Why I'm Teaching My Son Manners, Even If Adults Have Given Them Up

When anyone outside of our family bids my son farewell, his knee-jerk reaction is to say absolutely nothing and keep it moving.
Publish date:
August 14, 2012
manners, smiling, saying hello

When anyone outside of our family bids my son farewell, his knee-jerk reaction is to say absolutely nothing and keep it moving. He might even furrow his little brow a smidge before turning to go on his merry, toddler way.

The same holds true for the “hello” exchange. That kid’s got nothing for you, man.

Over the last two months, I’ve been working with him to specifically improve his meet-and-greet tactics. I tell him -- a few times over (look, the kid’s 3) -- that it’s not polite to say nothing when someone says goodbye.

I tell him that the kind thing to do is respond with your own toodle-loo or, at the very least, a wave. I’ve given him this prompt often and we’ve made significant progress. In fact, on a recent road trip he thought it wise to peace-out to a restaurant with a cheerful, “Bye, Applebee’s! I don’t like you.”

We’ll work on diplomacy next month.

As I said, the little guy is three years old -- a good excuse for most things -- and still growing into being a gentleman. But how do you explain the folks long past toddlerhood, the hardback adults who go mute when met with a hello from a not-so-strange stranger?

How could you NOT smile back at this?

Where’s the prompt for the woman you've crossed paths with in your office lobby every weekday for the last two years? Is someone’s mama going to remind the fellow runner coming downhill towards you that waving back is not a crime? And let’s not even get into the people who spend their energy trying to avoid even the most cursory eye contact with you. How is that A Thing?

Now I realize that we are no longer living in “Good day, sir,” hat-tipping times (Twitter doesn’t count here), and I’m not looking for someone to bow or prostrate themselves by my feet. It’s about acknowledgement.

A simple nod to say, “Yes, I see you. You’re here, too.”

As easy as it may be to send that healthy message to another person, for some reason it seems like unnecessary work for too many of us. So I just add it to my laundry list of pet peeves around civility and tell my inner Emily Post to chill. We’re living in the days of emoticons and text-talk (IMHO that's not gr8), so expecting someone to occasionally look up from their smartphone and meet my eye is probably asking for too much.

But then last week -- because I’m old and listen to NPR basically always -- I heard an interview with humorist and journalist Henry Alford about his latest book, "Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That?: A Modern Guide to Manners."

First off, that title! How exactly perfect. In the radio chat, Alford touched on so many of my annoyances, from the lost art of saying you’re welcome to this problem of paltry "PGR" (or Perfunctory Gestural Recognition -- his term), where even a finger wiggle, lip pucker or eyebrow raise as acknowledgement is an unreasonable request.

Listening in my car and nodding along with Alford, I felt confirmed. There were others -- possibly many -- who shared my irritation with the sad state of salutations. No, it’s not an outdated expectation! Yes, it is rude! You tell ’em, Alford!

I may have even pumped a first at one point at the stop light, leading me to turn, slightly embarrassed, to the neighboring car. A woman driving a minivan looked back at me.

I sailed an easy smile over and waited, wondering if I was about to be knocked off my soapbox. But she smiled back, and topped it off with big wave.

As the light changed, and she moved up in her lane, I thought I saw her lips moving. I like to think she was listening to the radio too, singling along, and not muttering, “Bye, crazy!”

More than the strangers on the street or in their cars, it’s my son’s progress into manners that matters most to me. Each wave from him, each hi and bye, each thank you and please, makes me happy and feeling as though I’m doing my job, guiding him towards graciousness and compassion.

These are important things, just like looking both ways before crossing the street, to help him negotiate Real Life 2.0, with his heart open, head high and hat ready to tip.