In Search of Civility
Much has been made recently about the lack of manners in today's American society. According to an ABC News poll an overwhelming majority-73 percent-of Americans say most people's manners are worse today than 20 or 30 years ago.
Most often kids are seen by adults as the worst offenders. Public Agenda's survey probing "What Americans Really Think about the Next Generation" reported that Americans describe teens and children using words such as "lazy" and "irresponsible," and "disrespectful," few saying it is very common to find young people who are friendly or respectful. They say one of the biggest problems today is that young people are "failing to learn values such as honesty, respect, and responsibility." Indeed, fewer than half of adults say the next generation will make America a better place!
Who do people blame for this general deterioration? More than eight in ten respondents to the ABC News poll (including adults with children in their households) say this is the result of the failure of parents to instruct their children in good behavior. Public Agenda respondents agreed. Fewer than one in four said it is common to find parents who are good role models and nearly half said the difficulties facing kids today are the result of irresponsible parents who fail to do their jobs.
What's a parent to do? We may agree that we need to do a better job of teaching manners. We may be frustrated ourselves about our children's lack of interest in common courtesy toward others. But there are so many more important issues we parents need to address (such as academic performance, substance abuse, delinquent behavior, sexual activity) and so little time that it's difficult as a parent to make a conscious decision to focus on something so seemingly benign as manners.
Yet if we can step back and lower our defenses we can readily recognize that the essentials of common courtesy-self respect, respect for others, personal responsibility, good judgment, decision making, conflict management, compassion, integrity-are the foundation blocks related to the other behavior-related issues that seem to loom so much larger than manners.
These are generally familiar traits. The Boy Scout Law identifies them as being: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, reverent. Character Counts focuses on: trustworthiness (honesty, integrity, promise-keeping, loyalty), respect for others, responsibility (accountability, excellence, self-restraint), fairness, caring, citizenship.
Whatever terms are used, these are the traits most parents long to see in our children, as well in society around us. These are the very characteristics the ABC and Public Agenda's respondents found lacking.
So, tackling day-to-day manners are a logical, tangible, manageable way to not only restore civility but also to ultimately affect those larger issues that emerge as our children grow into adolescence, teen years and young adulthood.
Here are some basics for parents in the search for civility:
- Be your child's behavioral model.
- Make your expectations for your child's behavior clear.
Be consistent in your behavior and your expectations for your child; both inside and outside of your home.
- Discuss reasons for good manners so young children, adolescents and teens will understand why they are important.
- Consider your behavioral expectations as "household" standards that also extend to visiting friends (yours and your children's) and relatives.
- Talk about your household's behavior expectations with other parents (when appropriate). Sometimes parents need to know how other families handle issues to be encouraged to do so themselves.
- Extend your expectations as much as possible to other arenas where you have influence, such as day care, school activities, sports, and religious activities.
- View manners positively-not as a necessary evil. Approach the issue with humor, compassion, and understanding.
If courtesy is something children live with daily through constant, consistent modeling and gentle reminders, it will more easily become their routine. And research reveals that high parental expectations (expressed in positive ways) result in children who live up to those expectations. Raise the bar and you'll find children will rise to it; lower it and they'll achieve that standard, too.
Determining the behavior standards for your household can be done simply by listing the few specifics on which you plan to concentrate:
- Liberal use of "please" and "thank you."
- Positive language (no swearing, cussing, use of demeaning language directed at another).
- Self control (temper and conflict management; moderation in such things as food and sweets consumption, video game use, television watching, and time on the telephone).
- Table manners.
- Respect for others (listening without interrupting or distractions; taking others' feelings, time and viewpoint into consideration).
- Respecting others' possessions (not using another's belongings without permission)
The specifics will vary from household to household, but will all be based on the "Golden Rule" of treating others as you would like to be treated.
Reprinted with the permission of the Institute for Youth Development. © 2005 Institute for Youth Development.
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