Good Manners do Make a Difference
I was headed for the exit door when two young teenagers abruptly stepped in front of me, forcing me back to prevent a collision. They went through the double door exit, letting the doors slap behind them without any regard for someone who might be following. The language being used by these two young fellows was rough and filthy. Outside one of them treated me to the spectacle of a phlegm ball being spat on the sidewalk.
Shocking? Yes and no. Yes, it was shocking because it was clearly a case of bad manners and bad etiquette. There was absolutely no consideration, no regard, for other people’s feelings and needs. But no, it was not so shocking because this is not an uncommon sight in our society. Who of us can go to a local mall for a couple of hours and not be confronted by bad behaviour? That is not just the behaviour of teenagers. Bad manners are displayed by children, adults, parents and the elderly alike. True, the younger generations are often less restrained in exhibiting bad manners, but it is not their exclusive domain.
This is the reality of our society, and it is not very pretty. It is also a big change in behaviour patterns. Many of us can remember a different time – not a perfect time, mind you – but a time when there was a greater degree of politeness and respect for others. Quite frankly, the change has many people disturbed. It is not uncommon to read in the secular press an article about manners or a new column dealing with etiquette. There are help books on the subject, and there are groups where parents can send their children to learn basic good manners. Why are people concerned and even afraid about the abandonment of good manners? Because people recognize that there is a correlation between manners and healthy relationships. In other words, people who do not develop good manners do not develop good relational skills either. They do not learn such basic things as respect and empathy for others. Imagine where that leaves one in a relationship with parents, teacher, employer, neighbour, and one’s future spouse and children. A lack of good manners creates huge problems in life.
What Went Wrong?
Why has there been such a change in our society in the matter of good manners? What went wrong? Something that has had a deep impact on our society is the whole “self-esteem” movement which permeated the field of education in the latter part of the twentieth century. In order to promote a child’s sense of self-esteem and self-worth, he or she should be allowed to do what makes them feel good about themselves. If Johnny wants to chew with his mouth wide open in a restaurant or to spit on a public sidewalk, then who is going to tell him this is wrong? This might make him have a negative image of himself. This kind of training has created a generation of self-centred and narcissistic children. Because of the natural depravity of man, such children do not instinctively gravitate to good manners.
Another problem is a lack of adult supervision and role models. Dad and mom are too busy with their careers and leave their children too much on their own. There isn’t the basic training by the parents which instills in their children a sense of politeness, consideration and respect for others. Of course, when parents no longer belong to a church and take their children to the worship services, then the directives of God’s Word which speak of love for our neighbour are also lost.
Certainly not to be overlooked is the influence of television. TV shows which flaunt cynicism, disrespect, materialism, casual sex, vulgarity and glorification of violence is a huge influence on the psyche of our society. Moreover, it is depicted as completely normal behaviour on prime time TV to treat parents – particularly the father – as complete morons; to regard the older generation as being out of touch with reality; to regard politeness and etiquette as something only “dweebs” would do. When TV is a large part of anyone’s culture, then generally speaking, good manners are not a large part of one’s life.
Does it Really Matter?
The question that all of this raises is whether manners really make a difference. Does it really matter whether a young teenager holds the door open for someone else? Does it matter whether an adult is careful not to butt into a conversation between two other people? Does it really matter whether a driver carefully signals a lane change and moves over only when there is enough space so as not to endanger or irritate another driver? Does it really matter in the big scheme of things?
J. Douma writes the following in his book, The Ten Commandments, in connection with the fifth word of the covenant:
Using good manners shows respect for those relationships in which we cannot simply “let ourselves go.” Manners are the brakes that conscience provides to slow us down in thinking only about ourselves and our own pleasure. This is why etiquette is such an important part of a moral disposition. The primary and most decisive schooling in this subject that we will receive for our entire lives happens in the home. What we learn (or fail to learn) there will have good (or bad) repercussions in other relationships across the entire range of the social order.(pages 172-173)
Douma not only points out the importance of learning good etiquette in the home, but he also emphasizes how important this training is for all relationships in life. Basically, good manners and etiquette are expressions of consideration and love for others. It is a matter of empathy. This is another way of saying: I do to others what I would have them do to me. Good manners are simply a way of showing love toward our neighbour. It is keeping the Word of God as we read it in 1 Corinthians 13:4:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
Think also of Philippians 2:3, 4:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
There is also Philippians 4:8:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.
Those who are redeemed by Christ’s blood and renewed by his Holy Spirit will have this mind of Christ, and this attitude to others whom God places in their path.
In general, good manners cause us to be considerate and loving toward others. More specifically, the manners which we learn as children and which parents teach their children, manners such as respect for elders, holding a door open for others, saying “thank you,” and not interrupting a conversation, train children how to relate to others in a meaningful and edifying way. A child may start off being polite to others simply as a ritual taught by parents, but when they see how it is appreciated, how it causes joy, how it enhances relationships, then it comes more and more from the heart to speak and act in a loving way toward others. The blessing is that children learn respect for their parents and elders; when they go to school there is respect for the teacher; in every relationship throughout life there is consideration and love for others. We can quickly see what blessings will come to a child who learns to respect and love others. There will be a desire to listen to and learn from the teacher; later on, moving into the work force, our children will naturally get along with others and relate to them with politeness, respect and consideration. Our children learn this and develop this from the time that they are taught basic good manners.
Manners Don’t just Happen
Good manners don’t just happen. They need to be developed. They need to be taught, particularly by parents to their children. Parents need to set a good example for their children. Dad cutting off someone on the highway and then waving a fist at that person when he blares his horn, is displaying bad manners. Children need to see in their parents a real love, respect and consideration for others – in word and deed. Children also need to learn that this comes from experiencing the wonderful salvation which is in Jesus Christ who in turn taught us to love God and our neighbour. Parents need to start training their children from early age such basic things as saying “please” and “thank you.” They need to curb antisocial behaviour. It is not uncommon for a son to come home during grade one, proudly announcing he has beaten up someone who got in his way. Dad might secretly be proud that his son is a tough little guy. How important it is to nip this in the bud and carefully explain that this is not proper behaviour. This is not an expression of the love of Christ which should fill our hearts. Letting this go unchecked and undiscussed will only encourage further antisocial behaviour and a bully mentality. Are these the kind of covenant children we are raising for a meaningful place in the kingdom of heaven?
No doubt another good thing to do is restrict TV watching and the kinds of programs being watched. Watch what your children watch, and discuss it carefully with them so that they understand what a negative impact this medium has on our moral upbringing.
Instilling good manners in our children is not an easy challenge. Often we will be disappointed not only in them, but also in ourselves. But under the guidance of God’s Word and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can enjoy the beginning of loving our neighbour as we love ourselves. This will be a blessing to them and to us. What is more important, it will be to the glory of God.