Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Derech Eretz

I just read this great article on good manners in the science section of the New York Times. Whhoooshh. It's by a pediatrician who recalls a particularly rude patient who bossed his mother around and generally was obnoxious. Oops, I hope I'm never that parent that gets talked about behind the pediatrician's doors. This week it would be the following: "Why isn't that child completely potty trained?"

The article quotes and frequently refers to Judith Martin's Miss Manners' Guide to Rearing Perfect Children. I think that the hook for me was the following:

I like Miss Manners’ approach because it lets a parent respect a child’s intellectual and emotional privacy: I’m not telling you to like your teacher; I’m telling you to treat her with courtesy. I’m not telling you that you can’t hate Tommy; I’m telling you that you can’t hit Tommy. Your feelings are your own private business; your behavior is public.
I have a four year old son. He never went through the terrible twos. There were no terrible threes and he's four now. I feel so lucky (I CAN'T BELIEVE I'M WRITING THIS DOWN, I'LL PROBABLY CURSE MYSELF) that I can barely contain myself. I'm sure there'll be some adolescent rebellion at some point, and I'll handle it very imperfectly when the time comes. No child is perfect (and no parent either) and just because my son takes after his two doormat, easygoing first born parents doesn't mean he won't lose it at some point.

My key to overcoming those terrible, tantrumy child episodes, however few and thankfully far between they've been in our house, is to remember that feelings are OK but not always necessary to share, but that behavior is public. Shall we remind some of our adult friends and maybe even our spouses about that?

I really love the part about respecting a child's intellectual and emotional privacy, though. Maybe we don't pay enough attention to what our kids are thinking, and how that contributes to their behavior. I think it is perfectly acceptable to be furious, and even sometimes to yell about being mad (for 36 year olds and 4 year olds) and grouse about being sad, but that hitting is never OK. I also think it is OK for a child to dislike a peer from school or shul...life is not a big playdate, and you don't have to have them over to play, you just have to suffer them politely. My mother in law seems to think you need to actually like everyone. It's even good, probably, to say that all feelings are OK, but that you just can't be rude. We all know that we don't like to spend time with those kids and parents who are OOC (out of control) but I don't always think about how my family might look or act toward others.

I remember years ago when I was a school administrator that I had to discipline a whole grade of boys who were rude, mean, and would physically intimidate others and especially the girls. So I worked and worked to craft lessons on derech eretz, "the way of the land," or the general rule of politeness and socially acceptable behavior...respect, or good manners. It was awful. I mean, I was not on my game, but they were just tough.They didn't get that it was important to treat each other with a modicum of respect, or even that Jewish tradition could have something to say about that. I never once thought of saying to them, "Jesus, it sucks to be a 5th grader. But what you gotta do is to remember that some things just can't be said out loud. It is perfectly cool to think them and even feel them, but you can't act on them. Just hold back. Being the bigger person,well, it feels damn good. And gets you points with the ones who really matter." Maybe acknowledging their feelings but requiring them to behave respectfully would have helped.

So I think I'm going to try this: have good manners. Both for me and for my son, and if we're lucky my husband too. Please and thank you always. A few others. Obviously no hitting--we're good with that--but life isn't one big play date. We might even tack on chewing with our mouths closed, shaking hands, saying excuse me when we fart, bless you when someone else sneezes and whoa--not interrupting! I guess I'm going to have to hold myself to the same standard...

1 comment:

Marcela said...

Nice post.