I consider myself a fairly polite person. I say please and thank you as often as I can. I say hello as I enter establishments. I wish people a good day. I try not to interrupt but listen carefully to what others have to say (although, admittedly, when I’m nervous or excited I have a hard time keeping my mouth shut). I enjoy talking with our neighbors, getting to know them. Most days, I try to share a smile with all I meet. But I can’t force myself to say ‘Yes, ma’am’ or ‘No, sir’ in every response.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with these phrases. I think they are quite endearing. I love hearing a good ole’ Southern girl or boy use these. But I don’t think that tacking on ma’am or sir automatically makes a person more polite and respectable than the next. Can you envision the stubborn 8- or 9-year-old child who mutters ‘Yes, Ma’am,’ under his breath with arms crossed, just because Mom insists that ‘Yes’ just isn’t enough?
Maybe it’s my upbringing. I was raised by a Miami boy – my Daddy. Miami may be almost as south as you can get in the US, but it is certainly not ‘the South.’ And an immigrant to immigrant parents – my Mommy, born to Dutch parents in Australia before moving to Miami as a child. New language, new accent, new customs and traditions for the whole family. My parents weren’t raised on ma’ams and sirs.
I grew up in central Virginia, which is technically the South if you look at civil war history, but not the ‘Good Ole’ South’ of the Carolinas and Georgia. No, ma’ams and sirs just weren’t stressed in my upbringing, nor that of most of my friends.
We also didn’t call our parents’ friends Miss or Mr. So-and-So. There may have been the Mrs. Austin or Mr. Hall scattered in there, but for my parents’ closest friends, and most of their contemporaries in our church family (including the pastor!), they were simply Ann and Ray, Gay and Sven, or Lynn and Barry. How it was determined who went by first names and who went by last names is beyond me. But if we were on a first name basis, it was just the first name with no title.
Since we recently moved to the rural life, I have found myself in the company of more and more who stress the importance of these simple phrases than ever before. And it makes me question my parenting. Am I teaching my children to be polite to others and respectable to their elders?
Before they could talk they were signing please and thank you at appropriate times, and that has continued on once they became verbal. Neither one of them enunciates the words ‘thank you’ correctly, but the sentiment is understood and it is adorable. They say hello to neighbors and sales clerks at every opportunity. I feel this is important as ‘hello’ is the start of any relationship, however brief that relationship might be. I encourage them to answer when spoken to, although shyness sometimes creeps in. Of course with a preschooler and a toddler I oftentimes feel like all my efforts are for naught, but overall, I think I’m doing ok. I think they’re doing ok.
I do however, fumble around certain friends as I try to determine if I should have my kids call them Anne, or Miss Susan, or Mrs. Williams. And when other adults correct my children to use ma’am or sir when speaking to me, I don’t really know how to respond. It’s obviously important to that adult, but not something we stress in our house. My child probably wasn’t being disrespectful to me, I was probably satisfied with her answer. But just like discussions about parenting methods don’t happen in front of the kids at home, I don’t want to discuss this difference of opinion in front of them, lest they think they don’t have to mind what another adult is teaching them.
The things I do correct with my kids: say ‘Yes, please,’ instead of just yes. Say ‘No, thank you’ when there’s something they are offered but don’t want. Say ‘excuse me,’ and wait their turn to speak.
What’s a parent to do? Do I change my own vocabulary so that I can teach my children by example what is acceptable for many in the region? Do they learn that they can be more relaxed around certain adults and more ‘respectable’ around others who have different standards than we do? Should I just not worry about it and trust that they will figure out in their own time what is expected of them? What would you do?