June 14, 2007

Seen But Not Heard

WRITING IN The Telegraph of London, Janine di Giovanni has penned a sharp essay on the peculiar way in which the French raise their children -- it is, one learns, rather heavy on the rod -- and how this rather despotic parenting surprisingly pays off in the form of well-mannered children. The result, Mrs di Giovanni writes, is that French children are far more agreeable than their English and especially American counterparts, the latter group being spoiled and rotten.

While one is loathe to embrace the crueler aspects of French parenting Mrs di Giovanni recounts, I do think there's something to be said for the old adage that in public company, children are to be seen but not heard. This is made especially clear when Mrs di Giovanni recounts how a dinner party she threw was ruined when two of her guests brought along their wretched nine-year-old son, who had manners almost as appalling as his parents. Bringing a child to a dinner party uninvited -- there surely must be a special place in hell for such people! (And indeed there is! 8th circle, ninth chasm: instigators of scandal and schism).

As one might expect with such an essay, the general wretchedness of American children is accepted as if one were to state the sky is blue. I would note, however, that I myself have known several children who act contrary to that stereotype, and would like to reassure Mrs di Giovanni that proper manners are still instilled among some minors in the Colossus.

For instance, when I recently visited some dear friends of mine in California, we attended Mass at their local parish. I was stunned to see that, although their children were still but toddlers, the kids behaved impeccably throughout the entire service. They were attentive, respectful, and did not raise so much as a peep during the entire service, which lasted more than an hour.

As readers might imagine, I was -- to use the English phrase -- utterly gobsmacked at this turn of events. After all, think of all the adults who don't even try to conceal their rush to get out of Mass after receiving Communion. Plus, religion, being an adult matter at its core, can often prove incredibly dull to children. So I inquired of my friends how exactly they got their children, particularly the younger one, to behave so well. As it turned out, the boy's father had noticed that his son had been a bit restless during Sunday Mass. So he took him to morning Mass every single day until his son was trained to attend service quietly and respectfully.

There's something to be said for such discipline. Looking back on my own life, I like to think -- like to think -- that I was a reasonably well-behaved boy growing up, and I don't recall any instances where I was severely punished for misbehaving. But I do know this -- the two times when I did embarrass my parents out in public, justice was swift, relentless, and comparatively harsh. Mr and Mrs Kepple were willing to forgive minor offenses, and even quietly support me on those occasions when the stupid and clumsy hand of grade-school discipline was unfairly applied. But if I committed the ultimate sin of causing them embarrassment, I was -- to use the technical phrase -- shit out of luck. (Lesson learned: do NOT talk back to your piano teacher, because you'll be grounded for what, to a sixth-grader, seems like forever).

I can assure readers, though, that Mr and Mrs Kepple Most Certainly Did Not take me along to adult dinner parties, and on the few occasions when they entertained at home, I was generally confined to my quarters upstairs, except for that one time when I was assigned the task of operating the VCR.

I daresay that, if (when? if?) I do have children of my own, I shall endeavor to instill the same sense of discipline in them. Children, after all, are children. There are yet still places in this world where they do not belong and myriad matters about which their ears ought not hear. Plus, even in this day and age, they must still learn proper manners; it will serve them well down the road. Far better for them to learn about the adult world as time goes on than to be thrust out upon a stage where they are neither welcome nor ready.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at June 14, 2007 10:04 PM | TrackBack
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