Thank you, Spencer (National Post, May 2, 2002)

Thank you, Spencer

A friend of my mother's with a terror for a son became my anti-role-model for motherhood. My children, I vowed, would learn good manners


Barbara Kay

National Post

The National Post asked eight "seasoned" parents to write about an aspect of parenthood they'd wrestled with or felt strongly about, or something that just seemed to work for them. This is the first of our series, which will run Monday to Friday in this section over the next couple of weeks.

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By their thank-you notes you shall know them. By "them," I mean those people who understand that reciprocity is the ethical glue in relationships, as opposed to those others in whom a sense of entitlement reigns supreme.

In the first category are people with good manners. They write thank-you notes that gladden your heart and make you feel cherished. In the second are those whose thank-you notes -- when they get around to them at all -- are rote, impersonal, joyless affairs that make you feel insulted.

There is no mystery to raising children who, as adults, will automatically acknowledge and respond with real gratitude to the gifts and privileges that come their way in life. Civil behaviour can be acquired as easily as a second language. But it must be acquired in earliest childhood, or it will never seem natural later on.

The advice I would give to new parents (if only they would ask!) is this: If you are seeking the easiest route to producing considerate adults, teach your toddlers manners. If they can sing along with Barney, they can also say "please" and "thank you". Basic good manners blunt the naked egoism of children and help form the cocoon out of which will eventually emerge the more beautiful, nuanced and independent conscience. Consideration for your fellow human is a socially acquired phenomenon. Values and principles are not the residue of abstruse intellectual inquiry; they may be inferred from the basic civilities of everyday life. Jane Austen's entire oeuvre tells us that.

I came to this conclusion long before I had children of my own, largely by observing the relationship of my mother's friend Frieda (names have been changed) with her son Spencer. Frieda became my anti-role-model for motherhood. She believed that children should be "free" to realize their potential, and that constraints of any kind on their behaviour would cramp their burgeoning self-esteem. The superficially artificial "performance" aspect of traditional manners fell into that category for her. It was no coincidence that Spencer became something of a terror -- not the Dennis the Menace kind, more the Robespierre sort.

I prudently kept my distance from Spencer when social occasions brought our families together. One day, however, Frieda asked me if I would like a job -- a real job. She made an offer no 12-year-old could resist: How would I like to write Spencer's bar mitzvah thank-you notes for $1 per card? This was not chump change for a kid in 1954. Knowing Frieda, I never even thought to ask why Spencer was not being forced to write his own.

Thus it was that I sat in the very beautiful morning room of Frieda's elegant home in Toronto's Forest Hill Village and, while watching Spencer disport himself in the garden -- pulling the wings off dragonflies, perhaps -- composed thank-you notes for a solid four hours. I am proud to say that I did not repeat myself, which I easily could have done, with no less gratitude on Frieda's part. But I was so ashamed of my assignment that I threw myself into the job with near-fanatical conscientiousness.

"Dear Mr. and Mrs. Greenblatt, I am so glad that you could join me and my family at my Bar Mitzvah celebration. Your very generous gift was much appreciated. I have always wanted to own a complete set of Shakespeare, and this will go far in achieving that goal."

That incident was the first great lesson of my youth to teach me the indissoluble link between basic good manners and the foundations of civil society. It taught me that adults do not necessarily know that the one is dependent on the other, even when they are educated, well-meaning and unconditionally loving. I was very sorry that Spencer's bar mitzvah guests were being duped (although in retrospect they must have known), but it had a lasting impact on me personally.

When I married, I laboured to make every wedding present thank-you note an individual and interesting bijou. For months afterward my parents' friends called to express their delight and appreciation for the trouble I had taken. This was expiation of a sort for my complicity in Frieda's moral delinquency.

With each milestone in the life cycle where gifts were involved, my children learned to compose ever more graceful and appropriate thank-you notes. After their bar and bat mitzvahs, I supervised their writing, and vetted every single one. That was fortunate: I was able to intercept my son's letter to his beloved and adoring grandparents, which began, "Dear Mr. and Mrs. Richmond."

My adult children are now successful in the usual ways, and unfailingly agreeable company to boot. It isn't just me who says so, either. Part of it may be luck, but I like to think that it is also because they learned very early in life that consideration for others -- good manners -- would be rewarded and bad manners punished. Their instinct to behave responsibly always dominates their sense of entitlement. I am convinced that it is partly because they learned that no one was going to write their thank-you notes for them in life, and that each one they wrote -- even though no one else would know -- had to be as unique as the recipient, a metaphor for the respect we owe our fellow man.

Tomorrow in the how-to-raise-a-child series: Bedtime.