Have you ever overheard a parent chiding a child to “act like a gentleman” or to “use princess manners”?
The first time I heard a parent offer this directive to a rambunctious three-year-old, it made me smile. The second time, it made me think.
Why would we be referring back to a time of kings and castles when all we want is for Junior to close his mouth when he’s chewing? That’s nothing fancy: it’s just common courtesy.
Common what? That three-year-old probably has no idea what courtesy means. If your child were to ask, you’d explain that courtesy is an old-fashioned word that originally referred to the way people were supposed to behave in a royal or noble court. It does, in fact, go back to the days of kings and queens, knights and princesses.
If we consider the true meaning of courtesy, though, it becomes clear that telling a little girl to “act like a princess” gets it backward. What we really should be telling our kids is to remember to treat others as if they were royalty.
Indeed, the main point of teaching courtesy and manners to young children is to help them learn to be considerate of those around them. It means seeing the world through the eyes of other people and responding to their needs.
When this is our message to our kids, our way of speaking to them changes.
You don’t hold open the door for others behind us just because it’s polite; you do it so the door won’t slam into them.
You don’t push a drawer back in after you’ve opened it just for the sake of manners; you do it so someone else won’t bump into its sharp edges.
And you don’t use your “indoor voice” just to show you’re well-behaved; you do so to spare the ears and nerves of your beloved parents.
Let’s hope this kind of old-fashioned courtesy never goes out of style.
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