Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Manners, Courtesy and Gentle Politeness

As adults we know what it is to be treated courteously and politely. We  know the basic rules of civility, of how to get along with others in the world, at least in public and most of the time. Yet with children the lines are more easily blurred.

Others, and particularly strangers and family members, may not know our child well enough to know that our child's play is simply play and may at times take behavior to be offensive. Loud squeals may hurt someone's ears in the grocery store and a fast moving tricycle may be dangerous around the legs of an older person walking with a cane.

How do we give our children free rein to be children and respect others at the same time?

When it comes to behavior with children and others, I often reflect back to the basic rule of three:

1. You may not harm yourself. ( a discussion on the perception of harm might follow among us adults)
2. You may not harm others.
3. You may not harm property.

Yet there is something missing in this rule of three, some nuance between the lines that is not exact and not easy to codify. It's that behavior that might be acceptable outdoors but not indoors or the rising voice in the grocery store or the use of certain slang in public. It calls for a discernment of the environment and of the audience and of what makes people comfortable and puts them at ease. This is what manners boil down to, putting people at ease in social situations.

And so appears the notion of courtesy. The word courtesy according to Wikipedia means, "gentle politeness or courtly manners." It arose from the days of the royal court and was codified in books of etiquette. I like the term gentle politeness. Somehow the word gentle which means, "of or belonging to the same stock, clan or race" brings warmth to the term. We are all human and worthy of consideration by others, all of the same clan- the human one. 

With children so many opportunities arise for reflection on language and behavior in social situations. From being in close quarters and noticing the rising volume of sound or being inside or waiting in line with a small child who needs to move and finding the lack of space for free movement or the blurting out of words or phrases that make me want to turn invisible and vanish from the spot. How to respond to that? 

I've come to use the words at ease and uncomfortable as in, "that makes others uncomfortable" or "that puts others at ease" in discussing behavior and language with my children. When my youngster starts raising his voice in the store I remind him that others might not like to hear the loudness. Or when my older child tells me that the F word is a good word, everyone uses it, I agree that it is a powerful word and when used discerningly has a great impact- and I remind him that some folks might be uncomfortable with it and encourage him to discern if his audience and his environment are at ease with his use of it.

Manners and courtesy had their origins in discernment, in discerning the social group to which one belonged, and in doing so, discerning those who did not belong. Today, in a time that acknowledges the dignity of all human beings regardless of all factors that once were considered social dividers, it seems possible to plant seeds in our children and to remind ourselves that the experience of others does matter and sometimes it is in the relating to the other human or humans that meaning is made rather than in some absolute right or wrong of the act or the word.


  1. I so agree,manners are important,I was brought up in an environment where it was not acceptable to have shouting in the house,(outside was fine) no bad language was tolerated. And my children have grown and flown never swore,were courteous to others etc. I think a Steiner Education brings a real awareness of "others" and what their needs are, and feelings, if voices were not speaking true. You have some really good thoughts here, cheers Marie

  2. Yes! The world is a *community* of people, we *need* to think of others. And it does us all well to live with the principle of respect for all... respecting people, their space, their property as well as respecting our own selves and our property.

    It *can* be somewhat of a challenge sometimes with children to say *yes* when that yes could be infringing on someone else, or if they are just being children and *have* to blurt out because they just can't stand still anymore. It's ok to be a child, but even young children need to be aware of others. We all need to be aware of another and another's feelings.
    great post!

    happy day!

  3. So is a tricky thing to teach young (and sometimes old for that matter) those intangible things.

  4. This is so good. I like what you say about making others uncomfortable or putting at ease. That seems a great way to explain it. I am at the 3 yr stage with my little one where he loves to talk to everyone and ask them embarrassing questions! Like to the older woman with long gray hair, "think you're a witch?" Yah, she wasn't very impressed. Ah well, it's a process.


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