Photo: We’re classy folk, so sometimes I dress my boys up kinda fancy. Like during Easter. Weren’t they cute? Also putting this up because it makes me think warm thoughts–because clearly it is SNOWING right now in Massachusetts. And we’re supposed to get “significant” snowfall on Wednesday AND Sunday! Lord… I need Spring. Desperately.
Call me Southern, but I like titles. They denote respect, sometimes admiration, always station and a little bit of deference. Titles are part of the dance of politeness and manners and living a civilized life. I personally like this dance, and because my parents taught me how to be a lady, I can perform the dance better than most.
And I’m teaching my boys the dance, too. Because I have extraordinarily high expectations for their behavior, even at this young age. Yes, they will say “please,” and “thank you,” and “yes, please,” and “no, thank you,” and they will do this when I’m not there to prompt them. Yes, they will say “excuse me,” when interrupting an adult conversation, and when they are told to, they will wait politely until they are addressed. Yes, my sons will, eventually, hold the door for the person behind them. When they are older, I’ll teach them to give their seat to a woman if there is no chair available and they see one standing. My sons will get the old school, old-fashioned politeness bootcamp for their entire childhood and adolescence. You know why? Because when a man walks out into the world, he represents himself and he represents his mother.
But let’s get back to titles.
I believe in titles.
And you know what really pisses me off? Children who call adults by their first names.
Yeah, I’m old fashioned. I still demand a cellphone with a real keyboard, I put napkins in my lap when I’m eating at a restaurant (and I wait until everyone at the table is served before I take a bite, too! What’s up with people not waiting these days??), and I even stop the hold the door for the person behind me when I’m walking through.
And I call women who I don’t know (who are clearly older than I am) “ma’am” and men who I don’t know (who are clearly older than I am) sir. Until they tell me not to (and then it often slips). And I still call my mother “mom” and I still call my father “father” and I still give my aunts and uncles (and close family friends) their respective honorifics. And when I was a little girl, I was instructed to call people “Miss” or “Mister” [last name here] and on exceedingly rare occasions I was allowed to call a person “Miss” or “Mister” [First name] here. These were important things for me to know and do as a young lady growing up and navigating the world. They went along with that good strong hand-shake and looking people in the eye and what what.
And you know what? My sons are going to learn the same thing.
Now, listen, I totally get that this is old-school, and that we’re living in this crazy world of blurred social lines and such. I consider myself a feminist, so I’m down with women who hate the “Miss,” “Ms.,” “Mrs.” thing. Fine. I get that some teachers have last names that are difficult for young children to pronounce, so they’d rather go with their first name. And I think that there is a huge difference between telling adolescents that it’s “ok” to “just” call a teacher or other adult by their first name and telling a kindergartner to do it. Why? Because you can’t learn how to break the rules until you learn the rules initially. If a child never learns when and how to use honorifics, he won’t know when it is appropriate to use them formally and when to forego them.
So my boys are learning their honorifics. Now. Because we live in a world where my boys only get one shot to make a good first impression.
It isn’t the end of the world, but it is annoying when I introduce my sons to an adult and call them “Miss” or “Mr.” [First name] and then the first thing that they say is “oh no. Just call me [name].”
No, actually. I insist. Especially because I’m already making a concession by allowing them to use that first name after the honorific. My parents? Nope! And I was given no more than two tries to correctly pronounce a difficult name. Don’t get me started.
Anyway, it’s a huge pet peeve. Twice in the last week, I’ve had other parents say “Oh no, just call me by my first name” in front of my child, in which case I’ve had to give a gentle “no, actually, call them [whatever]” and a shove of my child to go play. This is a huge peeve of mine because I’m giving my child instruction and I don’t appreciate you contradicting my directive to him. This is an important value of mine and I’m not compromising because you have hangups with feeling old or looking old fashioned or whatever.
There is something else that has been bothering me lately that I’ve only observed in the suburbs. It’s when I’m disciplining my sons gently, usually about the volume of their voice or them touching something they aren’t supposed to, and then another mom does any of the following:
1) Comes to me and says “relax, it isn’t a big deal. Everyone else is doing it” or “relax, it isn’t a big deal. They are just children” or “relax, it isn’t a big deal, they are just expressing themselves.”
2) Listens to me discipline my child, usually in a gentle “we’re using our inside voice” or “that is not a toy,” and then goes up to my child and says “oh no, it’s ok, you can play with that if you want to” or “oh no, it’s ok, you can scream if you want to.” (This ESPECIALLY pisses me off)
Or 3),(and this is egregious but has happened to me twice) Sees me about to discipline my child, puts up a hand to stop me and then does it herself. (the first time I didn’t realize it until it had happened. This last time it pissed me off for the entire rest of the playdate and now I probably won’t be doing having any more with her.)
I can’t tell if this is a New England thing or a suburban (white) mom thing or what the hell it is, but it’s driving me bonkers. Seriously, BONKERS. It’s one thing if you have your own parenting style with your own kid. It’s another when you think it’s acceptable to impose onto mine. There is nothing more rude. Seriously, I can think of nothing more rude. And I’m alls about taking responsibility for our neighbor’s children just as we do for our own, but this is beyond the pale.
Here is the thing, I really don’t consider myself the strictest mom in the entire world. I indulge my children just as much as any other middle-class American mother does. But here is what I understand: An early, unyielding, uncompromising education in social graces matters and lasts for a lifetime, especially for boys. Especially for boys of color. We’re all pussyfooting around it, but I know that no matter how liberal and progressive we are around here when it comes to race/class/gender (but we’re sorta not, it’s kinda an illusion), I am hyper aware that my boys will be judged under a completely different set of rules than other children–the children who they happen to go to school with, and, if I should ever have one, any daughters that I have (though that’s a different ball of wax, too). When it comes to how my sons move in the world and how they behave, I have absolutely no choice but to be resolute from day one. And I am. I’m not making my kids miserable by asking them to be polite. I’m setting them up with the good social habits of a civilized person.
I also think that there is something to be said about decorum, where it comes from, how its taught, and what it means. Why not teaching proper social decorum at two and three? This is when they are learning everything else important (walking, pooping in the potty, eating with a fork) so why not add the important words of the social dance of civility to the mix? Why not teach them that these good manners not only shows respect to other people but brings a certain air and respect to themselves? Why not give your child, at a young age, the tools to make a solid impression? Why am I on the fringe for no apparent reason? Why make it more difficult trying to ingrain these values later in childhood, like around 5 or 6 when they have the sense enough to start talking back?
I know that this is ranty-ravy for a Monday, but it really was a trying social weekend. I was trying to do the right thing and get out of the house: I went to coffee on Thursday, a school party on Friday and a spontaneous brunch on Sunday. That’s a lot of social. And while I’m excited to say that I’m working toward my goal of being a better friend and neighbor (and becoming more established in our new community), I am very disappointed to note how disenchanting the suburban mommy thing is. I don’t know if it is just that suburban moms have “made it” in a sense, so they don’t feel the same sort of urgency I do… or maybe it’s just that these things don’t matter in these particular circles? If saying “please” and “thank you” and “Ms.” and “Mr.” make my boys the “weird kids” at school, I think I’m going to be quite ok with it.