The lengthy advice given by Polonius to his son, Laertes, in Act I of Hamlet — ending famously with “This above all: to thine own self be true” — is not the first example we have in history or in literature of a parent advising a child in the arena of manners and civility. For that, you might have to go back about 600 years.
You can go back even further. Five centuries before Jesus set forth the Golden Rule (Do Unto Others …), Confucius urged something similar: “Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself.” The collection of proverbial wisdom and morality by Dionysius Cato, in the 3rd or 4th century AD, inspired some of the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales and Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanac.
But let’s return to the original topic: advice for children. A famous manuscript from the late Middle Ages or early Renaissance (c.1480) is The Little Children’s Little Book, a rhyming poem of 108 lines. It offers such advice as “See that your hand and nails are clean,” “Don’t pick your ears or nose,” and “Don’t spit on or over the table.” The poem is written in Middle English, so exact translations may be arguable.
This in turn gave rise to The Babees’ Book: Medieval Manners for the Young, a retrospective, as it were, of how manners were perceived in days of yore. The Babees’ Book was published in England in 1868 and emphasized morals as much as it did manners. (Both of which, one might ponder, are in need of bolstering in these modern times!) It is a fascinating compendium of writings that span millennia but express a universality of agreement on what constitutes acceptable civil behavior. Joining the august company of Confucius, Jesus, Chaucer, and Shakespeare we get Aristotle, whose ABCs include “Be not A too Amorous, nor Argue too much. B too bold, nor Babble too long.”
A personage no less than George Washington, at age 16 (was this before or after he chopped down the cherry tree?), laboriously copied out 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. Washington’s notebook, inspired by Jesuit teachings, remains in print today. Though some seem silly or pedantic today, they emphasize respect for others — something that is hugely lacking in today’s political and civil discourse.
Let’s leapfrog into the present. Any number of bloggers and pundits are willing to lay down the law for manners and civility for today’s kids. According to one Internet dad, “Good manners for kids are not automatic nor do they develop without some deliberate teaching and modeling by the adults.” Here are his 10 commandments.
- Put others first.
- Polite phone protocol.
- Thank you note.
- Open the door for others.
- Use thank you and you’re welcome routinely in conversation.
- Shake hands and make eye contact.
- Teach them to offer to serve people who enter your home.
- Stand up when an elder enters the room.
- Be polite to people who serve.
- Practice manners at family mealtimes.
Google will be happy to provide you with 24 million other opinions, including ones written especially for children in the age of smartphones and social media.
My favorite in the above list is #6. I have worked at Morris Tutoring since 2011, and I have always told Susan, the owner and my mentor, that I never fail to be impressed with students who make eye contact when we meet. (Shaking hands is at the moment discouraged, thanks to the coronavirus.)