My Ex and I Agree: Manners are the Most Important Thing We Can Teach Our Children
Manners come first. On this, my kids’ mom and I agree.
Even before the pandemic, I heard dreadful stories from friends, detailing the conflicts they had with their exes on how best to raise the children. One parent always seemed to be more risk-averse, or more worried about money; one parent always seemed to care more about sugar intake or screen time. When COVID hit, and divorced parents discovered that they had different risk thresholds in the face of the virus, the panic and bitterness ratcheted up exponentially.
Eira and I sailed smoothly through all that. In part, this is because I tend to defer to her wisdom. (I defer because I am conflict-averse, and I defer also because my ex-wife’s wisdom almost always strikes me as sound.) Yet I am not without strong views, and am grateful that for the most part, our views on what the “bunnies” need most align. And chief among the things we agree they need are good manners.
Eira and I were both raised by single mothers, but our circumstances were very different. Eira’s mama, Ana was born into poverty in rural northeastern Colombia. She had her first child, Eira’s older sister, when she was only 13. When she was 22, pregnant with Eira, she emigrated to America with her new husband, a motorcycle-riding, Montana-born English teacher. They settled in Glendale, California, and divorced when Eira was less than a year old.
Ana spoke very little English, and was functionally illiterate. For years, throughout Eira’s childhood, she cleaned houses and office buildings; with no child care available and no family to help, little Eira went along. The future mother of my children got up at 3:00AM to go with her own mama to clean banks and department stores before school; after school, she helped her mother scrub toilets and showers and stoves in the homes of the affluent. Her homework happened when they finally got home. There was very little sleep, and sometimes, not enough food.
Far too often, when they thought her mother couldn’t understand – or didn’t care if she could -- employers called her very dark-skinned mother the n-word.
Ana studied everything. She took mental notes. She noticed that the daughters of the wealthy played soccer. She saw that they carried themselves with an ease that was either studied or careless, but unmistakable either way. It wasn’t just that their skin was paler, or that they were wealthier – the girls strode and spoke with confidence.
Ana had discovered the ladder into the middle class.
Ana soon insisted Eira play soccer after school, then run track. Eira was very good, a natural athlete, and she quickly got recruited onto club and travel teams. Those clubs came with fees, but somehow, Ana and Eira’s father scrimped and saved, and Eira herself scrubbed still more toilets and showers before school and after soccer practice.
When she was 13, she was spotted by a modeling agent. Print and catalog modeling helped support the family, and pay the club fees. Modeling was a brutal world for teens 30 years ago, but no more brutal than cleaning houses. Eira learned how to stride and pose, just as she had learned how to flick a no-look pass to a striker breaking into the clear.
From modeling, from sports, and from watching her friends, Eira learned how to speak to anyone. She learned that grace, charm, and posture can set boundaries. A judicious elbow can get a defender off the ball, and a strong word with a devastating smile can get a too-familiar older man to take a step back.
In a 2019 New York Magazine article, model and activist Sara Ziff recounted her own experience with Jeffrey Epstein. She had met the disgraced financier at a photo shoot in Palm Beach, and Epstein chatted her up by the pool. He asked about her family and her education, and after a short conversation, turned his attentions to an Eastern European model who did not have Ziff’s social background, confidence and poise. “I was spared because of Epstein’s calculations about who was fair game and who wasn’t,” Ziff notes.
Sara Ziff came from the upper-middle class. Her father is a professor, her mother an attorney. My children’s mom was the daughter of an Afro-Colombian domestic worker, but my former mother-in-law knew instinctively what would best protect her daughter from the Epsteins of the world. She couldn’t give her daughter money, but she could give her entrée into a world where young women were confident, charming, strong -- and less vulnerable. The same mix of social dexterity and ease that could fend off predatory men could open the doors to the middle class – and beyond. It was Ana’s genius to sense all this, and to work so hard to ensure that her daughter learned those skills.
I met Eira when she took the very first women’s studies class I taught at PCC. She was 19. Eira was not only the most strikingly beautiful young woman I’d ever seen, she seemed far more mature and poised than her peers. When she came to my office hours, she was friendly, direct and charming, without a trace of either doubt or flirtatiousness. She pronounced each word perfectly, without the slight slurs and “uptalk” that are part and parcel of the Southern California accent. I found her delightful, and in the best way, as I was meant to, slightly intimidating.
Eira and I grew up in completely different worlds. My family had connections and confidences and opportunities. We emphasized manners and the importance of cultivating social bonds almost without thinking – it was coded into our ordinary vocabulary; it was the air we breathed. My grandmother grew up in multi-generational wealth, came out as a debutante at 16, held the right club memberships and headed the Junior League. She taught me that while grades and hard work mattered, what mattered far more was being able to be comfortable anywhere I went.
The thing about manners, grandmother stressed, is that they are the one thing that can’t be taken from you, no matter what happens in your life. You might lose your money, or you might undergo terrible tragedies, but if you have your manners, you’ll be able to land on your feet. In the meantime, while you have privilege, your manners will help other people to feel safe and comfortable in your presence. When I have been at my lowest – in psych wards and jails – manners have helped me protect myself, and they have helped me help others.
Because of how I was raised, I am not intimidated at a white-tie charity function (not that I can afford tickets to those anymore), nor do I feel out of place driving the pallet jack on the loading dock three hours before dawn. I was raised to not only be able to go anywhere, but to expect to need to go everywhere, and to find a way to make myself welcome and useful.
Eira and I want our children to do well in school. We want them to play sports, or find other extracurricular interests. We want them to be curious about the world, and tolerant and accepting of differences. We want them to develop an emotional resilience that will help them through the hard times, and we want them to continue to develop their natural compassion towards those who are in pain.
More than anything, we want them to have the vocabulary and the social dexterity to make themselves welcome anywhere they find themselves. Our children’s success doesn’t hinge on getting into Harvard. Our children’s success lies first and foremost in their own emotional well-being, and second, in their ability to deploy social graces. Economies may rise and fall, as may temperatures and sea levels, and what we imagine is so important to learn in school today may turn out to be useless in another 50 years. What will never be useless is the capacity to talk to other people with ease, with warmth, with curiosity and with kindness.
Eira and I come from utterly different worlds, but have arrived at exactly the same conclusion. We cannot give Heloise and David islands of wealth on which to stand, nor can we give them a strong religious faith with which to gird themselves against trial and tragedy. What we can bequeath are our own stories of resilience and determination, and we can emphasize to them our deep commitment to charm, to kindness, and to grace.
Next to love, our commitment to manners is the greatest gift we have to give.