“Your children are so polite!” Have you ever heard these words? Many of us who homeschool hear these words from elderly neighbors, church members, and even restaurant cashiers. Ironically, homeschooling critics quickly assume we will fail to “socialize” our children, yet homeschoolers receive these appreciative words that warm the heart: Your children are so polite!
I must admit that in the early days of our homeschooling, we did not hear those words. Both of our children, boy/girl twins on the autism spectrum, had come to us through adoption and struggled with social niceties. Maintaining eye contact, speaking clearly, and being respectful to others did not come naturally to my children. Common expectations confused them. I was determined that, if nothing else, we would teach them manners.
Gratefully, I had models for this. Both of my parents spoke respectfully to my little brother, to me, and to each other. Mean, harsh, or hurtful words were rare. Some might have accused our family of being too “buttoned-up,” but now I appreciate being raised in a home where the gentleness of common courtesy was embraced.
My parents, too, were raised this way. I remember when I was a little girl visiting my grandma and sitting at her kitchen table. My grandma required of me what she had required of my mother: Say “please” and “thank you.” If we saw one of her neighbors, my grandma insisted that I speak when spoken to. Never mind that I was a timid child; there was simply no excuse for failing to greet someone by her proper name—no excuse for rudeness.
My grandma had never embraced the more popular and “enlightened” notions that a child should be amused or catered to; rather, she believed that her role was to civilize me. She intended to make me a kind person.
“Manners” comprehends all the habits of mind. Love is the result of the affections; kindness of the manners.
—Quintilian, ancient Roman orator, Institutio Oratoria, Book VI
Some Need More Than Others
My own children required even more intentional and explicit training in manners than I did. We read and reread books such as the Polite Elephant. We role-played manners with stuffed animals. I wrote “social stories” for specific settings such as being respectful to our pet cat when she was sleeping and being observant of, rather than interrupting, an adult who might be occupied in a task or in thought. When we chose read-alouds or programs to watch, we selected those with mannerly characters, such as Little Bear, Mister Rogers, and The Boxcar Children. All of this took time, but we began to see fruit.
Today, thanks be to God, my children are young adults who are sometimes anomalies because of their politeness, not solely because of their special needs. To be mannerly today is to be pleasantly surprising. This summer a new neighbor told my son, “I want you to know that you and your sister are among the most polite children we have met in the five years since we moved here.”
Both of my children continue to struggle with challenges. However, due in no small part to intentional training in manners, both work in areas of service today. My son works in a history museum and my daughter serves as the activities aide in a nursing home. The manners they learned as children and teens help compensate for their weaknesses and struggles in other areas. Often we did not focus on the proper use of several forks at a meal, although some might tackle this as part of a delightful course in etiquette. Instead, we emphasized the basics I was taught as a child: Say “please” and “thank you.” Speak when spoken to. Respect the people you encounter day to day.
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.
Teaching Manners Today
What if your own children could become more respectful, thoughtful, or courteous? What if they could be less self-absorbed and more attentive to the needs of others? Standard social skills programs can be oddly self-centered and lacking in inspiration, so my daughter and I pulled favorite classics from children’s literature. From those books I created open-and-go lessons to teach manners to all children. Myself & Others: Lessons for Social Understanding, Habits, and Manners gives you everything you need to begin reclaiming civility in your home and neighborhood.
The next time someone asks whether you plan to “socialize” your children, you might consider responding, “Oh, we intend to do more than socialize them; we intend to raise them to be mannerly.” Maybe you will inspire someone else to do the same!
Copyright 2019, The Old Schoolhouse®. Used with permission. All rights reserved by the Author. Originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade publication for homeschool moms.