Manners maketh man. But who maketh manners?

I went to a school that was, shall we say, lenient in the comportment department. We greeted corridor-strolling teachers with a jaunty high five — or not at all. We were more rowdy than respectful. More passionate than polite.

Don’t get me wrong: there were ‘Pleases’ and ‘Thank yous’. But this was not the school for the doffing of caps, nor for standing in the presence of a lady.

This was a jumble of confidence, entitlement, and…irreverence. This was a place of great affection for our teachers, rather than a centre of obedient distance. This was where, I’m ashamed to say, the kids ruled the roost.

And I’ve wondered, as I grow older, if schools should teach — and indeed, enforce — good manners, or if good manners should come from the home.

Because, there’s no question, in theory, that good manners are critical. I mean, no-one’s coming forward to propose that, like the fax machine or the shoehorn, etiquette has been rendered obsolete in the modern age.

Wherefore art thou, manners?

Manners are no longer dominated by pinkies in the air, ankles crossed at the knees, and hand-written ‘Thank you’ cards. The legendary Emily Post, worldwide authority on socially correct comportment, pointed out that, “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.”

“Manners are social behaviours that help us build and strengthen relationships,” confirms Cindy Post Senning, co-author of The Gift of Good Manners (2005). And as Emily’s grand-daughter, she’d know.

But many writers point to a rising tide of unruliness (Edwards, 2010). To our existence in an age of aggressive disrespect. We’re seeing degeneration in basic human behaviour — in turn-taking, in sensitivity to others, in table manners. Even in eye contact and interpersonal communication.

Little wonder, then, that there’s a ‘Whose fault is it?’ dilemma, says Edwards (2010): “Young children have to be taught the fine art of civility, to discourage what may be a natural inclination to stay savages. And since civility is a language of sorts, it’s better learned young. But who should teach it?”

Like me, our readers aren’t just short of time. They’re short of patience. So, for 2021 content, I suggest that we wed ourselves to less is more. Pronto, before there’s no one left who wants to read anything at all.

Parents should teach manners.

In the ‘old’ days of early childhood education, before academia demanded its all-consuming priority, pre-school and prep school teachers had the time to teach kids to get along with each other, to share, and to handle anger. They could direct their educational resources towards moulding social behaviour.

But today, and increasingly as learners progress through school, teachers have plenty to do, and then some. Their hope, therefore, is that parents — a child’s first teachers — will adopt the mantle of socialising their kids.

Many teachers see parents as instrumental in building a range of social skills, including taking turns, greeting others, and using ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’, and even extending into personal hygiene and basic sex education.

In response to high-profile, often violent, conflicts between South African teachers and learners in recent months, Angie Motshekga, Minister of Basic Education, points to “a societal problem, because these kids come from homes where they do not necessarily learn manners (Mere, 2018).”

She explains that Government and schools cannot be expected to “keep tabs” on the issue; that teachers should maintain professional conduct and protect the children under their care, but not teach them how to behave.

It’s true that subjects of a personal or moral nature are more effectively taught at an individual level, and early on, especially when children are able to witness, assimilate and then emulate their parents’ admirable behaviours.

And yet, a Portugal school came under fire for a similar message in 2017:

“We would like to remind you that magic words such as hello, please, you’re welcome, I’m sorry, and thank you, all begin to be learned at home. It’s also at home that children learn to be honest, to be on time, [to be] diligent, to show sympathy, [and] to show respect for their elders and all teachers. Home is where they learn to be clean, not to talk with their mouths full, and to dispose of garbage. Home is also where they learn to be organised, to take care of their belongings, and that it’s not okay to touch others. Here at school…we teach language, math, history, geography, physics, sciences, and physical education. We only reinforce the education that children receive at home.”

Schools should teach manners.

Many felt that the Portuguese school was entirely out of bounds; that it was unfair to look to already overloaded parents for these core teachings. After all, children learn to socialise not only at home, but also in the classroom.

With children spending six-plus hours a day at school, teachers may be better placed to communicate expectations of fair play and respect. In any event, in situations where both parents work, grandparents are not involved in daily child care, and there’s less of a supportive ‘village’, a child rarely has the opportunity to observe and later model home-based values.

Is it possible that formal education is more conducive than home life to the measurable and ongoing development of self-regulation, self-confidence, resilience, determination, and aspirations for the future?

Could it be a teacher’s duty to demonstrate proper etiquette, so that students graduate with these vital skills? For instance, might teachers establish a universal expectation that they will greet students at the door at the start of each lesson and then thank them for their work at the end?

At least one British politician, Education Minister Elizabeth Truss, thinks so, citing educators as responsible for teaching children manners and blaming “chaotic” UK pre-schools for turning out a generation of “unruly toddlers” who “run around with no sense of purpose” (Rowlands, 2013).

A united front maketh most

Nah. I’m not buying it. This isn’t an ‘either…or’. It’s a ‘both…and’.

Manners are not the exclusive purview of parents, nor the sole burden of teachers. Both parents and teachers are influential, albeit in different ways, in children’s learning. For this reason, education — including the entrenchment of good manners — must be a shared responsibility; a shared priority.

In my day, given the laissez-faire vibe of both my primary and high schools, it was down to my family to impart a sense of consideration for others, lowering my voice in public, allowing an older person to have my seat, and keeping my elbows off the table. There were consequences for ‘backchat’.

At school, we got away with murder. But at home, cheekiness was suicide.

Fast-forward 30 years, and my daughter attends a school well known for the manners of its learners, beyond its educational strengths. These kids are expected to be ‘good sports’; to exhibit etiquette; to doff their (proverbial) caps. This is a big part of why we chose the school: Not because we don’t teach manners at home, but because we want her to learn them everywhere.