Etiquette Schooling

Looking contrite
Looking contrite

Last week, a couple days post Christmas, hubby was working on his thank you notes. Yes. Thank you notes. We both come from families that are big on thank you notes. So, after birthdays and Christmas, you will find everyone in our family cranking out thank you notes. We get them from my 80 year old father-in-law. Our sons have been sending them since they learned to write the alphabet. (Before that, I sent notes for them, which meant for each gift Joe, Luke, and I received I wrote notes. I got hand cramps every Christmas as well as in late spring because our sons’ birthdays lie within two weeks on either side of mine.). Hubby has the infernal curse of having his birthday on December 20th, which means he gets to do double thank you note duty after Christmas to cover both occasions. Two gifts means two notes.

I’d like to say that this is all unnecessary, but the truth is that I like the tradition. That’s not to say that I enjoy writing the notes. I don’t, not really. But, I honestly think it’s great that both our families believe in this old-school nicety. I hold out hope that my boys will continue the tradition as they get older. In a world that finds us increasingly impolite and me-focused, this small, written gesture of gratitude gives me hope that we’re not all self-absorbed savages.

Although my boys write their own notes now (except for the lines that I draw on their blank cards to keep them on track), I address the envelopes for them. I still do this because writing and spelling are difficult for my guys. I’d rather they focus their neatness and attention on the notes themselves. Well, the other night as Steve was working on his birthday thank you notes, he needed some assistance addressing his envelopes.

“What’s Julie’s address?” he asked, referring to my youngest sister.

I stared at him blankly. Seriously?

“Get the address from your phone,” I told him.

“It’s not in my phone,” he replied.

“Why not?” I questioned.

“Well, she moved,” he said.

“Uh huh,” I answered. “More than six months ago.”

“What is it?” he asked, attempting to press on.

“Don’t you think you should have my family members’ addresses and phone numbers in your phone? I have your sister’s and your parents’ information in my phone. What if you needed to get in touch with them?”

I was surprised he had such an information deficit in his life. I guess he felt he didn’t need to worry about it because he has me to supply the information for him. And it’s true. In the end, I gave him my sister’s address along with an admonishment, hinting that it might be a perfect time to add her to his iPhone address book. But, tonight, as he was finishing up his Christmas thank you notes, he asked me once again for my sister’s address.

“Are you kidding me?” I said.

“Well….she’s going to be moving again soon, right?”

“Probably. But, that’s not the point. I gave you this info a week ago and now I’m doing it again. Do I have three children or two?”

With that, he finally pulled out his phone, asked for her cell number and address, and put it on record at last.

There are days when I’m feeling fairly unimportant as stay-at-home mom who makes no financial contributions to our household. But, when I think about things that are housed in my brain, things that help our family run smoothly, I know there would be a definite gap if something happened to me. For starters, it’s clear that the thank you notes wouldn’t get sent.

My Goal: Sons Who Are At Least One Evolutionary Step Above Primates

Hats off at the dinner table, boys.

I firmly believe in picking your battles. As a mother, I make choices every day about which wars to wage and which ones deserve a white flag. One crusade I’ve chosen is to raise young men who are polite, have good table manners, and are properly groomed. Oh. My. God. What the hell was I thinking when I picked up my sword and marched headlong into this fray? Did I not realize that I have two small primates living in my house? We’re barely one step above flinging feces here.

I spend roughly 2/3rds of my waking hours talking to myself (because no one is listening), repeating suggestions, pleas, and ultimatums all having to do with proper etiquette. I don’t care that much if my sons’ rooms are a mess or if they leave their shoes on the floor by the front door. But, it makes me crazy when they chew with their mouths open, barge into a room without knocking, or fail to flush a toilet. My life is a litany of commands (all of which are normally followed by “please” because I try to practice what I preach).

  • Get your finger out of your nose and use a tissue
  • Wash that gunk off your face
  • Hold the door
  • Say “please”
  • Say “thank you”
  • Say “excuse me”
  • Knock before you open the door
  • Use your fork, not your fingers
  • Use a napkin, not your shirt
  • Brush your teeth
  • Close your mouth when you chew
  • Don’t wipe your boogers on the walls
  • Turn the fan on when you’re in the bathroom
  • For heaven’s sake, flush the stupid toilet already

These words are on an endless, repetitive loop echoing from my otherwise empty head. It’s no wonder I feel I’ve forgotten the fine art of conversation. I don’t know how to talk to someone unless they forget to put their napkin on their lap.

One ritual I absolutely insist on is thank you notes for gifts received. While we sometimes we fail to get cards in the mail to thank a great aunt for a $10 bill slated for Easter candy, birthday and Christmas gifts must be acknowledged with a handwritten note. Steve and I both come from families where these notes are compulsory. (Exhibit A. My 81 year old father-in-law still sends us thank you notes on personalized stationery.) Because our boys’ birthdays are three weeks apart (with my birthday sandwiched in between), we write a truckload of notes before the end of June. My sons hate this with a passion that matches their hatred for American Girl dolls, but I make them do it because it’s the right thing to do. People say they don’t need it, but I bet you’d be hard-pressed to find a person who doesn’t appreciate receiving handwritten acknowledgment of their kindess. These notes, while perhaps antiquated in today’s email and text society, is simply a polite gesture I want my boys to feel is not elective. Someday, when they’re interviewing for a coveted job and they land it because the boss appreciated their gracious, interview thank you note, they will see how truly wise I am and they will thank me because they know they should.

We’ve made some progress. My boys now hold the door open for me when we walk into the house. They voluntarily help me carry in groceries. They ask to be excused from the table and they clear their own place settings. And, if they happen upon a piece of “chewy” steak, they spit it quietly without fuss into a paper napkin (although they occasionally leave the napkin behind for me to find). The whole manners gig is much more difficult for Joe because of his ADHD but, God bless him, he tries. I hold out hope that someday my sons will be the teenage boys who impress their friends’ mothers with their thoughtfulness…and not in that smarmy, Eddie-Haskell kind of way. That’s the goal, anyway. And, if I can’t achieve that, I’ll settle for sons who are at least not the worst of the bunch. In the manners game, anything better than “the worst” is something. Some days are better than others, and it’s like shoveling snow in a blizzard, but we’re making progress. As long as they don’t start picking nits off each other and eating them in front of others, I think we’re on the right track.