In parenting my young children, I often marvel at the life lessons they teach me in my pursuit of mindful, mannerly living. After noticing several recurring incidents in which my children showed a tendency toward well bred behavior, I compiled the following list of ways that well bred behavior burgeons in small children and how adults can develop these inclinations.
1 Critical thinking
It has been said that “early to bed, early to rise, makes one healthy, wealthy, and wise”; while this is part of it, I believe that being able to think well is also critical to acquiring and maintaining good health, wealth, and wisdom. After all, one needs to be able to filter through all of the information that they hear, applying it to their beliefs and experience of what they know to be true. Thinking about why one does things a certain way is a good habit, although it is often neglected among adults, particularly in the US where peer pressure is a kind of god. However, children do far more of it than adults might realize. Their naturally curious disposition leads them to ask “why” about nearly everything, as children’s care givers know. Though the question comes a hundred times a day, the child is not trying to annoy; he really wants to know the reasons behind actions. As for me, I tell my children as often as I can why we do things for two reasons: one, I don’t want them to view me as an arbitrary parent who dictates unreasonably and sets no basis for my authority, and two, I want them to learn how to make decisions on their own someday by modeling the thought process behind my decisions. It is very simple as in, we wash our hands to keep dirt out of our food because we do not eat dirt. Or we do not stare at other people because it makes them feel uncomfortable. Instead of viewing a child’s habit of constantly asking “why” as an annoyance, consider it an opportunity for coming up with age appropriate explanations as often as possible, though there will be some times when one has to say, “because I said so.” But taking the time to satisfy a child’s curiosity will build rapport with him and increase his respect for his caregiver, parent, or educator, as well as giving the caregiver insight into what exactly she is doing and why she does it. For example, doing things out of fear, habit, obligation, greed, necessity, peer pressure, or mindlessness is not the proper motivation, but all too often it is the underlying reason.
Children are honest; they blurt things out. In public, they repeat the bad words they hear at home and the closet opinions their parents have of such-and-such or so-and-so. And as soon as they do their mother gasps in terror and contradicts them: “Mommy didn’t say that! Mommy doesn’t think that!” as if she can fool them…and thus teaches them to lie. Or maybe the child says something hurtful, although innocently, such as calling a handicapped person “funny looking” or “weird.” It is certainly not appropriate speech, but mother quickly intervenes: “Oh no, they look normal! Just fine! Stop saying such ridiculous things!” But the child knows that there is something different about that person, and in the parent’s embarrassment to cover for her child’s thoughtlessness she does not validate the honesty that was behind the remark. It would be better to have a conversation in private shortly thereafter explaining why the person looks different and that one should not make comments about other people’s appearances. Another example: children know when people are sad or upset; when they mention it, a parent who does not feel like dealing with it may deny it: “No, no, mommy’s fine”–again teaching the child that it is okay to lie and mask their feelings. In this last case I have found it best to acknowledge that yes, mommy’s sad, but I will be okay again soon and I still love you, or something like that because for a child, a parent is their whole world, and any signs of trouble in paradise will make that world seem very shaky. However, instead of denying the trouble, showing them how to work through it with a positive attitude is best.
3 Dressing up
Children love dressing up and being “fancy.” A small girl loves to watch her mother put on her makeup or fix her hair and dress herself. Boys admire outlandish outfits, shiny gold buttons and braid, and bright colors. But some parents dress their children in terrible combinations, like infinitely immature combinations of trucks and lizards or pinks and hearts, or t-shirts and jeans for every occasion, or they always make the boys wear browns and blacks and navys. They scour thrift stores or yard sales for old stuff with just a little life left in it (thinking that they cannot buy nice clothing for a child because he will not keep it nice). Or they let the child lead in dressing himself, because he “wants” to, resulting in terrible color and pattern combinations, instead of capitalizing on a child’s inclination for the beautiful by teaching him how to dress and behave properly. One can start early to point out things like coordinating colors and patterns, while gently taking the lead in picking out the child’s outfits. While it is good to have a lot of easily washable cotton clothing for daytime play, it is not a bad idea to dress the child in nicer items for events such as eating out, church activities, holidays and occasions, and meeting relatives, taking the necessary precautions such as using bibs or banning outdoor play in certain outfits. Children love feeling fancy and dressing up, and this love can be applied to owning and wearing a few real life nicer outfits instead of merely satisfying them with gaudy dress-up sets of pirates and princesses (of course, many children will love this, too, but it is my opinion that a well bred woman does not bring her children out in public dressed in “dress-up” clothes). My preference for my children’s clothing is the mini-adult look, where they mostly wear smaller versions of the same things their father and I wear, such as button down shirts, wool suits or velvet dresses, patterns instead of graphic prints, and a sensible range of colors (as opposed to all black, blue, or pink).
4 Attention span
What? Children have an attention span? Here in America, it is often said that they do not, or that it is very limited. If that is so, why do children always want their parent’s attention, seemingly never tired of a word or look from Mommy, or a cuddle and a bounce from Daddy? The truth is that they do crave our attention and often we find ourselves modeling the limited attention span, pushing them away in favor of our phones, computers, paperwork, housework, or adult conversation. While those things are necessary, setting aside a designated amount of time and devoting it to our children can not only increase our attention span but theirs as well. Also, it teaches them the well bred habit of focusing on one thing at a time and making time for what is important to us, which will gradually lead to an increased attention span over time. Along these lines, helping a child to finish what he has started also increases an attention span by placing importance on following through with a task.
When they are very small, children have a black and white view of morality, and along with it a natural tendency toward putting things in their place. Especially with babies who were raised on a schedule or rhythm, children crave order and stability and often tend to put things back where they belong or “fix” broken things. This inclination can easily be lost if a parent does not diligently practice the habit of helping the child tidy up regularly. Teaching the child by example from an early age how to properly store and care for things, eventually inviting him to help in doing so, can go a long way toward establishing the well bred habit of orderliness and tidiness in a child.
Small children love to be read to, and the earlier and oftener a parent begins reading to a child, the more enthralling he will find it. Indeed, it is better to have established reading as a regular habit before introducing children to the television. I began reading to each of my children around 9 months old, or right past the point that they would grab the book and try to eat it. 🙂 Like a small child voraciously gobbling the knowledge of storybooks and picture books, the well bred woman will be ever reading, pursuing the knowledge needed to create and maintain the life of her dreams. In addition, the mental stimulation that comes from reading will keep a woman’s intellect sharp, her wit keen, her dialog interesting, her mind open, her sensibilities stable, and her personality vibrant.
Children have big hearts full of love. They love animals, their toys, certain foods, really all kinds of things; as they get older that love transfers to people, too. Likewise, a well bred woman allows her heart and life to be filled with all kinds of love, not just the love of children and spouse. It is good to love things too, and to love experiences and feelings and situations, such as art, fine eating, nature, craftsmanship, music, talents, hobbies, friendship, and industry. Such love of life will lead to a pure enjoyment not unlike that of a little child, who sees joy and beauty in everything around him. Children miss the big picture because they admire the detail; adults focus too often on the dismal aspect of the big picture — it is so big and full of what if’s and why’s — when a closer look at detail might reveal lovely intricate happenings in life that are nothing short of miracles.
Learn from a child, whose well of love and wisdom is bottomless.