Now that the hubbub of Christmas and the New Year has passed, we come to a quieter February, which takes us to Valentine’s Day. I want to offer a few relevant comments about boys and girls, and men and women. These thoughts first appeared in my book, Bringing Up Girls, and included one of my favorite statements about child rearing. This chapter is called, “Teaching Girls to Be Ladies.” I hope you like it, especially as it relates indirectly to Valentine’s Day.
To begin, I’ll step back a couple of hundred years and get a running start at describing the principles that matter most. The ideas I will share were written two centuries ago, and they are precisely on target today.
They were the beliefs and recommendations of the second President of the United States, John Adams. He was a prolific reader, statesman, and author, and he made an incalculable contribution to our country. He was not a perfect man, but he lived by a standard of righteousness throughout his adult life. In his autobiography, Adams wrote a commentary on the subject of moral behavior, which he called “manners.” Though the language is formal and dated, I urge you to read these words carefully and thoughtfully. They carry great meaning for us today.
From all that I had read of history of government, of human life, and manners, I [have] drawn this conclusion, that the manners of women [are] the most infallible barometer by which to ascertain the degree of morality and virtue in a nation. All that I have since read and all the observations I have made in different nations, have confirmed me in this opinion. The Manners of Women are the surest criterion by which to determine whether a republican government is practicable, in a nation or not. The Jews, the Greeks, the Romans, the Swiss, the Dutch, all lost their public spirit, their republican principles and habits, and their republican forms of government, when they lost the modesty and domestic virtues of their women. . . .
The foundations of national morality must be laid in private families. In vain are schools, academies and universities instituted if loose principles and licentious habits are impressed upon children in their earliest years. The mothers are the earliest and most important instructors of youth.
How insightful it is that Adams placed the responsibility for the essential moral character of the nation squarely on the shoulders of mothers. Fathers play a key role too, of course, but moms are absolutely indispensable. It is their primary task to transmit enduring principles of right and wrong to the next generation. The old proverb, “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world,” is still true. If women grow weary of that responsibility, or if they lose sight of their own moral compass, no other institution or governmental agency will be able to save the nation. So wrote President John Adams.
On another occasion, he elaborated on the link between national character and the preservation of a democracy. He wrote:
We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
To paraphrase, Adams was saying that a representative form of government such as ours cannot survive without a spiritual foundation, because its citizens are masters of their own destinies. That is the great vulnerability of a democracy. Our political system, which Abraham Lincoln said is intended to be “of the people, by the people, for the people,” can be no more stable than the collective character of its citizenry. It’s all up to us. There is no king, dictator, or tyrant to restrain our behavior. If we choose evil, there will be no stopping us. In short, our national sovereignty depends on the transmission of the nation’s morals and manners to children, and that task should begin in the nursery.
But what form does this early training take in today’s world? It begins with basic civility, because manners and morals are directly connected. As Horace Mann said, “Manners easily and rapidly mature into morals.” The first tends to lead to the second. In centuries past, cultured and religious families understood this relationship. They were aware that girls and boys, and all of humanity, are flawed and inherently sinful. Thus, Old English and Early American societies worked diligently at teaching what were called the “social graces.” Teaching manners was their highest priority because of the connection to Christian piety.
Alas, American and British cultures in the twenty-first century have swung to the other end of the continuum. Young girls are often allowed, and even encouraged, to be brash, rude, crude, profane, immodest, immoral, loud, and aggressive. Some of this behavior has been consciously taught in recent years under the rubric of “assertiveness training.” To the extent that such programs were designed to instill confidence in bashful, frightened young women, I supported them. But some girls have been taught the worst characteristics of “uncivil” males. I know my words must sound horribly old-fashioned and archaic at this point, but there is something important here for us to consider.
Obviously, human nature has not improved much in the past several hundred years, nor will it ever. What has changed, as I have described, is that many parents have become far too distracted, overworked, and stressed out to care much about teaching morals and manners to children.
Jolene Savage, who runs the Social Graces School of Etiquette in Topeka, Kansas, says society has reached an all-time low when it comes to matters of civility. Exhausted moms and dads seem not to have noticed what has happened to their children. Clearly, instruction in civility is needed now more than ever. Getting that done, however, can be a challenge. As the late dancer Fred Astaire said, “The hardest job kids face today is learning good manners without seeing any.” If that is unfair in your case, please forgive him—and me.
Once again, speaking directly to mothers, it is your job to acculturate your daughters and to help them become ladies. Does that sound chauvinistic in our high-tech world? I suppose it does, but even so, it makes sense. As Lisa Fischer, an instructor at the Final Touch Finishing School in Seattle, Washington, says, “Etiquette has to do with knowing the rules.” Therefore, girls should be taught how to eat, talk, walk, dress, converse on the telephone, and respond to adults with respect and poise. Parents should demonstrate good posture and table manners for them, such as putting a napkin in the lap, showing them where to place silverware, and not talking with food in their mouths. They should also explain that burping, gobbling food, and picking teeth are rude.
I also firmly believe that you should require your kids to say thank you and please, to demonstrate that ours is not a “gimme-gimme world.” Appreciation is an attitude best cultivated at home. Teach techniques of personal grooming, hygiene, and nutrition. Role-play with them about being gracious hosts and how to formally introduce parents or friends to each other. Require them to excuse themselves when leaving the table, and explain how to make friends, how to take turns talking in a group, and how to make eye contact. You might even help them learn how to cook and care for children. Wouldn’t that be something novel?
Although I am not an expert in teaching girls some of the social graces I have named (I learned a masculine version of the rules), I know them when I see them.
While manners tend to facilitate morals, there is another good reason to teach them. They also help develop confidence and poise. A girl who has been trained properly is never completely knocked off balance when she is in an unfamiliar circumstance. She knows what is expected of her and how to deal with it. Her sense of self-worth is reinforced by the way adults react to her charm, poise, and grace. For the mother who wants to give her daughter a head start in life and help her compete socially, this is a great place to begin.
These diverse skills used to be taught to girls in mandatory homemaking classes. Alas, most of these programs were canceled after the revolution of the sixties, and America became the worse for it. Road rage, loud cell phone conversations in restaurants, cutting in line, throwing litter from car windows, and general nastiness are now everyday occurrences.
Monica Brandner teaches at an etiquette business for children and youth called Final Touch Finishing School. She says that manners are primarily about how we treat others and ourselves. Sheryl Eberly, who wrote 365 Manners Kids Should Know, agrees. She says living by the Golden Rule releases the power of a thankful heart to those trained to practice it. She also reminds us—and this is a great point—that when we teach social graces to our children, we are training the next generation in self-government and self-control. John Adams must be smiling from the other side.
In short, teaching manners to girls is about helping them to become young ladies in a not-very-civil world. I assure you that MTV and an increasingly crude culture will do everything possible to carry our daughters (and our sons) downstream toward that which is boorish and uncouth. You can help them paddle upstream.
One technique that my wife used to teach social graces to our daughter was to play feminine games together. For example, they held elaborate tea parties when Danae was four or five years of age. The child loved them.
Their make-believe names were Mrs. Perry (Danae), Mrs. Snail (her mom), and a little boy named Mr. Green who was drafted into service. Other available kids and their moms from the neighborhood were invited on occasion. This fun activity allowed my wife to explain how silverware was supposed to be arranged, how to eat soup without slurping, how to hold and drink from a teacup, how to use a napkin, how to chew with mouths closed, how to hold a conversation, why they should wait to eat until everyone at the table was served, etc. It was amazing how effective these tea parties were in teaching common politeness. I was never invited to join them and definitely felt left out!
But what about moms who haven’t been trained in social etiquette themselves? They can hardly pass on what they haven’t learned. And what can we suggest for those who are simply too busy to tackle the job? That is where professional etiquette training comes in. Classes are popping up in cities across the country to meet this precise need.
Though these training programs can be expensive, they are worth the cost for parents who can afford them. For those who don’t have the resources, some churches and women’s clubs are providing assistance. Furthermore, we should never forget what some grandmothers have to offer in teaching these concepts. They are likely to remember a more genteel era, and their granddaughters will enjoy the attention that comes with the training.
As a case in point, our granddaughter, Luci Rose, who is now three years of age, came to our house with her brother last night. While I occupied Lincoln with DVDs about wild animals, Shirley and Luci had a tea party together with an array of stuffed bears. Both children loved the evening.
This chapter in my book, Bringing Up Girls, again, is entitled “Teaching Girls to be Ladies.” I can hear some of my readers objecting vigorously to the goal of introducing principles of modesty and grace to girls. That is hardly the direction the popular culture has taken us in recent decades.
Some would question whether it is even desirable for a girl to be feminine in a traditional sense, fearing that it will signal a return to the oppression of a patriarchal era when women had to hide their intelligence and conceal their accomplishments. Hear me out, moms. Not for a moment would I try to take away the hard-won achievements of respect and emancipation enjoyed by today’s women. Those cultural advances are here to stay, and may they long endure.
On the contrary, I would point out that femaleness and weakness are not synonymous. Femininity and strength of character are often very close neighbors. I come from a family of strong women who knew who they were and where God was leading them. They took a backseat to no one. My grandmother co-pastored a thriving church with my grandfather. She could preach up a storm. I can’t imagine anyone telling her to sit down, fold her arms, and keep her mouth shut. One of her daughters became my mother, who was also a very confident and accomplished lady. Yet my mother and her sisters were undeniably feminine.
My mom and dad loved each other deeply and had a very healthy relationship based on their identities as a woman and a man. He was very respectful, protective, and supportive of her. I never saw him treat her rudely or harshly. After I was grown, I remember getting upset at my mom for something she said that irritated me. I made the mistake of telling my dad about it. I’ll never forget him turning his steely blue eyes on me and saying angrily, “Listen, Bud, your mother is the best friend you have, and I won’t stand for you saying anything disrespectful about her.” It was the end of our conversation. When Dad called me Bud, I knew it was time to back off.
On the other side of the ledger, my mom honored my dad, not just as her husband, but also as a man. She would not have thought of failing to have a meal waiting for him when he came home from the college where he was a professor. Being from the South, she was not offended when he called from his big chair where he was reading a book. He would say, “Hey, Myrt, bring me a cup of coffee, please.” He was her man, and she took care of him. It was a relationship based on mutual respect, and it was highly successful. They both understood manners and morals, and their relationship to spirituality, masculinity, and femininity. My parents modeled them consistently throughout my childhood.
I displayed that training on my first date with a cute coed named Shirley. I took her to a classy restaurant in Hollywood, California, where I told the host where we wanted to sit. Then I helped Shirley with her chair. I asked what she wanted to eat and conveyed her order to the waiter. We engaged each other in conversation for more than an hour, mostly about Shirley. Then I paid the check and took her to my car. I walked on the outside of the sidewalk nearest the street, which was (and still should be) symbolic of a guy’s responsibility to protect the woman in his care. I opened the car door for her, and we drove back to our college. I parked, came around to her side of the car, opened the door, and walked Shirley to the front door of her dorm. She thanked me with a smile, and we said good night. I didn’t try to kiss her, since that would have put her in a compromising position on a first date—as though she owed me something as a “payback.”
I must have done something right on that enchanted evening, because we have now been married for 54 glorious years. I think it’s going to work. I still try to show her the same courtesies and respect that helped me win her heart in the first place. And she knows all the ways to please me.
By the way, several years ago, my wife and I were back in Southern California, and our daughter asked me to take her and her mom to that restaurant where it all began. I was delighted to do that. I pointed out the very table where we sat long ago, and talked about what we said and did on that significant night where love started to flourish.
So much has changed in the culture since then. I will tell you that I am disgusted by the way young men treat their girlfriends today. Some guys will honk from the street, waiting for a girl to come out. They stay behind the steering wheel while she opens her own door, and then they take her to a McDonald’s or a Taco Bell. Often, the guy will even expect his date to pay for her food!
Do you know why this happens? Because girls tolerate it. I would advise a young lady who is expected to pay for her meal to do so only once. She should then ask to be taken straight home and never agree to see the dude again. Any man who is that disrespectful doesn’t deserve a second chance.
Women hold the keys to masculine behavior. Guys are inclined to take what they can get and be no more accommodating than they have to be. To some degree, the lack of culture and refinement we see in many of today’s men is the fault of women who ask for, and get, little or nothing. If a girl sees herself as a lady, she will expect her escort to behave like a gentleman. He will respect her if she respects herself. If she wants him to be spiritually sensitive, she should go out with him only a few times before asking him to accompany her to church. If she objects to his use of profanity, she should simply not accept it. If she wants him to think of her often and call her on the phone, she should wait for him to get the idea himself. Female aggressiveness is a turnoff to most men. I don’t care if the rules have changed; it is still a bad idea for a girl to pursue a guy breathlessly. She should let him be the initiator. That is the way he is made.
Parents, teach these concepts to your girls! If your daughter wants her boyfriend to take her to nice places, she should expect him to make the plans for an evening together and to ask her out at least a week ahead of time. If he shows up unannounced on Friday night and says, “Wanna’ hang out?” she should tell him she has other things to do. If she wants him to be a gentleman, she should require him to act like one, and she should always remember that she is a lady.
If a woman wants a man to marry her, she absolutely must not make herself available sexually. That wrecks a relationship. Besides, it is morally wrong. Under no circumstances should she live with a guy before marriage. She will probably wind up getting hurt and living to regret it. He will get what he wants, and she will get nothing. The number one reason men give for marrying late or not at all is because they can get everything they want— including love and sex—without commitment. A moral, self-respecting woman simply will not play that game.
If it becomes obvious that a guy is not going to commit, she should send him packing. Period! Don’t argue with a jerk about it. Just cut him loose. Don’t blame a guy if he is unmannerly and exploitative. He was probably not taught properly. Show him what you expect, and if he balks, move on—quickly. If he is a big drinker or uses illegal drugs, run from him. He is trouble on the hoof. Don’t give him a beachhead in your heart. There is someone better out there for you if you set your standards high.
It comes down to this: the relationship between a man and a woman throughout their lives together, if indeed they do marry, will reflect the ground rules set by the woman when they are courting. She can change him then, but probably not after. She should not settle for anything less than what she needs emotionally. High on her list of priorities should be a mutual understanding about manners and morals. It is the way men and women have related to each other for thousands of years, and it still provides the basis for healthy families that are equipped to go
However, teaching girls to be ladies is not enough. We must also give them a strong biblical foundation from which morals and virtues can evolve. Our hope is that our daughters will someday pass along those verities to the next generation. No other priority comes close to this one in significance.
For now, it seems appropriate to return to the words of President John Adams, who gave this solemn charge to the nation’s women. You’ll recall that he said:
The foundations of national morality must be laid in private families. In vain are schools, academies and universities instituted if loose principles and licentious habits are impressed upon children in their earliest years. The mothers are the earliest and most important Instructors of youth.
It was true in 1778, and it is still true today.
Those are my thoughts for this month, though written several years ago. I would like nothing better than to hear from you about the concepts I have shared. I know my ideas about masculinity, femininity, modesty, and mutual respect between men and women have gone out of style. But I regret that they have. They still work because they are based on biblical principles. Tell me what you think.
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James C. Dobson, Ph.D.
President and Founder
The Dobson Library
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