Saturday, July 17, 1999

Young people need to show a little respect

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Recently the Louisiana legislature passed a law requiring school children to address teachers and other school employees as Ma'am, Sir or other titles of respect. It had entertained, but later struck out, a clause that would have required them to stand when a teacher or administrator entered the room.

        The legislator who sponsored the law said it was time for a little “civility.”

        Yes, please.

        Something happens when respect is added to any social interchange, and it goes far beyond the popular notion of manners as the grease that keeps the gears of society clicking smoothly.

        The Louisiana measure is not simply about polite conversation. It is an oral acknowledgement of an underlying principle that some of today's young people fail to understand. There is a significant difference between adults and children. The two are not on the same playing field, and the same rules and privileges do not apply across the board.

Societal rights earned
        As with so many issues that appear to be pure etiquette, children who grow up with no understanding of this principle get themselves into much larger trouble than a simple faux pas.

        A “Yes, ma'am” is not about to solve this problem. But a society that begins to make clear its graduated set of rights and responsibilities to young people — in speech as in conduct — is doing us all a favor.

        At their best, manners are the window-dressing of morals. And thus, for our own good and our children's happiness, there are other important principles of civilized living that we must re-establish.

        A simple yet important one is that the world extends beyond our own lives and self-interest. Have we forgotten to mention this to our children? Is that why they scream across department stores to their friends, drop profanities like small change, pull up beside us in cars blaring music so loud it makes the sidewalk shake?

        It is a classic adult-adolescent confrontation, with a twist. Today, flaunting one's “right” to behave any way one likes means eventually meeting up with someone who does exactly the same thing. When push comes to shove in these battles of the unbridled ego, threats and even violence can result.

        In short, it is better to batten up dear Bitsy's and Kip's self-esteem in ways that do not imply they are the center of the solar system.

        And while we're at it, let's teach them to say “thank you” once in a while. Perhaps the economy is booming and workers are scarcer than bald eagles. Still, when one takes a job as a cashier, sales clerk or hamburger hawker, simple courtesies are the price of a paycheck. I walk into your sporting goods store, you ask if you can help me. I buy groceries from you, you thank me for shopping there. You may have a job, but there is nothing automatic about my doing business with you. Without me, you would be home watching cartoons.

Small matters important
        I personally find these small matters to be of extreme importance. The teen-ager who smiles as she counts out my change always leaves me in a hopeful state of mind. The rude 10-year-old who talks through the movie depresses me more than the Russian economy.

        But then again, he's usually sitting beside parents who do exactly the same thing.

        Which leads us to the final point. While most adults say they'd like to see their offspring exhibit better manners, they seem oblivious to the fact that children learn by imitation.

        Every time an adult callously steps in front of a child at a fast-food counter, every time a teacher belittles a child in front of his peers, every time a parent swears at a child for spilled milk or untied sneakers, we all lose the battle for a civil, polite world.

        We are right to demand that our children address us with respect. They are right to expect us to deserve it.

        Krista Ramsey's column appears on Saturdays. Write her at 312 Elm Street, Cincinnati 45202.

        Krista Ramsey's column appears on Saturdays. Write her at the Enquirer, 312 Elm St. Cincinnati 45202.