When my elder son was a toddler, I spent a lot of time policing his manners. I thought I’d cracked it years ago, with my constant refrain of ‘What do you say?’ and my upbeat exhortations to remember the P-word. Fast-forward a decade, and he seems to have regressed. Head ducked, grunting and mumbling as he shovels food into his mouth in a restaurant or at a friend’s house, he apparently finds it more comfortable to be perceived as rude and entitled than to lift his head and say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ to an adult. It’s infuriating. Is he just ungrateful, or is there more to it?
I’m beginning to realise that, for a boy approaching adolescence, it requires a certain self-assurance to look an adult in the eye and express gratitude (let alone initiate a conversation). Charm opens doors, which is why it’s taught at public schools; its absence in a child shouldn’t necessarily be equated with rudeness. When I was eleven or twelve, I was under strict parental instructions to seek out my friend’s mother whenever I’d been round at her house and say, ‘Thank you for having me, Mrs Martin.’ I still remember the accompanying flush of shame: it was excruciating. But it wasn’t as bad as the time when a close friend of my parents insisted that I address him by his first name. I was so mortified that I ended up calling him nothing at all until I was about thirty. No doubt I came across as rude and sullen, but inside I was dying of embarrassment.
My real problem with my son’s behaviour, I suspect, is that it reflects badly on me as a mother. Consider the way we encourage small children to parrot the word ‘sorry’. Some toddlers can sign it before they can even speak. But ‘sorry’ isn’t really about teaching our children kindness or morality: often, it’s about our desire to save face in front of other parents. Whatever the misdemeanour – from bashing a child over the head with a building block at playgroup, to biting him on the leg in the sandpit – small children learn that a swift apology gets them off the hook. It’s a get-out-of-jail-free card. Better to remove the perpetrator from the scene and get her to reflect on her behaviour. If that doesn’t result in a heartfelt ‘sorry’ – because the victim has wandered off, or the moment has passed – then so be it. Other parents may tut their disapproval, but our child will have learnt a lesson and be less likely to do it again.
Like that sing-song ‘sorr-ee’ at toddler group, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are usually said reflexively, without real feeling. More often than not, they’re a matter of social convention rather than a genuine measure of our consideration and gratitude. So, just for the record: my gauche pre-teen greatly appreciates the many dinners, outings and sleepovers arranged for him by family and friends. It’s just that, at the moment, he finds it difficult to express that verbally – for the same reason that he flushes when approaching the supermarket check-out, or mumbles incoherently when asked to read out a poem in class. He knows he’s lucky to have these treats, and no doubt I’ll continue to badger him if the magic word doesn’t trip off his lips. For the time being, though, I refuse to judge him for its absence.