09/20/2010 06:37 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Matter of Manners

My older son started sixth grade last week, at a new school where he knew no one. Coming from the cocoon of his former school, a private Montessori where he was well-known and loved (and where his younger brother, Ben, is in second grade), Jack knew he was in for some serious changes. He felt ready to take them on, and as he's a pretty easygoing kid, I had few worries for him in making the transition. He's in the Honors Program, surrounded by like-minded students, kids who thrive in a competitive learning environment. I'd been in a similar program myself at his age, but his situation is infinitely better than mine ever was (more on that in a bit).

Jack also takes a few classes outside of Honors, and this is where he's truly seeing a difference between himself and the majority of the student body. He was astonished when, during Orchestra class, the kids around him talked and goofed around while the teacher was talking. He told me she tried to quiet them down more than once, but no one really listened to her. Third day of school, and she's already lost control of the class. Not a good sign. He said he felt really frustrated (remember: this kid is there to learn) and wanted to yell at everyone to shut up, but he knew better than to do it. "I'm not going to be That Kid," he remarked.

This rowdy behavior thing was a new phenomenon to my boy, because in Montessori, this doesn't happen. The teacher rings a little bell when she wants the class's attention, or if the noise level rises above a quiet buzz during open time. The kids instantly bring it back down and keep it there. Never once have I heard of a class getting out of control, because the kids know the rules.

Here's what I want to know: when did it become okay to stop having good manners? Cashiers and salespeople often remark on how my kids are the best-behaved they've seen that day, and while I enjoy hearing it, I shouldn't be hearing it at all. Parents should be teaching proper behavior along with potty training. It's not difficult: kids learn everything in those first three years from their parents, so while you're playing your Mozart tapes and making your organic baby food from scratch, keep in mind that you're raising an actual person here. Imagine your toddler as an adult in a business meeting wearing a suit, surrounded by similarly dressed people. Now, would you want her to be screaming and stamping her feet to get attention? Of course not. So don't let her behave like it now. I once carried a two-year-old Jack out of a store, thrown over my shoulders like writhing sack of potatoes; he was throwing a fit so epic, I never thought it would end. All because I wouldn't buy him yet another Thomas train. I've seen parents give in for far less egregious behavior, and thanks for nothing, you guys.

This leads into the nature vs. nurture thing. Since my parents expected me to behave and get good grades, I carried those expectations over into my schoolwork. I was raised in the New Jersey Public School System in the 1970s and 80s (you can imagine what that was like, and it WAS, which is why my kids are already better off than I ever was); I can tell you that not many of the kids in my high school were motivated to do much in the way of school work. Kids were surly and insolent, teachers would insult the students as a way to motivate them (yeah, guess how well that worked), and it was an ugly environment at times for those of us who actually cared about making A's and going to college someday.

I treated my teachers like the authority figures they were. I can't say the same for the sneering jerks in my Italian class, who tormented poor Signore Ferrazzi on a daily basis by answering his questions with, "Whut? You want me to say that in Italian?" So either they were being raised by parents who either didn't care or had no expectations of them, or, they were afraid of not looking cool and kept up the dumb front to fit in. Most likely, it was a perfect storm of both.

It would make sense, then, that I worried about where I'd send my kids to school. I'm no helicopter parent, but I didn't exactly come with the fondest of childhood memories. There was no way I wanted my sweet, exuberant boys to be surrounded with the kind of apathy I had grown up with. I was glad there were several choices available to us, and Montessori suited them perfectly. Aside from learning the three R's and geography and everything else a child is state-board-mandated to learn, they are also taught manners. Yes, manners! They learn basic life skills like slicing a banana (and then serving it to their fellow classmates, which is beyond adorable to behold), as well as how to set a table, introduce themselves and shake hands, even tie shoes. But most of all, they are taught to practice kindness. Not just to their teachers and to each other, but to their parents and siblings, to other friends outside of school, and anyone else they might meet.

This behavior was already being taught at home, because I believe in having proper manners. My sons say "Yes, please" and "No, thank you" about 98 percent of the time without being reminded (usually, it's when they're speaking to me when that happens), they hold doors for people and they are polite to servers in restaurants. They're also 11 and 7, so we've put in our time here. I'm a veteran, having negotiated the trenches of parenthood for a while now. They don't speak during movies, either (THAT is a subject for a whole other blog. GRRRR.), or whine for toys in the aisles at stores. Ben, at seven, is obsessed with "Supernanny," because he cannot comprehend doing the kind of things those kids do. I'm not saying I have perfect Robo-kids or anything, but I never worry about their behavior getting them into trouble. Just don't ask me to talk about the eternal Fight Over the Television; it'll kill my lovebuzz over the kiddies.

Also helpful in learning manners: organized sports. The physical effects are obvious, but it's also awesome for your child's mental and emotional development. Self-esteem goes through the roof. The added bonus here is discipline. My boys are both taking Tae Kwon Do, and they've already earned their green belts as of this writing. I've seen a change in their attitudes, and a quick recitation of one of the rules: "Be obedient and respectful to my parents, sir!" gets them going when they're dragging their feet.

Parents of young ones: get with the program and start the process now. Teaching manners is teaching basic human kindness. We can use a lot more of that in our world, and it's up to us to make sure it happens. A simple show of good manners can go a long way, trust me.

By the way, thank you for reading this, and please share it with your friends. Have a nice day!

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