When our child was young we made a critical decision regarding teaching the idea of respect. We never taught our daughter to respect adults. Why? Because some adults are not worthy of respect. Because we wanted our daughter to be able to make distinctions between good people and bad. Because regardless of what we wanted, we knew her to be a smart cookie who would, as A. A. Milne’s revered character Winnie the Pooh would do, Notice Things.
Instead we taught our daughter to treat adults with respect. That is a critical difference. That does not require that she like them, admire them, want to emulate them, or think that they hung the moon. That is common courtesy.
The adult speaks. The child replies.
First one. Then the other.
In this we took our cue, from the maven of manners, Judith Martin, also known as: Miss Manners. The following comes from her book: Miss Manners’ Guide to Rearing Perfect Children, first published in America by Athenium Publishers in 1984.
“Respect your elders” was always the favorite etiquette rule of the adult population, which has unaccountably allowed it to fall into disuse. It is surely the rule most regretted by parents who neglected to teach it to their children.
Actually, Miss Manners never quite liked it in exactly that form. To claim, even to the smallest children, that all adults are worthy of respect seems to her unsupportable in view of the evidence. The rule that she prefers is “You must treat all adults with respect.” You see the difference. Manners wisely do not attempt to regulate the thoughts and feelings of those they seek to govern. They restrict themselves to demanding proper behavior.
It is reasonable and wise to require children to address adults with the appropriate formality of family title (“Aunt Candy”) or civilian rank and surname (“Mrs. Heppzapittle”) ; to expect them to rise when adults appear; to refrain from beating them to a seat on the bus and to surrender one when in possession ; to answer their questions and remarks civilly, even if they are silly or repetitive ; to restrain themselves from inappropriately pointing out their errors and from analyzing what powers could produce such errors, and so on.
It is neither wise nor reasonable to expect children to think that adults are, by definition, smart, right, or admirable. Such an attempt will quickly lead a child of even average powers of observation to the conclusion that at least one adult, the one who makes this claim, is either dim-witted or mendacious. It also takes all the fun out of observing the adult world. A child who is never allowed to betray the belief that any adult has done anything wrong is one who will quickly lose interest in the idea of being among such deluded fools.
It is often the case that as we blithely go through the days of our lives we are confronted with events or situations that are awkward, socially difficult, or in some form confusing to us. I have talked about them in other blog posts particularly those that have to do with the manner in which we speak. Sometimes we find a post on social media platforms like Facebook that we “like” while not agreeing with all aspects of the issue. We click that we “like” it because it is witty, or interesting, not necessarily because we find it morally agreeable. In fact, we may have friends whom we “like” while we know perfectly well that we may disagree with them on a particular subject, their religious or political views, or their behavior at a particular time. Goodness knows there are probably many who like or love us who don’t like or love all of our actions, comments, behavior, or friends. Understanding that isn’t rocket science. Good manners give us the tools to navigate those events, comments, behavior, or our relationships with particular people, in ways that are civil.
All this reminds me of an event many years ago. The wife of a nationally known church leader was asked, at a dinner party among friends, if she had seen the cover of a national magazine which showed vestments of a clergyman which were covered in patches of the companies where his parishioners worked; and further, what she thought about it theologically. She quietly quipped, that she thought so many of the issues in the church could be dealt with, quite easily, not with lofty theological panels, but with a committee on good taste.
Judith Martin in her alter ego as Miss Manners always distinguishes between manners and morals. She is not the inquisitor of morals, but rather, a professor extraordinaire of manners. Beyond teaching lessons in common civility, she is funny, witty, thoughtful and wise. If you haven’t taken a look at her books, I would encourage you to do so. She has written books on many topics including the planning of weddings, the raising of children, American manners, business manners, and compendiums for navigating difficult things like writing condolence letters, teaching children, and, as talked about here, treating others with respect. Given the political and religious milieu of our country at this point it time, this last, treating others with respect, seems an unusually apt lesson.