Good Manners (*video at the end of the story*)

“You only really care if we’re well behaved.”

These were the unexpected, and painfully accurate words out of the mouth of my youngest a couple of days ago. The statement wasn’t totally out of context – the two boys and I were on our way back from errands, and talking about some child we saw in the grocery store acting up, but the statement came as we were getting out of the car.

It was one of those statements that begged a reply. He wasn’t making it as an off-handed, or rhetorical statement; it was one where I could tell from his tone of voice that he was looking for affirmation: making sure he was spot-on with his own assessment of the world.

Those internal gut-checks are something we all do, and I think, as adults, we often forget how often little ones are doing these periodic moral, emotional, and physical audits of their place in the world. I guess you could argue that every waking minute of every day of a three year-old’s life is a gut-check, starting with the incessant use of the word “why” (or “no”), and ending with the literal and metaphorical buttons they push.

Our youngest – now nine – hadn’t really done a gut check with me since we had moved to Minnesota. He had more so been quiet, and when he had spoken it was of the things he missed: his old house, his old school, and mostly his old friends.

Maybe he’s finally finished wrestling with the actual move, and is focusing back on the bigger picture – something for another post – or maybe this tableau in the grocery store was something he just could not avoid addressing internally.

My response was quick: maybe too quick. “Well. Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

Unlike my usual responses where I tend to pontificate, this time I left my response right there. I, honestly, was thinking about my answer, and wondering if my son was right, and if my answer was accurate. We all climbed out of the car, and my oldest started chiming in: editorializing as he is so quick to do about anything, since he internalizes things by outwardly verbalizing, open to criticism and corrections as he talks through how sees any given scenario.

As we were walking towards the garage, and my oldest was expanding on his own well-embellished take on my primary parenting concerns, I realized that my youngest really had seen my primary motivation. Until they’re old enough to understand what rules they are breaking – following social norms and other conventions – until that time I expect them to follow those social norms and conventions pretty closely.

Ironically, or paradoxically – I haven’t figured out exactly what this is yet – by the time the boys are in their late teens or early twenties I hope they do start to break some of those rules. And I tell them this even now. We see rule breakers – everything from smelling marijuana at an outdoor concert to simple trespassing – and we talk about why someone would break rules. I don’t say “we never, ever break rules.” I, after all, taught them that judicious rule breaking is actually a social convention when we used to walk down a fire path from our house to their old elementary school in California along with many other neighbors from our neighborhood: a path that was clearly marked with “No Trespassing” signs.

While truly successful people – those who stand out and above the crowd – typically never get there by following the rules, I hope I’m not sending my boys down a path of mediocrity. I see it more as handing them tools when they’re old enough to handle them. Sarcasm in the hands of a young child is almost as dangerous as a lit match. I see a loose handling of social norms as something similar.

As the oldest boy crests past the threshold of youth into tween-dom – starting Middle School next week – I suspect I’ll start to see some of the results of this tactic very soon. And this is the boy who I’m consciously encouraging to pursue his dream of playing rock and roll.


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