Some parents are resigned to their children's lack of respect as an inevitable, if undesirable side-effect of a child-centred upbringing which treats children as equals. For them, manners are just another thing you've got to tell children off about, a poor reason to curb their freedom to explore the world. They are thrilled when their offspring interrupt adult conversations, because it shows how brilliant and perceptive they are.
At the other extreme are the sticklers for polite behaviour, whose children never answer back in front of granny or run riot in the pizza parlour. For them, manners are an outward sign of consideration and the kind of respect for adults which most of us had drummed into us by our own parents.
The problem is that instilling manners involves a degree of strictness and formality with which many parents feel less comfortable than their parents did. This generation of parents want to be friends with their children, to reason rather than pull rank.
Christina Hardyment, a domestic historian who has studied three centuries of childcare, thinks children's manners may have reached an all-time low. But, she says, it's not entirely their parents' fault: 'Historically, children learnt good manners in the household. Now children are not in the household, they're at school. From the age of five, children start learning from the people in their class. How children behave is quite frighteningly out of the hands of parents.
'In every family, meals are the focus of trying to make children behave well. But now a lot of families snack or graze and only get together for Sunday lunch. And very often you've got fathers working long hours - they were traditionally the ones who insisted on the way you behaved in connection with the outside world. These days, the child's window on the world is the television.'
The Nineties child has learnt a new vocabulary of answering back from the cocky heroes of junior television and his playground peer- group. Parents with fond memories of jumping to it when Dad said 'Do it because I say so]' don't stand a chance.
For centuries there have been swings from discipline to permissiveness and back again. The more formal approach, which appears to be gaining ground, would certainly suit working mothers, who want children to fit in with their lives, not the other way round. As Christina Hardyment says: 'In the years when women dropped everything and concentrated on their children - particularly their intellect - you didn't hear much about manners. Now we're swinging back to thinking it isn't just IQ, it's the way you behave in society that matters. Everything is in the air now for saying we would like our children to be more polite and more aware of other people.'
GOOD BEHAVIOUR BY EXAMPLE
THE ROBSON FAMILY
SUNDAY lunch is an important event in the Robson family. Even two-year-old Jonathan, perched on his booster seat, is expected to behave properly: sit still, eat nicely, and wait till the end of the meal to get down. His brother, Oliver, is already well versed in good behaviour at table and elsewhere.
The boys' parents, Josephine (known as Jo), who looks after them full-time, and David, a satellite operations engineer, believe that Nanny knew best when she said: 'Manners are caught not taught.' Weekend meals are important because it's the only chance the family gets to eat together. Children, says Jo, absorb good manners from their parents as if by osmosis: 'If children watch their parents saying please and thank you and not taking things for granted, it must rub off. Oliver wrote six thank-you letters after Christmas. He's probably picked that up from us, because I'm always saying I must ring or write and say thank you to someone. I think it's important to be thoughtful, to be courteous and considerate of other people.'
Jo and David were brought up to have scrupulously good manners themselves. They're the first to admit that they are an old-fashioned family with traditional values. David is the sort of man who stands up when a woman comes into a room, and even when she gets up from the dinner table. Jo knows it's sexist, but she appreciates it. She would like her boys to do the same, but knows she's pushing her luck in this day and age: 'People aren't so strict these days. There's a lot of 'What does it matter?' But I think it does matter. Oliver's exposed to all sorts of different children. Some are not brought up to behave properly at the table - so a little boy comes to tea and he might behave totally differently and I'll end up saying, 'Please close your mouth.' I know that sounds awful, but I think manners are very important. I definitely expect that by the time children are Oliver's age they should behave properly.'
Oliver appears to be a very polite child. His pleases and thank yous come automatically, apart from the odd prompt. And when he tried unsuccessfully to interrupt our conversation, he always said 'Excuse me' first. 'We have a constant battle on the interruption front,' says Jo. 'We get very irritated and angry. When you're a child you're so dying to say something you just cannot wait till the other person's finished. But I think it's very poor behaviour.'
When it came to an argument, Oliver did what all six-year-olds do these days: he answered back. Answering back ranks pretty high on the Robsons' list of unacceptable behaviour, meriting anything from a whack to a spell in his bedroom. Their dilemma is how to achieve good behaviour while maintaining a friendly relationship with their sons: 'Parents are much closer to their children these days, and therefore the level of respect is much less. Disciplining them is harder because we are so close, and so involved. We couldn't rule through fear because we love them so much.' David agrees: 'When we were young, the ethos was that children were seen and not heard. There was automatic respect for older people.'
David's and Jo's parents' views on child- rearing were shaped by the Victorian nanny who brought them up. Jo had to finish everything on her plate, and would never have dreamt of being rude to her parents. They still exert a strong influence on the younger generation: both grannies expect a high standard of behaviour in the dining-room, and are the first to notice if Ollie forgets to say thank-you.
Jo does not feel she's fighting a lone battle on the manners front. She often refers, somewhat wistfully, to the immaculate manners of her friends' offspring in and around the Surrey town where they live: 'All the parents I know socially want their children to behave properly. But it's difficult with spirited children. I want Oliver to be pleasant and civil and not rude, but boys of Oliver's age aren't naturally like that. We've just got to curb the excesses and mould him as best we can. It's very hard work and sometimes I don't think I'm succeeding at all. But we're really trying.'
SELF-LIMITATION BY EXPERIENCE
THE ELLISON FAMILY
THE SIGN in the Ellisons' loo - 'No Tampax, No Fag Ends' - has an authoritarian tone that comes as a surprise in a household where there are virtually no rules. Hazel and Peter Ellison have never imposed discipline on their two daughters, Lowri, 19, and Zoe, 16, or their foster children, Steven, 14, and Matthew, 12. Their philosophy of child-rearing is liberal
to a degree that is often disconcerting. Home life centres on a converted barn in the Devonshire countryside; the children's bedrooms
are individual chalets dotted around the
From the beginning the Ellisons made a conscious decision to abandon rules in the name of 'first-hand experience' - the child learns a fire is hot by touching it, and so on. As Hazel explains: 'We haven't disciplined the children at all. They've found their own boundaries. We let them do what they liked unless they were physically hurting themselves or someone else, or smashing up things that were very precious.'
Peter adds: 'I don't agree with the idea that children need discipline to give them security. You naturally discipline yourself, there's no need to impose it. Of course children need routine - but they find their own routine at a very early age.'
It's not surprising that manners have never been high on the agenda. When the girls were younger and adults prompted helpfully, 'What do you say?' the answer was never 'Please' or 'Thank you'. Nor has there ever been any pressure on the children to eat with their parents, or sit at the table at a certain time.
Saturday lunch is a haphazard affair. Zoe is finished before anyone else sits down, and while the grown-ups pick at avocado and salad, the boys, still in pyjamas at 2pm, root around for bowls of cereal and retreat to the sofa. We eat against a background of their belches.
Fundamental to the Ellison philosophy is the idea that children deserve as much respect as adults. So once a week there's a family meeting at which everyone has one vote, which means that the parents can get voted down, and the children have an equal say in what goes on. Recent topics of discussion have included smashing up other people's property (forbidden by one of the few rules), and spending more time with the adults, one to one.
So much freedom sounds like a recipe for disaster. In fact, Lowri and Zoe are the envy of their friends' parents. Hazel says, 'We've never said, you must say thank you, or you must be well-mannered. But when they go to other people's houses they think the girls are wonderful because they're so polite and sociable and help with the washing-up. We'd got so used to having riotous children; they were terrible when they were little. Then suddenly they'd grown up. People say it gets worse as they get older, but we've found the opposite. I think Peter and I have been bloody good role models. They've always received consideration and respect from us, so now they'll give it back.'
Hazel may be biased, but her pride is justified. Lowri and Zoe have the best kind of manners - they put other people at their ease. It's clear that they don't feel intimidated by adults, but they aren't cocky, and they never dominated our conversation. They talked easily about the advantages of being brought up so differently from their friends.
But they weren't always so charming. When the family moved to a new house, the neighbours were horrified to see the two girls, then aged seven and four, sitting in the middle of the garden smoking cigars they had found in a drawer. They would turn up for kindergarten wearing lipstick and high heels, and swim in the river in February.
By allowing their children to do what they liked, Hazel and Peter Ellison invited the disapproval of neighbours, grandparents and teachers - although they were careful to choose progressive schools, which would be sympathetic, like Sands School, in Ashburton, where Zoe goes.
Hazel, whose philosophy of child-rearing rejects her own working-class upbringing, never took criticism lightly: 'I was well aware of what people would say about me as a mother. To the outside world it might look like we're completely uncaring, but in fact it's the opposite. We've thought very seriously about every stage of the children's upbringing. People would say, 'My God, you're really keeping
your kids back, what are you doing bringing them up like that?' To the world they were little savages. But now they really care about other people - they seem to have a responsibility to themselves and others that many
children don't have.'-
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