A poll taken by her third-grade daughter’s math class told Debbie Felix all she needed to know about children and civility.
Her daughter Janet, 7, was studying graphs at Ashburton Elementary School in Bethesda. Her math teacher asked the class to name their five favorite TV shows to help put together a bar graph.
Mrs. Felix says Nos. 1 through 4 were “The Simpsons,” “Growing Pains,” “SportsCenter” and “Arthur.” No. 5 for this class of 7- and 8-year-olds in this Montgomery County suburb was “The Drew Carey Show.”
Yes, the hit ABC sitcom whose humor, well, will never be compared to that of Noel Coward. One of Mr. Carey’s co-workers on the show routinely calls him “pig.”
“For kids who are learning to relate well to each other, I just didn’t think that was the kind of place where kids would learn that,” Mrs. Felix says.
Some cultural observers might say the snickering smarm of “Drew Carey” is the least of the worries parents should have today in the arena of civility, what with road rage on the increase, profanity spewing from every playground and school bus stop and, of course, the specter of gun violence in the hallways.
Against such a depressing backdrop, teaching children “the magic word” and the golden rule seems hopeless. Many parents do it anyway, hoping the little things at an early age will add up to a more civil society later.
Civility on the rise?
Americans seem to be divided on how civil the society is and whether things are improving. A 1996 U.S. News/Bozell poll found that Americans consider themselves more civil than the culture around them. Ten percent of the 1,005 adults surveyed said Americans in general are very civil toward each other, but 67 percent said they personally were very civil toward others.
Stephanie Faul, a spokeswoman for the AAA’s Foundation for Traffic Safety, says the association’s surveys on road rage seem to support that. Surveys show that motorists believe road rage is worse than drunken driving, even though she believes that is not true.
“It’s hard to say how many crashes [road rage] causes,” Ms. Faul says. “There’s not a lot of evidence linking it to actual crashes, so we don’t know what the effect of it is. But in talking to people, everybody is concerned about it, and there’s increasing concern about it. Every year [the concern] goes up. Aggressive driving is a quality-of-life issue. It may not be a safety issue, but people go out there and feel threatened and feel unsafe because of it.
“People’s perception of the types of civility changes. Just the other day, somebody was telling me, ‘There aren’t any more good Samaritans on the road anymore.’ There’s a perception that if you stop, you’re in trouble, no one will help you. That’s not true; we know that. But there’s this veneer of rudeness, and people seem uncaring.”
On the other hand, Stephen L. Carter, a Yale Law School professor who two years ago wrote “Civility: Manners, Morals and the Etiquette of Democracy,” says he thinks the lack of civility is getting worse because the cultural forces that push people away from virtue and toward prosperity as a measure of a “great people” are dominant today. He uses the presidential campaigns as an example.
“There’s very little talk among the presidential candidates about any issue of immorality, and that reflects where we are as a culture, and that’s the culture parents face,” Mr. Carter says.
“So when I, as a parent, face the challenge of raising a child who is going to have a habit of self-discipline and understands the importance of postponing gratification, I have to do that recognizing that the media culture is against me, the popular culture is against me, the market culture is against me because of the advertising issues, the educational culture is against me, and the political culture is against me, too. There simply aren’t any allies out there, with [the exception of] one possibility the religious culture.”
Even there, Mr. Carter says, many places of worship are so concerned about filling the pews that they don’t want to send any messages that make people uncomfortable.
Language as a ‘signature’
Like many Americans, Ellen Paul has noticed a disturbing trend in conversation.
“There’s a general coarseness in the ways adults interact,” says the Bethesda mother of two. “People drop swear words in conversation. They didn’t use to speak that way.”
Victor F. Scalise Jr., a pastor at First Baptist Church in Melrose, Mass., agrees. One of the things he emphasizes to the children at First Baptist is that “language is our signature. It tells people who we are.”
“Radio has no restraints. TV has no restraints,” he says. “To expect that we can win the battle against the enormous tide [of coarse language] out there without an enormous effort on our part is impossible. That’s what I try to encourage the young people here to think about.”
Melrose, a city of 30,000 just north of Boston, has undertaken such a massive effort, led by Mayor Pat Guerriero. When Mr. Guerriero delivered his inaugural speech in 1998, he encouraged townspeople to “treat each other better, with fundamental respect and decency.” One of his first acts was was to form a “Responding With Respect” committee.
Several townspeople say the initiatives are working, but it has taken an across-the-board effort by everybody in town.
Parents who are concerned about civility here, in a much larger and more diverse area, are finding it easier to start with their own children. In the Paul house, even “shut up” is forbidden.
“I find it so rude,” Mrs. Paul says. “It’s totally unacceptable, so disrespectful. I find it so much better when the kids are talking to each other to say ‘cut it out’ or ‘be quiet.’ It’s not as coarse. But you hear [‘shut up’] all the time.”
The Felixes also have banned “shut up,” along with the word “hate,” even when referring to such things as food.
“We say ‘I don’t care for it’ or ‘I’m not much for it,’ ” Mrs. Felix says.
Mr. Carter says that is exactly the strategy parents who wish to build civility in their children should employ.
“Children learn from what they see,” Mr. Carter says. “Parents themselves must be civil.”
‘The McManners generation’
Mrs. Felix does part-time career counseling for University of Maryland business students at the Graduate Career Management Center in College Park. She says many students there struggle with the basics of table manners.
“I find a lot of people coming out of college who have never used a fork or a knife,” Mrs. Felix says. “They went to McDonald’s or Burger King or KFC all the time, and they did not know how to put a napkin on their lap. There is a whole generation that’s grown up on pizza, burgers and fries. They don’t know how to eat with utensils.”
Mrs. Felix says she knows families where the children eat dinner almost every night in front of the television and the parents eat by themselves later in the evening when both are home from work.
“I call it the McManners generation,” says Dorothea Johnson, director of the Protocol School of Washington in McLean, which provides etiquette and manners classes for business professionals, adults and children. “What we’re finding is that two-income families don’t have the energy to teach manners. Children are not eating at the table.”
The way Jim and Judy Lorensen of Silver Spring see it, many of those same people haven’t learned some of the basics of road civility, either. The Lorensens cringe when they see some of today’s behavior on the highways.
“When people don’t pull over for emergency vehicles, it just breaks my heart,” says Mrs. Lorensen, a stay-at-home mother for her two children, Benjamin, 4, and Alex, 2. “They’ll go through lights to get through the intersection before the emergency vehicle gets there. It’s sad.”
Mr. Lorensen, an environmental consultant, says he is so disgusted by driving incivility that he has changed his work schedule to avoid as much of it as possible. His pet peeve is drivers who refuse to merge into traffic until the last possible minute, when their merge lane runs out, and the other drivers who won’t let them in.
“It drives me crazy,” he says.
The Lorensens, and many other like-minded parents, have found it hard to enforce a sense of civility beyond their own four walls. They have seen what happens to other parents who try to instill common courtesy among other children in shopping centers and malls. They say they even have alienated a neighbor by insisting on polite language and behavior in their house.
“We stress [that] it’s important to use words rather than hands to resolve something,” Mrs. Lorensen says. “We almost belabor that point, but do you confront other people and possibly provoke something? I guess it kind of depends on the situation. It’s different if the [offending party] has left. If our kids see something like that, a person hitting another person or being rude or something, we ask them how did it make you feel? How could you have resolved that?”
Ann C. Humphries will be the first to admit it: Rudeness sells. Just take a quick look at what is popular on television, the movies and radio programs. “The Simpsons,” was, after all, the favorite show of Janet Felix’s math class.
But Ms. Humphries, a certified professional consultant to business management, also has seen how rudeness costs in business dealings.
She drew on her consulting experiences and in 1987 formed Eticon, an organization that helps promote basic etiquette and manners among business managers. She also developed a series of videos, games and books called “Proud to be Polite” to help parents instill those values in their school-age children. That series also sprang from some of her personal experiences.
“It was very stressful on me to teach them,” Ms. Humphries says, referring to her children. “What do they really need to know? Where do I need to put my emphasis? That’s how I started. I wanted to make this more like ‘McDonald’s manners.’ Everyday manners is not white-glove. This is soccer-field manners, hallway manners, Wal-Mart manners, everyday manners. I wanted to make it fun rather than punitive.
“[Parents] have this panic. What I find parents often do is they don’t emphasize it at all. Then all of a sudden, you go to Aunt Hilda’s for Thanksgiving, and there’s a huge panic, and you’re yelling manners over the back seat, and when you get there, [the children] don’t do what they’re supposed to do and people start to gossip about your kids, and the parents are embarrassed and start snapping at the kid again. Let’s back away from this. Skills need to be taught and practiced, like music or sports.”
On top of that, Mr. Carter says any civility-minded parent should be extremely vigilant about the cultural and media influences his or her children face.
“I wish that were not so,” he says, “and I know every generation of parent[s] complains about the popular culture. But it may be that one generation finally has reason to complain about the popular culture because of the fact that there are a lot of messages in today’s music, in today’s video games and today’s films that are anti-civility.
“And I’m not even talking about the violence or sex that a lot of people complain about. I’m talking about the rampant materialism; I’m talking about the emphasis on me and what I want and the notion that the individual is everything, the group is nothing. If children grow up heavily subjected to those influences, they’re going to grow up thinking the world revolves around them and they owe very little to anyone else.”