When I was a little girl, manners were very important to my mother. We wrote thank-you notes for every gift we received, we practiced proper telephone etiquette, our table manners were impeccable, and we were well versed in small-talk pleasantries. As a kid, I thought it was all for show, but now as I am teaching my own small children, I am coming to understand that there is a lot more to manners than social niceties and proper conduct. In considering how to approach manners with my littles, here are some thoughts on why manners are truly valuable.
- Manners help us practice gratitude. Entitlement is a word thrown around a lot in discussions about childrearing. I don’t think any parent intends for their children to become entitled—it is just human nature! One way we can combat that is through gratitude; when we thank other people, it helps us look outside ourselves and recognize all the ways we are blessed by them. From saying thank you when the salt is passed at the dinner table to giving a thank-you hug when someone hosts a playdate to writing a thank-you note when a gift is received, communicating that gratitude forces us to acknowledge the difference between something we are entitled to and something that has been gifted to us. Manners foster a heart of thankfulness.
- Manners give us the opportunity to put others first. Our culture teaches us to put our needs above others’ in the spirit of looking out for number one. Putting others’ needs first is countercultural but reflects good character and integrity. By teaching children manners, they have the opportunity to defer to others and learn to look out for their needs first—simple things like offering the other children to pick a popsicle first, suggesting the other child choose the game they will play, or inviting the other kid to pick a show to watch. All of these things look like good manners, but underneath, it’s a discipline in serving.
- Manners invite us to encourage and practice kindness. I have to say that one thing I’ve noticed about manners is that they force us to slow down and interact with intention. When I took my little boy to his preschool open house last week, I watched how the teacher patiently waited for Von to remember his manners—to stick out his hand for a shake and say, It’s so nice to meet you. It took him a moment, and his teacher was gracious in how she waited instead of hurrying him to the first activity. She encouraged his simple act of kindness, and because she affirmed that, he was pleased and eager to try it on the other teacher. By saying thank you to someone who has extended a kindness to me, I am saying, I am grateful for your kindness and it has made a difference to me.
- Manners communicate that someone is seen and appreciated. This is my favorite! I think that this is what manners come down to: communicating to someone that they are noticed. By saying Yes, Sir to someone older, we are communicating that we recognize that this gentleman deserves respect. By keeping our mouths closed when we eat, we are communicating, We value you enough to not gross you out while you are eating. By opening the door for a mama with a stroller, we are communicating, We see your sacrifice in raising children, and we know it’s hard! By sending a thank-you note for a gift, we are saying, We understand that you spent time, money, and thought picking this out and mailing it to me when you weren’t obligated to! By asking how the barista’s day is going at the coffee shop, we are saying, You are more than just someone who makes my drink—you are a person with a life and a heart, and you deserve to be known. By greeting the homeless man on the corner, we are communicating, You have value and dignity as a human being; you matter. By offering a simple handshake, we are saying, You are valuable and I want to affirm you with human touch.
- Manners bless us with humility. Isn’t this the bottom line? There is nothing about manners that allows us to be proud. We can’t say thank you or open the door for someone or mutter please without an element of humility. And the more we practice manners, the more we see others, affirm them, extend kindness, receive kindness, acknowledge our need for their kindness, and the more our character is refined. To be courteous is to be humble, and in a world of brokenness and pain, humility allows us to pursue others in simplicity, making a small—but worthy—difference with every thank you.