Manners, Customs, Clothing

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An Essential Element of the Catholic Home

Marian T. Horvat, Ph.D.

Some people say it’s just a sign of getting old. I find myself more and more shaking my head and thinking: My mother would have never allowed us to run all over the store and climb the furniture like that. If I had dared to reply to my father in that tone, I would have had a spanking. If I had behaved like that in a restaurant, it would have been the last one I entered for a long time. And other such musings.

However, some apologists for modern day indelicacies offer the common excuses for today’s bands of poorly behaved children: “Things are more relaxed and free today, we’ve become more informal in everything”. Or: “Children have more open relationships with their parents.” Or the old liberal favorite: “Many people just don’t know any better - we only need to educate them.”

A Victorian couple enjoying a fine meal at a cafe

For children the best way to learn is the example of their parents
A lady in Los Angeles took note of the atrocious table manners of the children she observed in the good restaurants she frequented. Mind you, these were not Oliver Twist street urchins, whom you might not expect to “know better,” but the children of middle and upper middle class homes. The habits of TV dinners and junk food meals consumed in cars and before television sets have left their mark: a generation of children who have lost the basic rudiments of table manners.

This particular lady was so shocked she inaugurated a Manners Classes to teach boys and girls the basics of setting a proper table, holding the folk properly and simple courtesies foreign to these new tribes of neo-barbarian youth. She admitted her efforts were somewhat discouraging: “You can teach the basics of table manners, but you really can’t really teach children a sense of propriety and good taste in a class one hour a week. This has to be instilled on a daily basis in a home by the parents and family,” she commented.

I am sure that all my readers are quite aware that the last 40 years has seen a conciliar revolution in the Catholic Church, where customs have been upset, rubrics trivialized, music desacralized. Father Brown has become Father Bob, or just plain Bob, and Sister Margaret Mary is Rita. At the same time that the conciliar revolution has taken place, a revolution in secular society has taken place that has changed the customs and manners of parents and children.

It suffices to tune in to a typical day of the television programs to see how far we have gone in the way of children's manners. Even in the programs that are not celebrating homosexuality, single parents and immodesty (and there are few!), the language children use and the attitudes they assume with their parents would be reason enough to ban television from any home that was trying to foster the values of respect and courtesy. From the Simpsons’ cartoons to sit-coms, we see children responding to the adult world in general with sarcasm, condescension and a cool sophistication that belies all innocence. The problem is that there is more than a modicum of sympathy for this kind of irreverent behavior in the generation of the ‘60s and ‘70s, who today are parents – and even grandparents. After all, they can claim with a certain pride, they were the ones who liberated society from the hypocritical Victorian mores and standards of their parents.

They are wrong. Contrary to the popular notion, manners and codes of conduct are not restrictive, restraining, and binding -- but liberating. To know the right way to act in society is to free oneself from innumerable insecurities and problems. To discipline oneself in private conduct sets the foundation for the concrete practice of the Commandments and virtue. In parallel, the habitual practice of good manners acts as the best insurance for having and keeping good relationships with others. The formalities born from good breeding -- “If you would permit me …?” “Would you be so kind as to …?” “Excuse me, sir, …” -- are not anachronisms to be disdained, but courtesies to be revived by the counter-revolutionary Catholic who longs for the “sweetness of life” of days past.

Guidelines from American Catholic Etiquette

How far we have slipped in last 40 years became quite evident when I picked up an American Catholic Etiquette book published by The Neumann Press in 1962. The author, Kay Toy Fenner, aimed to simply set out and reiterate what she supposed every well-bred Catholic knew: the basic manners and savoir faire taught in the home and reinforced by the sisters and priests who assisted in the formation of the youth. She emphasizes a notion that has been all but lost today: that the general code of behavior of Catholics should be different from – and better than - our non-Catholic friends.

A painting of two well dressed boys

When children dress more like adults, they will act more mature and serious
Why? Because wherever we go, whatever we do, our behavior, our dress, our demeanor is judged as the behavior as of a Catholic. Non-Catholics form opinions of Church not only from doctrine, but also from habits and ways of being. This should oblige us to behave courteously, honorably and in a “wholly Catholic manner” at all times.

Consider, for instance, some examples from American Catholic Etiquette. Mrs. Fenner puts a great emphasis on the dinner hour for shaping family life. Not only the parents, she advises, but the children should try to make an effort to present themselves well. (She does not even consider the possibility that family members should absent themselves on a regular basis to “watch their favorite show” or attend some game practice.)

Children should wash their hands and faces and comb their hair before dinner, and, she states, “boys ten and over should be encouraged to wear a jacket to the table. It is a fine habit to acquire.…”

It continues: “Begin the meal with all standing quietly behind their chairs while grace is said. Then, the eldest boy should pull out his mother’s chair for her. Brothers should be taught to pull out their sisters’ chairs for them. Sisters should be taught to expect this service and receive it gracefully.”

By age 10, Mrs. Fenner calmly points out, a child should have learned the “basics, which also include the following:”

  • He will sit erect at the table, keeping the unused hand in his lap.

  • He will wipe his lips and have no food in the mouth before drinking.

  • He will break his bread into quarter slices before buttering it.

  • He will make no adverse comments on any food served, such as “Ugh, squash! I hate it!”

  • He will never put his own table implements into a common serving dish (his own knife in the butter, spoon in the jam, etc.

  • He will fold his napkin when finished and asked to be excused before leaving the table.
Mrs. Fennel continues to lay out higher expectations of table manners for children over age ten: “When one has finished eating, the knife and fork should be laid quietly across the middle of the plate, with the handles on the right. The tines of the forks are up, the sharp edge of the knife is turned toward the diner. The fork is on the inside, nearer the diner. The butter knife is laid on the butter plate in the same fashion, spoons are placed on the side of the serving saucer or dish. All these implements should be placed squarely, so that they will not slide off the plate when it is being removed.” (pp. 284-8)

These once-common norms and expectations for well-bred children unfortunately seem exaggerated and even extravagant to modern ears. “I’m lucky just to get my ‘kids’ to sit at the table and eat with their mouth closed,” one tired “working mom” of three children -- will confess.

And this is one reason why Mrs. Fennel insists that Catholic mothers should – whenever it is possible – remain at home with their children as full-time wives and mothers: “Regardless of how conscientious she may be, a mother cannot find the time to give her children the attention and careful supervision that she could if she were not at home all day…. A Catholic mother must remember, one’s children are priceless immortal souls, entrusted to one’s care by God, to Whom one must one day render an accounting as to how one fulfilled that trust. In rendering that final accounting, it will weigh little to point to the home, car, camp, educational advantages or other worldly blessings one obtained for those children by working if in so doing one has left them to blunder, unprotected, down the road to ruin.” (pp. 265-6)

Good manners: An essential part of a Catholic formation

The Blessing, Jean Chardin

In Jean Chardin's painting The Blessing, the mother teaches her daughters good customs in the routine of simple day-to-day living
Contrary to the notions of even many traditional Catholics, memorizing Catechism and mastering Apologetics or History does not constitute a Catholic education. Children who learn the great self-discipline of courtesy in the home will be better equipped to counter the temptations of the modern day world. When I was teaching the Great Books at the university, I had the opportunity to ask a classroom of teen-age neo-pagans to read the Ten Commandments (Only three students in the class actually knew them). After reading them, one young man remarked in absolute amazement, “But, you know, these are hard. No one could keep all of these!”

Indeed, to actually keep the Ten Commandments is not easy. Along with the help of the grace of God, it demands a great effort, a strong discipline. It is for this reason that the practice of the Commandments is called the practice of the virtue – and virtue etymologically means strength. What many parents do not realize is that courtesy, good manners and polite speech make up part of this training field for the practice of virtue. The wise parent who bequeaths his child the habits of courtesy and self-discipline can be certain that his children will naturally acquire respect for self and for others.

Courtesies and ceremonies are a reflection of the great order, harmony and dignity that God put in the Universe. The simple ways spouses address each other indicate their regard. Be sure that even the tones they use will be observed by their children – and imitated. Small courtesies, such as to say to a child, “I’m sorry . I didn’t hear what you said,” instead of “Huh?” encourage a respect for himself, which will generate normally the refinement and gentility that is a mark of Christian Civilization. When men open the doors for ladies and girls, they exhibit a respect for women and encourage their daughters to behave in a feminine and gentile fashion. When mothers say “my children” instead of “the kids” or “the brats,” they acknowledge the inherent dignity of each human being.

There is a false modern notion that home is the place where you can be completely relaxed, natural and free. This conflicts with the ideal of vigilance that the Catholic should practice at all times and place. To wear what suits your mood or fancy or to say exactly what you please and do what you want does not make for a happy and comfortable home. To only say what one pleases is often to say what wounds, angers or belittles. To wear what fits the fancy is often to wear immodest or vulgar clothing offensive to others. How many divorces were avoided when spouses had the habit of dressing with dignity and addressing each other with respect, rather than wearing immodest clothes and indulging in spontaneous reactions?

To employ such courtesies may seem more difficult in our days. But where they do appear – when the husband opens the car door for his wife, when brothers and sisters treat each other with a mutual respect and consideration, when a family dinner is enjoyed with good conversation and refined manners -- they are appreciated by those who suffer from lack of them. In fact, the effort demanded by courtesy and good manners represents a benefit not just for the individual and the family, but to whole of society. This love of courtesy leads to and develops a love of ceremony, a sense of sacrality, and a deepening reverence for God.

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More guidelines for children on Manners

Taken from American Catholic Etiquette (The Neuman Press, 1962, 3rd printing)
  • “Between five and seven, a child should learn to greet people gracefully, saying, ‘How do you do, Mrs. Smith?’ and offering his hand. Please do not let your children say ‘Hi!’ as a greeting. This has become all too common in all walks of life, even among the adults. It is dreadful; there is no excuse for this lapse into crude speech.” (p. 281)

  • “Five-year-olds should rise when guests enter a room, and should not interrupt when adults are speaking. They should be allowed an opportunity to take some part in the conversation and should not be expected to sit quietly for very long; rather, they should be excused to play elsewhere.” (p. 281)

  • “Children should say, ‘No, Grandmother,’ or ‘Yes sir,’ or ‘Yes, Mrs. Smith,’ when answering a question.” The author also warns that children should never be permitted to call adults by their first names or without their proper title. (p. 281)

  • “An eight-year old boy allows adults and girls to precede him through a door and holds it open for them.” (p, 282) The good example of a father is also essential in matters of courtesy and respect for women: “A well-mannered child is the product of a home in which courtesy is practiced naturally, habitually, unconsciously. No rules of behavior, talks on good conduct, or just plain nagging will ever convince a child that the behavior you recommend is superior to that which you practice. It, therefore, is good for new parents to take a long hard look at their daily habits, manners and attitudes, to make sure that they are such as they will want their child to emulate. A boy whose father is unfailingly courteous and considerate of his wife knows instinctively that women are to be cared for an protected. His daughter understand that fathers and brothers are her champions. A husband who is habitually rude, sarcastic and contemptuous of his wife’s opinions should not be surprised to learn that his son bullies his little sister.” (p. 279)

  • “Parents should determine their mutual position and take a mutual stand on all matters of discipline, permissiveness, health habits and manners. …They should agree to present a united front to their children, that is, when either parent has taken a position on some matter, the other parent should uphold him in the child’s presence, even though he may not actually agree with the stand taken. This is for the good of the child. He regards his parents as the fount of all wisdom and justice, to see them disagree frightens and confuses him and makes him insecure”. (p. 272)

  • “The standards acceptable to humanity at large will always be inferior to those possible to the brightest and best. If these inferior standards are held up to the superior members of society as ideal, such members are robbed of all incentive to struggle to the heights which may be possible to them. This results in an incalculable loss for mankind. …. For Catholics, it is impossible.” (pp. 294-5)

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Posted March 9, 2003

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