“True politeness is the spontaneous movement of a good heart and an observing mind. Benevolence will teach us tenderness towards the feelings of others, and habits of observation will enable us to judge promptly and easily what those feelings are.”
~Lydia Marie Child, The Mother’s Book, published 1831
Until the age of six, we are in a developmental period that is critical to the formation of social relations. Children are learning how to treat others by observing others and by direct instruction.
We learn manners by watching people around us and by having manners taught to us.
Manners, coming from the Latin word “manus,” or hands, are manual social skills.
Politeness is a character trait, coming from the Latin “polire,” meaning “to polish” or “to be polished.” With politeness, we shine from being polished. Our character shines because of genuine concern for others.
Lydia Child also writes, “In politeness, as in many other things connected to the formation of character, people in general begin outside, when they should begin inside; instead of beginning with the heart, and trusting that to form the manners, they begin with the manners, and trust the heart to chance influences.”
We can teach our children how to curtsy and bow or how to say please and thank you, yes ma’am and yes sir and other niceties.
If we neglect to help our children learn to look for the needs of others and put others first, they may have impeccable manners but never be truly polite.
Writing thank-you notes for gifts or kindnesses is good manners. It is a skill that is done, more often that not, grudgingly by children. Beginning with our one-year old children, we can send a child’s drawing or photo with a thank-you note. Our children can help put the drawings in the envelope and place the stamp. We can say something like, “Grandmother was very kind to send you a new puzzle. She will be very happy to get a picture from you.” When it is time to give a gift, include your children by asking them what they think their grandmother would like for a present. Ask, “What is your grandmother’s favorite color? What is her favorite thing to do? What does she like to eat? What do you think we could do to make her feel special?”
Writing thank-you notes and gift giving are skills. Learning to think lovingly of others and to act on those thoughts builds character and true politeness. When we can help our children think of others first and offer lessons of grace and courtesy, we will not be “trusting the heart to chance influences.”
After shopping one afternoon for a birthday present for my seven-year-old’s best friend, my daughter said, “It’s hard work to get the right present, Mom. We’ve spent two hours, and I still have to wrap it. You know, I won’t complain about writing thank-you notes anymore. If you really care about somebody, it’s important to get something they like, and it’s important to say thank you.”
I smiled. My daughter might not remember her manners all the time, but her heart was shining through.