Monday, May 4, 2009

Where have you gone, Emily Post?

Here's a new one.

I take it almost as a given now that most teenagers know nothing of good manners, let alone make any effort to learn or practice them. I remember vividly being six years old, getting ready to enter first grade, and my mother insistently teaching my brother and me a whole canon of good manners, particularly table manners but also simple customs of etiquette like how to properly and politely ask for something you want or need. Today's kids apparently have no idea how to do that.

A particularly annoying behavioral tic has gained my attention in recent weeks, and compelled me to take measures to correct it. I find that when a student wants something, or needs something, (s)he will simply announce to me, or to the entire class, that (s)he does not have it. If the student cannot find his notebook under his seat, he will simply tell me, "My notebook is missing," then neither say nor do anything else. On final essay days, when a student comes to class late after I have distributed the essay forms, she will simply say, "I don't have the paper;" or, alternatively, "I need the paper." This is merely part of a what I am noticing is a larger pattern; "My pencil broke;" "I don't have a pen;" "I need a sharpener;" "I can't find my book;" etc.

I've written before about students' lack of resourcefulness and inability to solve even simple problems on their own or deal with even minor inconveniences. This behavior is an indication of that, in addition to being just bad manners. While it's true that very young children may grow accustomed to having adults solve their problems for them, by the time one reaches high school one should be able to, metaphorically speaking, tie one's own shoes. But by phrasing the want or need as a declarative statement rather than a question or request, the children reveal both appalling narcissism (the belief that someone else just automatically will, indeed must, address and accommodate the stated need or solve the stated problem) and pathetic childlike dependency (utter helplessness in the face of a simple inconvenience).

In situations like this I sometimes feel compelled to employ a little mind-trickery to elicit the proper request, rather than correct the child's manners outright. If a student tells me that she needs something or that he does not have something, I might respond with something to the effect of, "Thank you for letting me know," "I'm sorry to hear that," or a Seinfeldian "That's a shame." The response obviously depends on the student; some kids can't handle this sort of thing. But the idea is to teach the child that simply declaring that you don't have something is not the proper or appropriate way to go about obtaining it.

I must admit to taking a sort of perverse glee in watching some of the more clueless children squirm and pout their way through one of these exercises, but only because they almost always turn out OK; i.e., the student realizes in short order what (s)he needs to say. Sometimes they don't get it, though. I once had a student sit idly at his seat for an entire class period while the rest of the class wrote their essays, receive a zero on that essay and ultimately fail the class because he could not bring himself to say, "May I please have the essay paper?" Imagine that; a child who would rather fail the course than be polite.

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