A call to knighthood

By JUDY LYDEN
Scripps Howard News Service
24-JUN-04

The world has always been divided between the posh and the posh-not. It starts early with kids, so it has nothing to do with money or education. It has to do with a natural elegance of character. It shows in an individual who is naturally "aware" of the people around him, and whether he can define his neighbor's needs and treat those needs appropriately.

I always tell the kids, "There are two kinds of people: the knights and the dung-heavers." And they always laugh because it sounds silly.

"It's simple. There are those who ride the horses, and those who clean up after them. Which one do you want to be?" They all want to be knights, of course, but when you consider all the dung-heaving behavior today, the knight is a rare case.

The true dung-heaver has not a clue that his neighbor is even breathing until it's time to get something. Then he dons other behaviors, such as Mr. Slothbite.

Mr. Slothbite is the last kid to volunteer to clean up; in fact, he throws food. He's the first one in line, pushing and shoving. He's the last one to help and makes most of the mess. He's the child who tattles on everyone else and refuses to play with the new child or the old toy. He grabs the first cookie and hits others on the sly. A teacher can rarely depend on his truthfulness.

And speaking of tattling, there's Mr. Snitch. His main focus is every move everybody else makes _ for better or worse, mostly worse. He's a reporter, a chronicler, a catty gossipmonger.

"She bothered the cat. She took Maya's book. He's not picking up." It's much like a verbal version of the onslaught of an old ticker tape.

Kids are funny. A very young child tends to fly between a complete immersion in another's business, kindly attentive to every word, and in the next 10 seconds step on his neighbor's head on the way to the bathroom. But then he turns 4.

Parents' influence counts. Manners are taught, which means manners are learned. There's a give-and-take there. Lots of well-meaning parents teach, but that doesn't mean children learn.

Parents will harp and instruct, but manners really belong to an inner something not easily defined or easily swallowed. Knighthood means someone else first.

Too often good families make a call for the right behavior, but it's a distant call, a call from too far away and too late.

The call to knighthood begins in the year that begins with age 2, and the seed is sown before the age of 3. Passing off poor behavior on age and aiming for manners later is inviting a child to take the path of the dung-heaver.

Nathan and Ashley are two of the knights for the modern age. There is a certain natural something that sets these children apart. It's deeply aristocratic. It's a dependable behavior pattern that begins with a kind of positive child thought. These very young children always seem to think first and then they act on their best choice. It's a habit they've accustomed themselves to, and it's a joy to witness.

Are they crushed by harsh parents and a host of rules? Their parents are always smiling. Nathan and Ashley are two of the smartest, most lively, involved, funny and polite children I've ever met. They listen; they respond with intelligence and energy; and when the bell rings, they sense the need of the group, including teachers, and they go about it diligently. They are spartan about their own needs but Athenian about knowledge and order. It's a great combination.

So how did these kids form the habit of good manners? Is it a natural gift from good parents and families who care? Is it a natural propensity toward a noble character rather then the languid fall into dung-heaverdom? These are the questions that have been around for centuries.

(Judy Lyden operates a pre-school in Evansville, Ind. Write to her c/o The Evansville Courier, P.O. Box 268, Evansville, IN 47702, or e-mail her at jlyden(at)evansville.net.)