- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 5, 2005

“What is that hanging from your ear?” I ask. Glancing into the rearview mirror, I can see only the right edge of my daughter’s face and a thin, gray wire hanging in her hair.

But of course, I’m not really asking, “What is it?”

I’m asking, “Why is an ear-bud headphone in one ear while you are engaged in conversation with other human beings?”

“I can hear you perfectly, Mom,” my daughter answers defensively. She can see where this is going.

Whether she can hear me perfectly is not my issue. This is not a long car trip on which I permit my children to plug into their personal music devices to pass the time. It’s a 10-minute drive to the doctor’s office for flu shots, offering us a chance to catch up about the busy school day and get a handle on the homework load for the evening.

“I may not have mentioned this before, but wandering around the planet with an ear bud in your head is rude,” I say. “I know kids do it all the time, but it’s bad manners unless you’re alone and you don’t expect to talk to people.”

“Good point,” she says as she stuffs the cord in her pocket. “Besides, I don’t really know how my friends do this. I keep thinking I’m going to answer your questions by repeating the song lyrics.”

In today’s culture of “cool,” a single ear-bud headphone placed in one ear is typical for teens. This leaves the other ear open to take cell-phone calls. Really cool teens even have personal digital assistants — PDAs — to connect to the Internet and e-mail no matter where they go.

All of this technology is designed for communication. Teens keep in touch with instant messages, text messages, voice messages and photo messages. They even have developed code languages to help them transmit information quickly, without using actual words (LOL — laugh out loud).

However, if the conversations I hear between my children and their friends are any indication, all this technology may be robbing some young people of the ability to talk. What we’ve gained in immediacy we’ve lost in polite conversation.

Case in point: One day last summer, my daughter invited a friend to spend the afternoon at our house. We drove to her home to pick her up, and when she climbed into the car, my daughter initiated a friendly conversation.

“How’s your summer going?”

“Fine.” (Not, “Fine, how about yours?” Just “fine.”)

“What have you been doing?” she tried again.

“Nothing.” (Not, “Nothing. What about you?” Just “nothing.”)

“Do you have anything fun planned?” I had to give my daughter credit. She wasn’t giving up.

“No.” (Not “No, but stop asking me so many stupid questions,” though that’s what it sounded like from the driver’s seat.)

Clearly, it was going to be a long day.

Sure enough, after several attempts to engage in activities that would require the polite participation of her guest (board games, a bike ride, baking brownies), my daughter suggested they watch a movie. Who could blame her? It’s hard to spend a whole day with someone who doesn’t talk.

If conversational skills among young peers are on the decline, getting children to talk to an adult is like cracking a bank vault.

Not long ago, my son invited a new friend to play at our house for the first time. Because I didn’t know him, I tried to talk to him while making the boys’ lunch. I asked how he likes school, inquired about his favorite classes and teachers and what sports he likes best. To every question, he replied, “I don’t know” while staring blankly at my kitchen floor.

Now, I realize it’s not always comfortable for a 12-year-old boy to chat amiably with the mother of his friend, but I wasn’t asking deeply personal questions that would put him in the conversational hot seat.

The sad reality is, I don’t think anyone has taught this boy how to engage in polite conversation. Unfortunately, his rude behavior convinced me he’s not a child I want hanging around our house. He hasn’t been back since then.

Loads of great books and Web sites are available to help parents teach rules of etiquette — so many that it may seem like a daunting task. We have simplified this effort in our house by remembering that all manners are about making other people feel respected and comfortable — about putting the feelings of others ahead of ourselves.

Not that there aren’t a few rules worth passing along, such as to look at the person speaking to you; answer a question politely; demonstrate respect for adults in conversation; say “please,” “thank you” and “excuse me.” Even a 5-year-old can master the basics if parents take the time to teach and practice polite behavior.

Then again, once these fundamentals are well-learned, you can tackle the more advanced rules for participating in polite society — rules that include: “Take that silly ear bud out of your ear while I’m speaking to you. Please.”

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 18 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.mary bethhicks.com) or send e-mail to marybeth.hicks@comcast.net.

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