Thursday, October 28, 2010

My kids will never be that rude...or will they?

This week I had the pleasure of meeting a close friend for dinner at a fairly nice restaurant. I arrived first and was seated across from a family of four - mom, dad, son of about 16 and daughter of about 19. We were the only parties in the establishment and so I couldn't help overhearing their conversation. I surmised that they were out to celebrate something and sat squeamishly as the parents desperately and without much success, to engage the kids in conversation. The son seemed to realize that small talk was the price of entry for a nice steak but the daughter was having none of it and made sure everyone at the table (and beyond) was aware that she had better things to do. After a few minutes, her disgruntled parents, resigned to their fate, gave up and she pulled out a cell phone and from that point forward, did not lift her eyes from the screen for the duration of the dinner, even continuing to text between mouthfuls.

Of course, my brief encounter with this family lacked any context at all so I have no idea what, if anything, was behind the daughter's extremely offensive behaviour but I responded in the classic parental way, by silently declaring that "no child of mine will ever behave that way, adding in "especially when I'm buying them a nice dinner" for good measure.

The no child of mine declaration is an occupational hazard of parenting and it's not a phrase that should be tossed around lightly. After all, when dealing with another human, even one over which you exert considerable influence, it's impossible to predict their every action into the future. I have had to eat my words countless times as previous declarations were proven unattainable. For example, I proudly announced that no child of mine was ever going to eat junk food, become addicted to bad cartoons or forget to say thank you when someone gave them a gift, but they did. The sentiment comes from a good place - the desire to raise children of whom you can be proud and young adults who will go out into the world as productive, well-mannered members of society. But as any potentially perfect parent has discovered, easier said than done. While we have a great deal of influence over our children, particularly in their earlier years, our words of wisdom don't always sink in, please and thank yous are easily forgotten in public and there is an element of nature versus nurture in all of us.

So, we can't always control behaviour, especially from those sullen, withdrawn teenagers that we all were at one point. But we can set rules and expectations for behaviour both inside the house and out in public and reinforce them in a way that is appropriate for their age. And I think, when it comes to teaching your children manners, starting early, providing constant reminders and never giving up, will eventually result in polite young adults. In our house, nothing can be brought to the dinner table besides food and the tools required to enjoy it and that applies to the adults as well as the kids. It is my hope that, if I am unrelenting about these things early in life, they will become ingrained and I won't have to beg them to refrain from using their cell phones at the dinner table ten years from now.

But will I succeed? Perhaps the poor parents who were sitting next to me tried in vain to establish the same kinds of guidelines and after years of repeating the same mantra, they just gave in with a "kids today" shrug. Perhaps they shared my mortification but decided to ignore their daughter's behaviour on that evening when the only alternative was to have a public argument or risk ruining the outing for everyone, including their son, who was behaving appropriately.

With kids I've learned, never say never but do your best. I'd love to hear from parents of teens if you struggle with this, if you have an issue with it or if it doesn't bother you.

By the way, my friend and I had a lovely time together and got so engrossed in a stimulating face-to-face conversation that neither of us checked our mobile devices once.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Being civil in an uncivil world

Hi everyone,

This is my first new blog post after a self-imposed hiatus from social media. And, I survived (of course). I was lucky enough to spend the summer with my kids, far north of the city in a small town with no television and all the trappings of Ontario nature, and it was bliss.

When I wasn't building sand castles, playing mini golf or making frequent trips to Dairy Queen, I had some time to think about my fascination with etiquette and whether or not it's still required, relevant or even necessary in our society. My environment provided some interesting insights as I was surrounded by kids out of school, their vacationing parents and retired seniors.

Let's start with the kids. We all know that young children have poor etiquette. Sure, their parents desperately teach them manners and with any luck it sinks in and they remember to say please, thank you and excuse me at the proper time but a concern with the wellbeing of others is just not in the DNA of a youngster. It's in their nature to focus on themselves, their own happiness and what works for them, now! We'll give them a pass because with proper guidance, they will grow out of it, eventually.

Working parents on vacation are usually at their happiest. They're enjoying those precious two weeks in July or August where they don't have to put on a monkey suit, fight traffic or keep ten balls in the air at a time. There's a tiny hint of anguish as their trip counts down from two weeks, to one week to a few days but for the most part, they're contented, enjoying their children, reconnecting with their spouse and maybe even allowing themselves a daydream or two.

And then we get to the seniors. While Canadians over 60 are not immune from the occasional civility slip, they came of age in a time that wasn't punctuated by the endless ringing of cell phones and text message alerts, when it was prudent to keep your personal details to yourself and not be celebrated on reality TV for your bad behaviour, and when deals could be struck with a handshake. I'm not glamorizing this era and I realize we have made a lot of social gains since then. I'm just saying that this cohort seems to have a better grasp of polite conduct and a greater appreciation for face-to-face discussions.

The most pervasive element of my summer environment was a lack of stress, in myself and those around me and while I've always toyed with the idea that stress equals poor etiquette, it is now obvious to me that we live and work in a society that makes it difficult to remember our manners all the time. And even if we remember them, sometimes the world conspires against us and seems to force us to be less than civil, maybe even rude.

For example, if you have all the time in the world, you can live with the driver in front of you going below the speed limit and cruise along behind them. If you're late for the most important meeting in your life and will surely have to incur a parking ticket or even have your car towed just to get there in time, you find yourself slamming on the horn and screaming obscenities. Likewise, of course you know that it's considered rude to talk on your cell phone in line at the coffee shop, but when you're desperately waiting for a call from the only graphic designer in town who's willing to meet your ridiculous, last-minute deadline, you need to pick up right?

What I'm saying is, when you look at the role of etiquette in modern society, there are many people who just don't care and that's sad. But I believe most people truly want to live in a more civil way and they would, if only they lived in a more civil world.