02/15/2014 10:55 am ET Updated Apr 17, 2014

Respect: Learning From our Grandmothers

When I was a young boy growing up in a small town in the Ozarks of southwestern Missouri, one of my favorite times was when my grandmother would take my brother and me in her old four-door 1929 Chevrolet sedan to Woolworth's on main street. She would usually give each of us a nickel -- occasionally it would be 10 cents each -- and we were allowed to buy anything we wanted, except no candy. On the occasions she gave us 10 cents, we usually bought some kind of a toy or play gun for five cents and spent the other nickel for a cherry coke sitting on the stools at the counter of the store's soda fountain. One time, instead of a toy, my brother, who was two years older than I, spent his entire 10 cents on a bottle of red "hair oil."

My grandmother was a strict woman, and she always stressed that we should never touch anything until we picked it up to buy. If we wanted to look at something before we bought it just to make sure we really wanted it, we were instructed to have a clerk in the store hand it to us. Our grandmother would stand near the front door and watch us from a distance, always making sure we behaved. She never wanted to be embarrassed by our behavior.

Recently I was in a toy store. I observed some respectful parents and children. However, I was taken aback by the number of children who were totally disrespectful of merchandise. They took items from the shelves, opened boxes (sometimes tearing the lids), and played with the dolls and toys. The girls played with dolls, changing their clothes on the floor, with little respect for what they would look like when they were through with them. Boys tended to go wild with trash trucks and cars and airplanes, with police cars and fire trucks, with rockets and robots, or you name it. The children ran around the store, with their parents looking on or sometimes playing with them, as if they were at a public playground.

I felt sorry for the store clerks who did not want to offend the customers, but who also were responsible for keeping the various sections of the store in good order and for keeping merchandise worthy of being sold to other customers. I could not help thinking of my grandmother and how she expected my brother and me to behave.

It is not only in toy stores and with children; I see the same lack of respect by teenagers, parents, and other adults in various stores. I see people in clothing stores unfold sweaters, hold them up to see how they might look, and then just lay them down paying no attention to where they got them or the condition they were leaving them in. The same with other clothes.

Go to a grocery store and see how people squeeze bananas and other fruit deciding whether they are the ripeness they desire -- never mind how they leave the items for other customers! Or look at how magazines and books are treated at newsstands and bookstores. I see young people and adults failing to hold the door open for people carrying multiple packages or a child. I hear the relentless honking of horns in heavy traffic.

I hear the way children talk back to their parents and vice versa. Teachers, especially for seventh graders and older, will tell you some real "horror stories" about the way students treat their teachers and fellow students. You see a lack of respect for one another on athletic fields, including among the professionals.

Profanity is out of hand, not only with students, but with adults in all walks of life -- even within the ranks of the professional diplomats of the United States government. Profanity used to be confined to boys and men, but nowadays the use of profanity appears to be just as prevalent with girls and women. But regardless of who uses it, profanity shows a lack of respect for other people (as well as a shortage of adequate adjectives in one's vocabulary bank).

There is no end to the examples I could give of the absence of manners and respect, but you have seen them all!

The other day I was speaking with a well-known and highly-successful businessman in the St. Louis, Missouri, area. He does all the interviewing for new employees himself, and the main criterion he has for employing a person is manners. "You can teach people almost anything," he said, "but manners you either have or don't have." Manners, he said, are crucial for showing respect for one's customers. He evidently has that right; his customers just keep returning and returning! And his employees say he also treats them with respect.

How do you learn manners? I am convinced you learn them by having parents and grandparents who teach them from day one. You learn them by having teachers and coaches in all grades teaching and demanding respect. You learn them by having employers who practice respect and expect their employees to do likewise.

Race relations involves learning respect for other people -- regardless of who they are, what color they are, their economic background or what country they are from. And this is something we all need to practice, Caucasians and people of color.

Come on America, let's all of us, individually and collectively, commit ourselves to using good manners and practicing respect for one another. Our country needs a good dose of manners and mutual respect!