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Jewish World Review March 6, 2003 / 2 Adar II, 5763

Betsy Hart

Betsy Hart
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Making children more confident in approaching adults, has actually made them less so | Supposedly there used to be a saying, "children should only speak to adults when spoken to." But actually, according to sociologist Kay Hymowitz, that's something of an overstatement, at least in the United States.

Author of "Ready or Not: Why Treating Children as Small Adults Endangers Their Future - and Ours," Hymowitz explains that children have always been more independent here than in other countries. Even a century and a half ago visitors to the United States were regularly "appalled" at how American children, full of curiosity and vitality, so easily approached adults from overseas, peppering them with questions and conversation.

But, whatever the past tradition, these days it seems children don't speak to adults even when they are spoken to by them. If anything, it's the adults who are seen and not heard. I'm used to children who don't bother to say hello, look into my eyes, or respond to me when spoken to in any fashion polite or otherwise. I'm amazed at how even a neighborhood child playing in my home might ignore me, suggesting I possess no authority whatsoever. (Such a child changes his ways, at least while he's here, or he's not invited back.)

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A shrug of the shoulders and a mumbled "I don't know" passes for polite conversation from little ones.

Too bad. America's efforts in recent decades to make things "more egalitarian" between adults and children, perhaps in the hopes of making children more confident in approaching adults, has actually made them less so.

I recently noticed a child in my own first grader's class who was unusual. When I visited for lunch one day, he not only chatted and responded to me respectfully, but confidently drew me out and engaged me. That kind of confidence and those manners are learned. In fact one of the wonderful things about manners, says Hymowitz, is it gives a child something to "fall back on" in approaching others. Anyway, observing such manners in this young child made me redouble my efforts in my own home.

It's not just that kids need to learn "yes, please" "no thank you" and to look into the eyes of the person they are speaking to. It's not enough for a child to respect the particular authority held by the adults in his life, nor is it just forms for the sake of them. Though those are all good starts, engaging with others and showing interest in them, and with proper manners and respect, shows that one cares about the persons he's addressing.

And being able to do so with adults in particular can give a child a confidence he'll have for a lifetime.

So, back to the Hart household. My husband and I felt that our children weren't growing in that confidence - shall we say - as much as we would like.

What to do when you're swimming upstream? Have a good swim. In this case, role playing.

Now over and over we have fun pretending that I'm the next door neighbor, the teacher, the doctor, or a friend who's dropped in for a cup of coffee. My husband might be the pastor, the scout leader or the dad from next door. We practice how to say hello, always using the person's name, how to respond, how to ask and answer questions, how to engage one another and show that we care about him.

A mumbled "I don't know" and a shrug of the shoulders, looking down at the ground while speaking, and not speaking when spoken to are always unacceptable (and always have been) in our home. And yes, we make it clear that while they have to respect their little friends too, the adults in their lives command an authority that their friends do not.

Then there's the game my kids have enjoyed for years. Before going to someone's home or on an outing with other adults, my kids ask to go over the "rules." I'll say, "now when you say 'hi' to Mr. and Mrs. Smith, be sure to look down at their knee caps, don't use their names, and scowl a lot. Remember, the goal is to make sure they think we couldn't care less about them." Even after a thousand times, this brings howls of laughter and "no mom, we have to look into their eyes and show them we care!"

Well, practice hasn't made perfect yet. But my husband and I don't mind that we are swimming upstream - as long as we are going in the right direction.

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JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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