Teaching Children Etiquette and Manners in the Early 20th Century
"The hardest job kids face today is learning good manners without seeing any." ~ Fred Astaire
“As the Twig is Bent"
Every one theoretically admits the importance of early training. It is demonstrated in the animal and the vegetable kingdoms, wherever organic life unfolds and grows; and that the human child is no exception is promptly recognized in theory, however fatally practice ignores it.
Not that parents mean to ignore it; but there is a "happy-go-lucky" impression that somehow "he will come out all right;" that "as he gets older, his own good sense will assert itself," and so on. Happily, this is partly true. A native good disposition and good sense saves many a child from the ruin which an unwise course of training has done its best to precipitate. The wonder is that they "turn out" as well as they do. Perhaps Providence, in visiting its judgments, is lenient to the young and inexperienced parents, themselves undisciplined; to the helpless child, at the mercy of his blind guides.
There is too much negative, too little positive, in child-training; too much querulous reiteration of "don't," too little intelligent teaching how to do. Little children like to be "shown how;" they are fascinated with the games and gifts of the kindergarten, which aims to teach something, not to repress everything. Children are delighted to learn little polite phrases; to make a bow; to hold a fork daintily; to offer little courtesies, and to receive a smiling approbation. They would rather do things prettily than not. They are not "contrary," exceptional cases of hereditary ugliness aside.
They are apt pupils, whether their tutor be a philosopher or a fool. And if a faulty example be a child's most constant and influential teacher, what wonder that the lessons, well-learned, are put in practice? And just then, if you listen, you will hear some one issue the emphatic but vacuous command, "Don't!" And the baby doesn't, for the space of a few seconds; after which, unable to get any new suggestions out of the idea-less instructions given him, he proceeds to do the same thing over, only to be again commanded to desist, a spanking for "disobedience" this time varying the monotony of the universal prohibition.
The profane poll-parrot is not a more startling witness to the character of its surroundings than the "terrible infant," whose rude snatchings, pert contradictions, and glib slang phrases are sure to be most effectively "shown off" in the presence of visitors. It is of little use to affect grieved surprise, or stern reprobation, when one's children are merely exhibiting their daily discipline.
Most parents feel keenly the embarrassment of having the infant misbehave so inopportunely, and they are apt to offer a tacit apology and a vague self-defense by sharply reprimanding the child in words that are meant to give the visitor the idea that they--the parents--never heard or saw such conduct before, and are now frozen with amazement. The nonchalant or incredulous or impish way in which the children receive these reproofs only confirms the suspicion that such scenes have been frequent, and the discipline attending them has been inconsequent.
One parent I have heard acknowledge the truth of the matter. An elderly clergyman was his guest, and the four-year-old daughter of the house was entertaining the "grandpa" with a toy puzzle, which he fumbled with in vain, unable to put it together or to take it apart. Impatient at last, the little girl hastily snatched it from his hand with a childish growl of contempt, and proceeded to show him the trick, saying, with an airy mingling of criticism and condescension, "By Jove! your name is Dennis; you are not in it!" The old gentleman paused, instinctively prepared to hear the usual "Why, daughter! papa is astonished to hear his little girl," etc, etc., after the fashion of the parental hypocrite. But this candid young father met the dignified eyes squarely, and said promptly, "I'm sorry, Doctor, but there's no use denying it; she is just giving me away." He had the sense to recognize his own teaching, the honesty to admit it. Whether he has the discretion to reform his methods remains to be seen.
For right here is another point: that people think it is "cute" for a little child to say and do things that in a child a few years older would be most unattractively rude. But they must reflect that this same cute little child will soon be a few years older, and will carry into that riper age the fixed habits that are forming now; and it will not be so easy a task to transform the child's manners as it is to dress him in a larger suit of clothes.
A choice rose was grafted upon a wild,thorny stock, and planted beside a veranda trellis. The owner watched it carefully for a year or so, cutting down the rank shoots of the wild stock as they sprang aggressively from the root, allowing the grafted branch to grow in full luxuriance, bearing carmine clusters that filled the garden with spicy odor. The next spring an ignorant gardener pruned away the branches, cutting down the slenderest and leaving what to his unpracticed eye were the most desirable, because the thriftiest, shoots; and when the time of blossoms came, nothing appeared but the ragged petals of the wild thorn.
So, in "the rosebud garden of girls"--or boys. If the choice graft of cultured manners (for it is a graft on the sturdy but wayward stock of human nature) is left to be choked out by the rank, wild growth of impulse, or if by some flagrant error in example and discipline it is practically cut down at the main branch, what can the careless trainer expect? He may weep to find no velvet-petaled rose when he comes to look for it; but he has no right to blame the rose-bush, nor can he, at this late day, hide the tact of his blundering pruning by righteously affirming that he is "perfectly astonished." His neighbors, who have quietly noted the methods pursued in his kindergarten, are not in the least surprised.
Another resource for escaping blame is that of explaining that the children "learn these things at school." Presumably they do not mean from the teachers. It is "from the other children," who seem to be a most injurious class of society.
It is their influence which makes our children so rude and so ungrammatical; and, strangely enough, though these other children never dine with our children, so subtle and far-reaching is their baleful influence that our children's defective manners at the table are directly traceable to the same evil source.
Granted, a measure of truth in the charge; for large mirthfulness and large imitation lead children to do things "just for fun," which all the time they know better than to persist in. But, as a fact, demonstrated by observation, a very small percentage of the children who are habituated to correct behavior at home are ever seriously affected by outside influences. A superficial effect may show in little things; but such lapses of speech or manner are transient, and in no degree control the development of the child when his home training is irreproachable. On the other hand, the efforts of an untiring teacher, laboring five hours a day to teach correct language and enunciation, may be of little permanent value, when the remaining hours of the day are spent in a home where the English grammar hourly meets a violent death.
And what is true of grammar is equally true of morals and manners. The school and society may be measurably influential; but the home casts the deciding vote. And when people note the manners--good or bad--of your boys and girls, they do not ask, "What school do they attend?" "What children do they associate with?" but, "Whose children are they?"
Would you have them mannerly? Teach them; by precept, certainly; but above all things, by example.