospital, explains, “Kids watch adults all the time, so when we’re constantly interrupting discussions to check our phone and then losing track of the conversation, they pick up on that.”
Even when trying to do what’s best, parents can unwittingly teach bad manners. In 2014, Making Caring Common, an initiative of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, asked parents nationwide what qualities they most want to foster in their children. Caring came first, followed by happiness and achievement. But here’s the interesting part: When their children were asked to rank these qualities in order of importance to their parents, caring came last.
“Parents are saying the right thing,” says psychologist Richard Weissbourd, Making Caring Common’s faculty director, “but they’re messaging to children that achievement and immediate well-being are most important.”
This messaging affects manners. For instance, when company arrives and a child is doing homework, “parents won’t require that they stand up, make eye contact, and say hello,” Weissbourd explains. “Or at the playground, they won’t make their child reach out to a kid who’s alone.”
Parents think protecting their children from upset will boost their self-esteem, says Weissbourd. But the opposite is true: “It’s like the story The Giving Tree. Parents give and give, and their kids just get ruder and more entitled.”
I confess that when I let my own kids’ impoliteness slide, I often long to protect myself from distress as much as them. I flash back to the times my husband or I have carried a shrieking child away from a dinner table, or the excruciating seconds when we’ve prompted one of our kids to say “thank you” to an adult, and they’ve stood sullenly silent.
Even as parents worry about messing up, we’re no longer giving one another much help in fixing rude behavior. During my own 1980s childhood, there was an unspoken parental alliance around manners. It was acceptable — even expected — that adults would serve as parents-by-proxy to their children’s friends, correcting bad behavior and imparting life lessons. My husband tells a story about his best friend’s mother, who once peered at him through the rearview mirror of her Pontiac station wagon and said, “I don’t need to see the color of your gum when you chew, Paul.” The lesson stuck. Today, with more “parenting styles” than ever, many adults fear offending their fellow parents. Free-range parenting, spiritual parenting, intuitive parenting — who knows what approach the family of the gum-smacker in our own carpool takes.
Which is exactly why, when parents stood idly by as their children hurled soccer balls at their coach, he — a fellow parent — felt powerless and alone.
For all our worry, there are some pluses in all of this — and they’re important. J. Stuart Ablon of Mass. General’s Think: Kids assures me there are important positives to today’s looser expectations. “We’ve come a long way since the days when kids were supposed to be seen and not heard, and there’s much about this that’s very good,” he says. “Kids have far more autonomy than they used to. We value their feelings and opinions, and they’re allowed to be themselves without such heavy emphasis on compliance. This ultimately helps them grow into adults who are independent, creative thinkers.”
Boston mom Catherine Brownstein echoes these sentiments. “I want my children to be polite, but to balance that with critical thinking and self-advocacy,” she says, pointing out that blind obedience has long made children vulnerable to abuse from adults. “If this means they’re a little ruder when they’re younger and have awkward interactions at social gatherings, so be it. We’ll finesse the politeness thing later.”
In this and other ways, our growing emphasis on authenticity has eased long-lived power imbalances. I never tell my daughters to smile when they greet someone, a small protest against the pressure on women to project cheeriness.
Significantly, too, good manners don’t always indicate kindness — and can even be a mask for darker impulses. Danvers mother Michelle Behling, who raised her children primarily in Tennessee, recalls kids in their community who behaved impeccably in public but exposed another side behind closed doors: “They’d say negative things about people who didn’t look or worship like them. They were always saying ‘Yes, ma’am’ and ‘No, sir,’ but it was just polish as opposed to an actual value.” This disconnect sparked Behling’s eventual decision to stop prescribing specific manners, except “to be kind and open-minded. Other than that, I pretty much stand back,” she says.
Not everyone may want to abandon teaching manners altogether, but these insights do suggest rethinking our approach, focusing as much on the why of courtesy as the how. Educational psychologist Michele Borba, author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, explains that when adults point out how courtesy makes people feel, manners take on real meaning. “Polite behavior is a low-level way of tuning up empathy,” says Borba. “When a child says ‘excuse me’ or ‘thank you,’ they’re at least recognizing another person exists. Then, they’re ready for the next level.”
Empathetic kids are happier, healthier, and more resilient, too, says Borba. And they may have a better chance in the job market. A recent World Economic Forum review identified emotional intelligence as one of the top qualities employers will be looking for in 2020.
None of this erases the everyday problem of unheld doors, forgotten thank yous, and ungracious birthday party guests. But it does highlight our tendency to zero in on flaws while ignoring strengths that others identify and find heartening. John Camp, an English teacher at St. Mark’s School in Southborough, observes an open-mindedness by Generation Z that to him, eclipses any decline in decorum. “It’s incredible how much further ahead they are than we were in their thinking about race, sexual orientation, and other differences,” he says, adding, “I’m glad my challenge is ‘How do I teach them to look up from screens?’ and not ‘How do I get them to embrace the idea of equality?’”
Ablon echoes this conclusion: “Working with these kids, you see how eager they are to understand others from different backgrounds, with different experiences.” And, he emphasizes, autonomy and manners can absolutely coexist: “I don’t think one has to come at the cost of another.”
These words must have been with me not long ago, when new friends invited us over for a barbecue. Our host made strawberry lemonade, and she carried it to the backyard in a big pitcher. “Would you like some?” she asked my 6-year-old.
“Sure!” he said.
I opened my mouth to remind him to say “please,” but something stopped me. I watched his smile broaden as she filled his cup, and his eyes brighten as she passed it to him. He took a long sip, then sighed and looked up at her. “That was so yummy,” he said. Our host beamed.
Manners will always have a vital place in our world — and I am fully committed to moving them up my priority list. But sometimes, the goodness we want to see in our kids takes a different form — and it’s already, impeccably, right there in front of us. At least most of the time.