“I don’t teach my children manners,” said my friend Sylvia. “I just teach them to treat people like they want to be treated.”
“Mmmm. Interesting concept,” thought I. I asked what she meant.
“Well, manners are just so artificial,” she says. “I don’t want them to be stilted and fake. I just want them to care.”
As much as I understand her concerns about artificiality, I think she’s missing something. I get it that she wants her kids to be empathetic without being fake. But in her efforts to seek authenticity, she isn’t taking into account that empathy is learned and faking often is where we start. Faking it builds the habits of courtesy. Faking it is what we all do sometimes to keep the social wheels turning.
Think about it: Are you always grateful when you say “thank you”? Do you always really want to know when you ask “How are you”? Do you always want to make nice with the person you find yourself standing next to at the office coffeepot? Probably not. But those little rituals of “fakery” are ways that we acknowledge each other and show general respect. It’s not the content that matters. It’s the willingness to be kind, to briefly and pleasantly engage, and to just as pleasantly move on that keeps things civil. You’re faking it about the “what” of the moment. But you’re not at all faking it about something just as important: The need for people to be reasonably considerate of others’ feelings in order to get along. Teaching kids to put their own feelings aside for the moment, to “fake it,” when the situation calls for it, is an important lesson in social skills.
Manners are a codified way each culture has for keeping things pleasant even when we’d rather not. The specifics may differ from country to country or region to region but the intent is much the same. Every language has words of courtesy. Every culture has generally understood rules for polite interaction. Training in those codes starts very, very young. As we teach our kids the words and rituals, the manners, of our culture, we are laying down the foundation for genuine empathy later on.
I remember my oldest’s first adventure with trick or treating at Halloween when she was about 2 1/2. We went to a half dozen neighbors’ homes. By stop number 3, she had the routine down: Say ” Treat!” Get candy. Say “Dank you.” People smile. Move to the next house. Do it again. Cute? Yes. Genuine? Probably not. Genuine gratitude and empathy had to be built over the next ten years. (After which she promptly forgot much of it at least as far as her parents were concerned for the teen years. Relax, parents of teens. It does come back.)
Empathy is Developmental
Empathy is a higher-order skill than manners. It requires being able to walk in another’s shoes and to treat the person kindly based on our understanding of their feelings. Infants and toddlers simply can’t do that. They are self-centered little beings whose survival depends on their ability to make adults feel empathic towards them. Still, research shows that babies whose parents are responsive to them develop stronger empathy skills later on.