Here at the dinner table, Birdy is in an ecstasy of cornbread. It has dissolved inside her mouth into a curious paste, and she works it around and around, finally extruding a pale tube of it from between her lips like she’s some kind of coin-op polenta machine.
“Oh Birdy honey,” I say. “I don’t want you to do that.”
“Why not, Mama?” This is Ben now; Birdy can’t speak for slurping the mush back into her mouth. “Is it not safe—like she could choke on it? Or not kind?”
“Safe and Kind” is the rule at school, and, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a fine mantra for becoming—and remaining—a human being (it would, for example, make for excellent foreign policy).
“Well,” I say. “I guess it’s that it’s not kind, in a way. I mean, it’s not unkind exactly—Birdy’s not trying to be mean. But it’s gross, which means that it disturbs the other people at the table.”
Ben considers this while he chews a mouthful of chili, as cautiously tight-lipped now as someone’s old granny. He swallows, blots his lips with a napkin, then asks, “But why is it even gross?”
Sometimes I tire of answering their questions, it’s true, but I love the way the kids keep us honest with their curiosity. Especially about manners, which can seem so arbitrary but, at their best, aren’t. “Why?” is just such a good question. Why do you have to say ‘please’? Because it makes people feel good about helping you. Why do you have to say ‘thank you’? Because it shows people that you noticed them doing something for you. Why do you have to use the forks in that particular order? You don’t—we don’t really care about that kind of thing.
Ben’s like a sociologist, sent into the field to study politeness. “Thank you, Mama,” I cue into the silence after pouring him a glass of milk, and he repeats it absently, “Thank you, Mama.”
But then he asks, “But Mama? I don’t even really like milk all that much. I drink it because you guys say I should. Do I still have to say thank you even if you’re giving me something I don’t even want?”
“That’s such a good question,” I say, and mean it. “But yes, honey. You do. Society works best when people are as nice to each other as they can be.”
“I don’t know,” he ponders aloud.
And he returns to pondering when we’re getting ready for bed and I say to a rascally-mood Birdy, “Please don’t bite me when I’m trying to take your socks off.”
“You know, Mama,” Ben laughs, “I think if what you’re saying is don’t bite me you shouldn’t really have to say please.”
“Good point,” I say.
We are strict about manners: The kids have been hissed at in the car more than once, have returned, scolded and solemn-faced, to people’s doorsteps to say, “Thank you for having me.” When the veggies get passed around the table, I use the trick my friend Alix taught me: “Brussels sprouts—Yes please or No thank you?” (Gag me is not one of the choices, as I am quick to remind their father)—and it works like a charm.
But overall, the children behave graciously, and their good manners are their own reward. “What polite children!” people gush at them in the hardware store, at restaurants, when they stop by my office—and the kids beam with pride. “Thank you!’ they say, like caricatures of polite children. And I don’t mention the power struggles when they were toddlers—the stand-offs over markers and cheese, when the little tyrants simply could not bring themselves to dilute their delight, urgency, or rage with the word please.
And Birdy can still, at three, turn into the pettiest of despots: “I need a wet tissue!” she cries, from her car seat, where her fingers are practically stuck together with the sap from an apricot fruit leather. I wait to see if she’ll catch herself.
“Mom, I said I need a wet tissue!“
“I hear you,” I say. “It sounds like you really need a wet tissue!”
“Mom! My hands are sticky!”
“It sounds like you’ve got some sticky hands!”
“Mom, would you please get me a wet tissue?”
“I’d be happy to.”
* * *
Part of what’s difficult for toddlers, of course, is that politeness is most often required when somebody does something for you—and toddlers want to be helped about as much as they want another serving of steamed kale. No thank you.
This morning we were watching Birdy wrestle with the large Tupperware container that houses her Playmobil figurines.
“Unh,” she groaned. “Ugh. Oof.”
“Here,” Ben said kindly. “Let me help you.”
But Birdy shrieked, “No, Ben! Don’t.” And then—just as he was beginning to lecture her (“Birdy, even if you don’t want my help, you’ve got to. . . “) she corrected herself. “I mean No thank you, maybe later.” She darted away to the kitchen and returned with a spoon, with which she set to crowbarring the lid, and Ben turned to me with the raised-eyebrow gesture that means, in our family: Good luck, Birdy! But when the lid finally popped off and Birdy hopped up and down triumphantly (“Yay!” she cried, and “Good for me!”) Ben nodded approvingly.
“That’s great, Birdy,” he said, and she said, “Thanks, Benny.” Rooting for each may not be highlighted in the Miss Manners book, but it should be.
* * *
Then again, we practice some unorthodox preachings about politeness. I feel, for example, that when you plunk a steaming, buttered ear of it on your child’s plate and he cries, “Ooooh—yum! Corn on the cob!” this is just as good as, if not better than, a plain old “Thank you.” I also think that the pleasure of eating cold green salad with your fingers cannot be overestimated, and at home this is a perfectly acceptable dinnertime behavior. As is resting a comfortable bare knee against the edge of the table, the better to brace yourself while you tug enthusiastically at a sparerib with teeth and hands. These are what we call the “home alone” rules. They differ from “guests over” rules—which differ in turn from “Grandparents over” rules. Which are pretty much identical to “eating at a restaurant” rules, if you please, which means no sticking of your buttery fingers into anybody’s water glass to snatch away and crunch their ice cubes, no not even your own, and no, not even with your salad fork.
I like explaining manners when kindness is the operative goal; I am inclined to think they’re silly when it’s not. And then every now and then there’s a grey area—like the cornbread. “Why is it even gross?” Here at the dinner table, I’m thinking aloud now, saying Ben’s question back to him. “It’s a good question, honey.”
“I mean,” he says, “it’s not gross on your plate. And then it’s just chewed up, which is the same, but chewed.”
“That’s true,” I say, but already a light bulb is illuminating the space above Ben’s head. “I know!” he says. “It’s closer to being poop than when it’s on your plate! And the closer it is to being poop, the less polite it is.”
This is probably a fairly articulate rendering of another of society’s basic tenets. Safe and Kind—and as far from becoming poop as possible.
“Good thinking,” I say.
And Ben smiles at me and says, “Thank you.”
Author’s Note: Ben and Birdy are nine and six now, and they remain polite, vulgar, and curious about the “why” and “how” of manners. “Excuse me, I farted on your pillow,” they say. They say, “Please pull my finger!” and “Would you be so kind as to grab me another roll of toilet paper so I can finish wiping my crack?” I never would have guessed that politeness and scatology could blend together so seamlessly, but I guess you just have to roll with it, right? Turns out I’d rather have a kid who says an enthusiastic “Thanks, Mama!” even if it’s about passing him the prank plastic cat turd, than a kid who takes a fragrant bouquet of flowers sullenly out of my offering hands.
Brain, Child (Summer 2009)