Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Are Schools Responsible for Teaching Manners?

January 22, 2010

"I look at [the tape], and I'm like, 'That is not me.' I have so much regret. I can't believe I did that. I let myself and my character not live up to what I should live up to and what I can live up to."

Quoted in a New York Times story, this rather tortuous out-of-body experience is what passes for an apology by a soccer player for the University of New Mexico who became infamous on television and the Internet for a series of shockingly dirty plays, culminating in her violent takedown of an opponent by viciously yanking on her ponytail.

The Problem

The player -- whom I won't bother to name here -- has been indefinitely suspended from collegiate play. But Ponytailgate is a vividly unpleasant reminder of the degeneration of behavior -- what used to be called comportment -- in our age of aggressive disrespect.

Back in the days when I was being pummeled and pounded in high school football, sportsmanship was part of what our coaches taught us, along with the playbook and the fundamentals of blocking and tackling. The pedagogic method was simplicity itself: Any lack of sportsmanship was immediately singled out and censured. Even in the heat of competition in a sport that ritualizes warfare, a certain level of decorum was expected.

The prohibitions extended not only to dirty playing -- blocks from behind, late hits, elbows to the face, all of which were subject to penalties and instant benching -- but also to any kind of showboating. The old-fashioned virtue of modesty was the rule, in order not to embarrass one's opponents.

My coach was surely not the only athletic mentor to pass along the existential message, "When you get into the end zone, try to act like you've been there before." On the rare occasions when I did get there, the only gesture allowed was the nontriumphant handing of the ball to the referee.

The strutting, posing, chest pounding, and prayer circles so common in football today would not have been tolerated for a nanosecond.

Call the soccer player's behavior, plus her inability to straightforwardly take responsibility and to express believable regret, the tip of the not-so-nice-berg. Incivility is rampant these days, and I will not bother to list the many ill-mannered acts in recent times, whether by individuals or groups. Cable news has feasted on them, after all.

Bad sportsmanship is the least of it. But what one wonders is how a young woman has managed to reach college age without learning how to behave.

The Cause?

A conversation I had recently with a friend who's a veteran elementary school teacher revealed what may be a future factor in the rising tide of unruliness:

"We used to have the time during the first few school years to teach kids how to get along with one another, how to share and how to handle anger," she explained. "A big part of early learning was what you could call the social ABCs. Now, we're having to stress academics much more, so there's little or no time left for molding social behavior."

It might be argued, reasonably, that in this test-or-perish, NCLB era, it's important for teachers to accept the reality that math trumps manners. But I think teachers and parents know that to treat others with respect is not an inborn trait. (Remember Lord of the Flies?)

Young children have to be taught the fine art of civility, in order to discourage what may be a natural inclination to stay savages. And since civility is a language of sorts, it's better learned young. By the time kids are ten or so, I suspect the window of opportunity may be at least three quarters closed.

Naturally, teachers can't be expected to turn the early elementary grades into some sort of finishing school. As my friend pointed out, she and all the thousands of others like her around the country have plenty to do -- and then some. We can hope, therefore, that parents take on the burden of socializing their kids, a burden that was once a given.

But how's that going?

A combination of factors such as a loss of family time caused by hard-working mothers and fathers, the isolation abetted by the Internet, and the determination of parents to be pals with their kids instead of demanding role models seems to be making what used to be part of the solution into part of the problem.

As I've had to admit more than once in my blog posts, I am not, nor have I ever been, a teacher. So I'm sure I'm bringing up a perplexing situation for which there is no easy solution. But if we're not to descend further into a raucous, in-your-face future, what other than our schools can save us?

What are your thoughts and ideas on this issue? We look forward to hearing from you!

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Filed Under

  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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