9 Lessons in Civility From Paddington Bear

By Phoebe Brannock — July 17, 2017 4 min read
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Late last month, Michael Bond, author of the beloved Paddington Bear children’s book series about the misadventures of a bear from Peru that migrates to London, passed away at the age of 91. Since the publication of A Bear Called Paddington in 1985, more than 35 million copies of Bond’s books in the 150-book series have made their way into the hands of readers. They have also been made into both an animated BBC series that enjoyed a decade-long run and a 2014 silver-screen feature—a second film is scheduled for release in January 2018.

Many children’s books tickle the cuteness radar with their tales of animals. But Bond’s bear is not only immensely likeable, Paddington is also unfailingly decorous. Paddington maintains this decorum in all his encounters, whether he’s negotiating prices at the market in Portobello Road or conversing with Beefeaters at the Tower of London.

It turns out we could all use a reminder from Paddington: A 2016 survey by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research reveals that 74 percent of Americans think that manners have declined over the past three decades. According to psychologist and self-described “manners guru” Alex J. Packer, most adults still value decorum. Both etiquette authorities and the founders of John Hopkins University’s Civility Project recognize that children’s acquisition of manners is integral to their social-emotional development.

On July 2nd, The Times London reported that Bond modeled Paddington’s courteousness on his own father’s good manners. Unsurprisingly, Bond’s editor, Ann-Janine Murtaugh, described Bond as “a true gentleman.”

As a child, I often checked out library books about the sweet but clumsy Paddington. From making messes with marmalade to miscommunications that nearly result in the furry protagonist’s arrest, Paddington’s daily encounters are riddled with opportunities for him to become angry and act rudely. But he never does. Instead, he remains civil, and this civility endears him to the other characters and often helps extricate him from his run-ins. Although I failed to pinpoint his tact when I read the series with my parents as a youngster, I recognized his capacity for kindness and his ability to befriend others.

At 18, I brought copies of Miss Manners and Emily Post with me to college, and for my 21st birthday, I asked for personalized stationery—isn’t that what all the kids want for their 21st these days? When I was flipping through a few well-worn Paddington books after I learned about Bond’s death, I realized that Paddington was one of my first etiquette instructors, long before my father started clipping Judith Martin’s columns out of the newspaper for me.

If teachers and parents were to look to Paddington for tips on good behavior to share with students, they might consider these:

  1. Be presentable. Though Paddington dislikes baths, he makes sure that he is presentable. Paddington’s routine ablutions are a good guide for children on the importance of personal hygiene and the need to dress in accordance with the occasion.
  2. Acknowledge others. Whenever Paddington goes out, he raises his hat. He always remembers to say “please” and “thank you.” Teaching children to speak to others increases their independence and helps teach them respect.
  3. Keep the spaces you use clean. Paddington might have the hardest time observing this one—he finds himself in quite a few sticky situations, especially since he carries marmalade sandwiches in his hat!—but he does make a conscientious effort to take responsibility for his space.
  4. Write thank-you notes. Every Christmas, a plethora of parcels pour through the mail slot in the green front door of 32 Windsor Gardens, Paddington’s London home. He keeps a list of what he receives so that he can respond appropriately. (See No. 2.)
  5. Be hospitable. Paddington plans events with his guests’ preferences in mind so that everyone feels welcome and comfortable. Understanding how to be both a good host and a good guest are social skills that are worth developing so that children know how to make others feel appreciated and how to appreciate the kindness of others.
  6. Think before you act. Even when someone annoys Paddington, he never responds impolitely. Instead, he gives his signature hard stare, which allows him to think before he speaks, a valuable lesson at any age.
  7. Don’t interrupt adults. Paddington always waits his turn to speak. This is a good message that teaches patience, respect, and impulse control. These skills correlate to success in adulthood, according to Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow study.
  8. Show awareness of others’ concerns. When Paddington first arrived in London, he knew nothing about the city. Nevertheless, he asked the first people who greeted him if he could be of assistance. His persistent willingness to help others demonstrates his caring nature.
  9. Apologize when you’re in the wrong. Perhaps humility is Paddington’s most important lesson. Paddington is never malicious, but when he upsets others, he sets it right through an apology or a good deed. Teaching children to apologize when they have erred not only helps them develop a sense of right and wrong, it also instills in them the importance of taking responsibility for their actions.

Paddington’s brand of etiquette is all about consideration for others. Incorporating these soft skills into the classroom can help students learn respect, responsibility, and kindness. Learning civility at a young age sets children up for future success in both academic and professional careers. This way, they, too, can be like Paddington and always land on their feet.

Image by Flickr user Jeff Doe, licensed under Creative Commons

Image 2 by Flickr user Martin Petitt, licensed under Creative Commons

A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.