Bad manners and kids

By JUDY LYDEN
Scripps Howard News Service
08-JUL-04

There was a time when using the wrong fork was considered a child's bad manners. Now, grabbing his neighbor's fork and hurling it across the room is supposed to be tolerated.

I remember as a child trying to be inconspicuous by walking quietly down the right side of hallways, especially past open classroom doors that I wouldn't have dared look into, trying to compensate for squeaky shoes.

Now, children clamor down hallways knocking into one another, pushing and screaming no matter what is going on in the next room. They will disturb anything and anyone in their attempt to grab as much attention as they can.

Two weeks ago, a fifth-grader came up to me at a public playground, pointed her finger at me and said, "You. Yeah, you. I think one of your children is hurt."

I wasn't surprised when I read a press release that said more parents favor academic success than social success in the classroom. It shows. The headline read: "Although Americans Grapple with Right Balance, Academic Concerns Trump Character Development in New Nationwide Poll."

Is it really more important for a very young child to succeed academically than socially, especially in today's bad-manners world?

According to the article, men gave more importance to academics than character development (40 percent to 28 percent), while women were evenly divided between the two at 34 percent.

On a regional basis, only respondents in the Midwest viewed the academic/character tradeoff with equal interest. Academics were clearly more important in the Northeast, Southeast and West.

Are the awful character problems now an acceptable cost of failed parenting? Are children who disrupt, destroy and antagonize an entire group OK provided they get good grades?

Strong academic pressure seems to be all parents can muster. Parents fear that academic demands are all a child can bear. Parents are afraid that adding moral responsibility will cause a child to implode.

Few adults are comfortable enforcing rules, so many let poor behaviors stand. Most parents will not issue a real punishment because it's too dangerous, too emotionally hard. Many have turned this vice into a virtue, touting that any punishment somehow damages the well-being of the child.

But isn't that the point of punishment? It's supposed to damage the well-being of the child. If a child is contented with atrocious behavior, a good parent should want to damage that contentment with great swiftness.

The real question is: How can parents stand a poorly behaved child? The work it takes to undo early formation is tantamount to reprogramming a computer with color crayons and scrap paper.

Besides, ignoring nightmare behaviors often leads to emotional problems.

According to the Parents Survey on Discipline, reported in the Chicago Sun-Times in January, 93 percent of schools say kindergartners today have more emotional and behavioral problems than were seen just five years ago.

While we place enormous academic pressure on children at the expense of character development, emotional intelligence is undervalued. Think of what doors that opens for the future.

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