Manners Maketh Man

How often do we hear the words – ‘I blame the parents.’ Kids are running wild. They’re entitled. Knife crime is on the up. Young people are completely out of control, or, if they’re not, they’re certainly not behaving very well.

What happened?

I was chatting with some friends recently about my insatiable need for travel. I blamed my parents. When I was young, they kept me in line with the phrase ‘If you don’t behave, we’re selling you to the Gypsies.’

I rather liked the sound of it, having been introduced to this seemingly exciting, if not glamorous (to my young self) group of people. I fantasised for years about what it would be like to just disappear into the sunset one day in a caravan with a group of strangers. Mum also recalled, before I was born, that a Gypsy came to the door and told her she was going to have ‘a famous child’, so the Gypsies always held a special place in my heart. Clearly, they knew their stuff.

It was obviously just a fantasy, though, because the threat kept me on my best behaviour until well into my teens, especially when I answered the door to a Gypsy trying to sell us a piece of heather.

One of my friends, also from South Wales, recalls that his parents used to tell him they would give him to the coal man if he misbehaved. We had a coal man, too, and each week when he came to put the coal for the open fire in the bunker, I would run sobbing hysterically to Mum, shouting ‘The boalman! The boalman!’ It really wasn’t inherent racism, as my best friend in class was called Raymond, and he was the only black boy in the school.

Another friend recalled an interview with John Cleese, in which he said that he kept his daughter in line by telling her that he bought her at Harrods and if she misbehaved he was going to send her back. I wish! If ever I heard an incentive for wrongdoing, that’s it.

The worst threat, for me, was being sent to my room. On the rare occasions that happened (I was a very well-behaved child, having had instilled in me an abject fear of authority), I remember staring down from my bedroom window, weeping. I recall the smell of grass as I watched Dad mowing the lawn, Mum on the red lounger, sunning herself, and me swearing I would never do anything bad again, the separation from this perfect scene being too much to bear.

Today’s kids would welcome being sent to their rooms, to give them freedom to play on their iPhones and computers.

So, when did parental threats become so ineffective?

To me, it began with the mobile phone. When I think back to my bedroom, viewing the family from afar, what consumes me is a sense of loneliness: separation from all that I loved, and miserable in the knowledge that I had let the family down. The mobile phone has given kids the opportunity to engage in emotional gang warfare – against not only their parents but authority figures in general. It’s an Us versus Them mentality, with them always being perceived to be in the wrong.

Young people have also been handed the reins of power – quite rightly, in cases of mistreatment, where they now have opportunities to report their abusers – but with the threat of legal action hanging over acts that at one time would have been considered accepted discipline, the older generation is terrified to do anything that might land them in court.

Most significantly, however, is young people’s lack of respect for their elders. I’m all for older people being questioned by the young and being challenged in their prehistoric held beliefs (we should all be open to the ideas of others, and the changing of the times), but it seems as if manners have gone out of the window.

The discipline of manners is something that never leaves you, and is, to me, the foundation of good behaviour. I was taught so many. Don’t touch other people’s belongings, for one. Mum recalled my once admiring Auntie Marjorie’s glass ornaments and warning me ‘You won’t touch Auntie Marjorie’s lovely glass animals, will you?’ I stood several feet away, staring, my hands behind my back.

Always say please and thank you. I can’t think of any advice I ever been given that instils good behaviour more than that. I still do. I am stunned when I go to functions and see a room of people largely ignoring this. First, I ask the waiter’s name and then, every time they put something in front of me or take it away, I turn and say Thank you. I am invariably the only person who does so.

I am the same with airline crews and always get a note at the end of the flight, thanking me for being such a great passenger – accompanied by a bottle (sometimes two) of Champagne.

Don’t get me wrong. I haven’t always been this paragon of virtue. I get annoyed at poor service and companies that do nothing to help when things go awry. But when it goes well, I am appreciative.

And, for me, here’s the biggie. You’re not always right. If you’re in the wrong, apologise. If I had one piece of advice to give the younger generation, it would be that. Look at things from the other person’s perspective and, if you have acted rashly and unfairly, or you were, simply, wrong, hold up your hands and say sorry. Nothing screams good behaviour like an apology.

I was brought up with the adage ‘Never judge a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins’ and we would all – not just young people – do well to think about that when we rush to judge others.

Manners maketh man is believed to have derived from the centuries old works of William Horan, and it is often quoted. The tenet is that politeness, good manners and civility are essential to humanity. They are. Now, more than ever before.