Has a squirrel ever gotten into your bird feeder? Well they’ve gotten into mine! They’ll keep at it until they finally gain access, and then the unappreciative little rodents will make the most of the opportunity. With pure glee on their furry faces, they will enthusiastically pick out and eat all the best bits, while impatiently throwing the rest to the ground. When they have finally emptied it, it looks like my bird feeder exploded. And this is pretty much what it looks like under my son’s chair at the dinner table when he is done eating too! While this is frustrating in my own house, going to restaurants or accepting invitations to others’ homes for meals has become downright stressful. For years, I was convinced that if we could just get him to sit properly and eat like a civilized human being at the table, then the disaster would be minimized, rugs would be spared from the colorful spattering of food stains, and my self-respect as a parent would be preserved.
At one point, we were complaining to the school psychologist about his lack of table manners, self-control and cleanliness, and I clearly remember her telling us that, especially for kids, dinner is a “high-demand activity”. Seriously?! Honestly, at that point, it didn’t seem so bad to me: sit at the table, put food in your mouth, chew, swallow, and maybe tell us a little more about your day other than “fine”.
But after giving it more thought, I started to realize that she was right. In truth, each of those steps requires a bit more of our son. Coming to the table with a clean face and hands, sitting “properly” with legs in front of him and under the table, using utensils and not his hands, eating the food rather than playing with it, chewing with his mouth closed and then, and only then, engaging in polite conversation are all in fact pretty big demands of a five-year-old. And don’t even get me started on controlling various bodily functions while at the table!
As Judith Martin, otherwise known as Miss Manners, says (in the way that only she can), “We are born charming, fresh and spontaneous and must be civilized before we are fit to participate in society.” Indeed, there are many moments, particularly when out in the public sphere, that my children seem quite far from having successfully completed the civilizing process. But then again, don’t we all sometimes?? Haven’t we all gently chided ourselves for eating with, or even licking, our fingers at a meal? Or tried to laugh off our embarrassment when we spill our morning coffee on our shirt in the car on our way to work? How many of us actually know how to properly set a table or in which order to use our place setting at a formal meal? Who among us has ever consulted, or cared, what Miss Manners had to say?
In his lengthy, two volume, sociological text, The Civilizing Process (originally published in German in 1939 and then re-released in English in 1969), Norbert Elias explains that we are all still very much in the process of becoming civilized. He traces the development of modern manners back to post-Medieval society in Europe, France in particular. Covering everything from table manners, to sexual desires, to bodily functions, he writes that being part of civilized society demands the ongoing restraint of our baser impulses so that we might be accepted by others.
In his historical account, the monarchy and court nobility, and then later the Bourgeoisie, were consumed with maintaining their social status. They saw themselves as being on display to the lower classes, and, therefore, generally lived in fear of being caught engaging in behavior unbecoming of an aristocrat. Although it was not necessarily possible to verify whether they were actually being watched at any given moment, this did not diminish the threat. If anything, the not knowing only made it worse. Ultimately, it seems that they preferred to take responsibility for watching themselves and regulating their own behavior to avoid this possibility. Over time, the middle and working classes followed suit. No one wanted to be called out as inferior or lower class, especially as evidenced by poor manners. So, eventually, as society progressed, most individuals began to exert greater self-control and learn the conventions of polite social interaction.
This is, of course, an almost absurdly concise summary of the book, but it points to several things that I find both useful and fascinating about this text. The first is the simple fact that several hundred years later we, Americans, still look to the French as the purveyors of good taste and refinement. Sometimes I wonder if we will we ever stop putting the French on the highest pedestal of sophistication, but that is a topic for another day. For now, if we look to the work of Elias, we realize that this is not just some weird American obsession, but something that actually has some historic reasoning. Just saying…
Secondly, according to Elias, this process of civilization is not forced upon us, but actually desired. As societies develop, they redefine the “do-s and don’t-s” of social interaction, as well as what is shameful, repugnant, or just plain embarrassing. And, as people become competitive with, but also dependent on others, in our expanding web of social relationships, we feel that it is in our best interest to comply with social standards. We internalize the desire for conformity and feel compelled to restrain or conceal our natural drives, bodily functions and animal likenesses.
Perhaps put more simply, unless we are a Kardashian or Snooki, and have somehow managed to capitalize on bad taste and manners, we really don’t want to be judged or labeled “low class” by others, so we instead we self-regulate our behavior. Moreover, as anyone who has either watched these television shows or participated in other sorts of mean spirited gossip knows, we do like to be judgmental of those who don’t conform. To judge, but not be judged…that is the goal.
And lastly, in our quest to be seen as higher class than we actually are, and to preserve whatever vestiges of dignity and status we still have left, we not only try to improve our own manners, but would like for our children to sit like little princes and princesses at the table with the politeness of aristocrats. Clearly that is not going to happen! According to Elias, manners are not just learned over decades, but rather centuries of exposure, refinement, and the practice of self-control.
So, I ask you, readers, is it reasonable to expect good manners from our young children? Do our children need to be civilized in order to participate in society? And, who are we worried about, them or us?