Four Etiquette Rules I'm Not Teaching My Kids
Certain manners are important, but not the ones that reinforce sexism and racism.
I just got back from eight days of vacation with my husband, kids and extended family. It was wonderful, but there is nothing like travel to remind me how few social skills my children have. They are constantly breaking etiquette “rules” — often at mealtimes — and I’m constantly doing what I can to educate them. Things I heard myself say last week:
Please don’t play with your feet at lunch.
Your shirt is not a napkin.
Please save some bread for the other people at the table.
Don’t pick your nose in the pool.
As you may remember, I wrote a few weeks ago about why it’s so hard for kids to learn to say “please” and “thank you.” Many months ago, in one of my most popular posts, I wrote about why it’s difficult for kids to learn appropriate table manners. My implication here is that manners are important, and I do believe they are, because politeness can be a form of respect. We don’t interrupt people because talking over them is disrespectful; we thank people to indicate that we have gratitude for what they have done for us; we don’t pick our noses in public because we shouldn’t subject other people to such grossness.
But I also think a lot about the ways in which etiquette and social expectations can be counterproductive — how manners can be used to reinforce stereotypes and discrimination, including sexism and racism. I don’t plan to teach my kids these kinds of social rules, and in fact I try to do the opposite — I talk to them about the ways in which these traditions and expectations ultimately harm others. But sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between “good” etiquette, which teaches kids to respect everyone, and “bad” etiquette, which teaches kids to respect some people more than others. So today I’m going to highlight a few social traditions I object to and why.
Rule 1: It’s polite to compliment weight or appearance (especially to women and girls).
Some social customs are learned implicitly — they aren’t things we necessarily instruct our children to do, but kids discern that they are “polite” because they see adults doing them all the time. Commenting on appearance or body size is one of these.
How many times have you heard people say, “You look great, have you lost weight?” or “You’re such a pretty little girl!” or “I swear, you never age!” Look, I have said these kinds of things before, too — but I’m doing my best to stop, especially in front of my kids. Among other things, kids hear these comments being given to women and girls more often than to men and boys, and they make inferences from this difference. They start to think:
Appearance and body size must really matter for girls and women, more so than for men.
Looking good (and having a small body) is valuable (especially for girls and women) — so when you look less good, or are in a bigger body, you are less valuable.
Indeed, research suggests that girls as young as three already perceive fatness as “bad” and thinness as “good,” and that more than one-third of 5-year-old girls restrict their eating in order to stay thin. (And we know that diets don’t work and can be dangerous, especially for kids.)
These kinds of comments are bad for boys to hear and internalize, too. As I wrote in my book, the more strongly boys believe that women are supposed to look good, the more likely they are as adolescents to make sexual comments, to tell sex jokes in front of girls, and to grab girls’ bodies. And there is nothing remotely kind or respectful about those behaviors at all.
Rule 2: It’s good manners for kids to hug friends and relatives.
Here are some common refrains I hear at family gatherings and playdates:
“I need a hug!”
“Go give Aunt Jenna a kiss.”
“Give your friend a hug goodbye!”
I know that these instructions may seem innocuous, but consider, for a minute, their broader implications. I’m guessing many of you have talked to your kids about body autonomy — the idea that we are all in charge of our bodies, and that it’s never okay to touch someone else’s body without that person’s consent, nor is it okay to be touched without consent. But what are we doing when we instruct our kids to embrace others or be embraced? We’re directly contradicting that message, because we’re instructing them to do something with their bodies that they may not want to do.
As University of Texas at Arlington violence prevention researcher Poco Kernsmith suggested to me, a better request might be: “I’d love a hug from you if you’d like to give me a hug,” or “Would you like to give Aunt Joyce a hug?”
Rule 3: Boys and girls should behave differently.
Our culture sends very different messages to boys versus girls about what kind of behavior is “appropriate.” We tell boys they shouldn’t feel afraid or sad, and we frown when they play with dolls (yes, there’s research showing that parents do this). We praise girls for being sweet and quiet, and we don’t encourage them to engage with scientific concepts.
I’m reminded of one of my kids’ teachers who gave end-of-year candy-themed awards to all of the students. The gender differences were pretty stark. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but here are a few examples (note that this was a very boy-heavy class):
Laffy Taffy (has fun learning) - BOY
Smarties (intelligent attitude and choices) - BOY
Bubble Gum (bubbly personality) - GIRL
Hershey Bar (sweet personality) - GIRL
Starburst (star friend to many in such a short time) - GIRL
Starburst (star academic work) - BOY
Now and Later (always gets the work done on time) - BOY
Skor (great academic success) - BOY
At first glance, this awards list (and all the other subtle things we do in this vein) might not seem like a big deal — but when you see how ubiquitous these patterns are, you start to understand all the many ways we encourage girls to be passive and pretty and boys to be smart and powerful.
Also: I do not think we should teach boys to be “chivalrous.” Yes, we should teach our boys (and girls!) to be respectful and helpful. To everyone. Kids can hold doors for anyone behind them (not just girls). Kids can encourage other girls and boys to go ahead of them (rather than specifying “ladies first”). Research suggests that chivalry, also known as “benevolent sexism,” is toxic and part of the system of oppression that ultimately holds women back in various ways. This is a big topic and I’ll dig into the science of chivalry soon in a separate newsletter, but it’s an issue that I had to mention here.
Rule 4: It’s good manners to eschew difficult or taboo topics (like race).
Social etiquette sometimes dictates the kinds of things we can and can’t talk about. I haven’t been to that many cocktail parties in my life, but I have intuited that it’s not okay to talk about farts, racism or sex at any of them. And that’s probably because at some point (or perhaps many times?) as a kid, I brought up something “taboo” in a social situation and was shushed about it by an adult. (I have a vivid memory of singing the chorus of Jimmy Buffett’s “Why Don’t We Get Drunk” in a crowded elevator once, and my mom being beyond mortified.)
Shushing kids for singing inappropriate songs in elevators is one thing, but I think it’s counterproductive to shush children when they want to engage with us about important topics, or to inadvertently communicate to them that certain issues are always off the table in social settings. A few months ago I wrote about what my husband and I did when our 11-year-old starting asking questions about oral sex while we were eating in a restaurant on vacation — in a nutshell, we made a concerted effort not to shut him down, because doing so could send the message that we don’t welcome questions about sex (and we want our kids to always feel comfortable coming to us with questions about sex!).
Likewise, if my kid asks me a question about race, or makes a comment about race, I am careful not to shut them down, even if we’re in public (and I am not quite sure how to answer). That’s because, when we admonish kids for raising the issue of race, we are not only communicating to them that race and skin color are not okay to discuss — we may also be suggesting that race and skin color are not okay in general. When your kid says “Did you see that kid’s shirt? The kid with the brown skin?” And we get mad at them for pointing out the child’s skin color (which is a very natural observation — skin color is salient!), we may think that we’re teaching them to be “polite,” but in reality, we’re teaching them that it’s bad to talk about kids with brown skin or even to talk to kids with brown skin.
So what should you do instead? Invite conversations about challenging topics, regardless of the setting. It’s okay — in fact, it’s quite good — for kids to want to discuss nuanced concepts with their parents. If they don’t learn about these issues from us, they’re going to learn about them from someone who may not share our perspective or values.
In my last New York Times Well newsletter, I wrote about how to manage fall anxiety and end-of-summer sadness. I’m applying this research to my life right now! I hope you all are managing the difficult back-to-school transitions okay. We just hired a new after-school babysitter and this is how excited I am about it.
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