boy standing in front of blackboard with word civility on it
image credit: roots of action

An article caught my attention the other day which I’m not sure about, and I would love to hear your thoughts on it. I hope you’ll weigh in on this, and get a discussion going. The piece was an account of a program at an elementary school in Florida which is designed to teach 4th and 5th grade boys to be gentlemen. 

I’m of two minds about this. On one side, teaching children good manners is wonderful. I am so tired of seeing children who pay no attention to those around them, busting through doors, interrupting others, and being thoughtless about the words they use to refer to people they don’t know. It’s not that I want to see children speak only when spoken to, but I would like to see children learn to speak with other people, and to join in conversations. So many of my college students seem only to be used to conversing with their peers. They have gotten the point that you shouldn’t speak in class in that fashion, so they some of them do not join in class discussion. I asked one student why he rarely offered any ideas in class as I knew from his writing that he was very engaged with the subject of the class. I was astounded when he told me that he wasn’t used to talking to adults and was afraid that he would say something offensive in class.

The other side of this issue: why the boys? Why isn’t there a class to help girls become ladies? This class is likely to lead both boys and girls to think that there’s something inherently rude about boys’ behavior, and that it’s so bad that boys need special lessons to teach them to control themselves. It’s true that boys are likely to be impulsive – saying the first thing that comes into their minds, grabbing at something which is offered to a group, physically pushing themselves to the front. It isn’t that girls don’t have those impulses, but for some reason – likely socialization to “be ladies,” whatever you may think of that process – they are less likely to act on those impulses. We don’t know, as we have said many times in this blog, whether the impulsivity exhibited by boys is built into their DNA or whether it’s the result of learning, or, as I suspect, a bit of both.

We know without a doubt that in late adolescence, the prefrontal lobe has mostly completed development in girls, but has not done so in boys. This is considered part of the reason that boys from16-22 do tend to be very impulsive – however, they were impulsive before this time, too. Think about 10-year-olds, boys and girls. Yes, the boys will be impulsive, but so will the girls. The difference is that the girls are less likely to be physically impulsive and more likely to say things without thinking. This is the age when bullying gets to be a major problem, and both boys and girls are guilty of being unkind to others.

It occurred to me that this class in manners may be a way to teach boys to physically challenge others less often, which would reduce the amount of physical aggression exhibited by boys. The thinking may be that children who are kinder to each other would bully less, since schools still tend to see bullying as a form of physical aggression. However, girls bully as well, in much less obvious ways – the “mean girl” trope didn’t come out of nowhere – as they are more likely to use social exclusion as a way to bully. It’s quite possible to appear to be very nice and considerate of another person while still using various forms of relational aggression against them.  

This course in manners seems to give girls a free pass, pointing out boys as the major social offenders. With the rise of the #MeToo movement, males do need to learn to pay closer attention to the effect that their behavior has on other people – males and females alike. Boys are likely to say the first thing that pops into their head. When I taught at a boys’ school, there were students who said very rude things in class and then would look up, horrified that I had overheard them. They did know better, but they got in the habit of speaking impulsively when they were with their friends. My point is that that sort of behavior is not good anytime, and giving it a pass means that it gets to be a habit. I point out that there are words I never use in everyday speech because I cannot use those words in the classroom.If I got in the habit of using those words outside of the classroom, I might not be able to keep from using them in class.

All children need to learn to pay attention to those around them, and to learn to speak in ways that support other people’s presence and humanity. All children need to learn to watch their behavior, and not push themselves ahead of others. Good manners are something that will promote a civil society, something that seems to be lacking of late. Civility comes from a Latin word which means citizen, so civility recognizes the right of others to be a part of the group. The political climate at the moment is fostering incivility, specifically excluding persons who are thought not to“belong.”

Perhaps, teaching manners will encourage children to develop civility and to learn to be active and positive members of their community. However, ALL children need to learn to be inclusive and kind to others, not just those who are seen as the aggressors. Aggression has many forms – both boys and girls need to learn to be civil and polite, supporting all in their community regardless of age, race, creed, religion, color, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, national origin, or physical or mental ability.

What are your thoughts about this? Share them in a comment below, or on my Facebook page.