Education Opinion

Miss Manners: Rules for Teachers, Parents

By Judith Martin — November 21, 1984 5 min read

The crisis usually comes when a parent discovers that these same children are totally innocent of such things as multiplication tables, how the U.S. government works, and English grammar. Personally, Miss Manners thinks that the parents of America should offer the school system a bargain: You teach them English, history, mathematics, and science, and we will take them to the movies and museums and to sample foreign food, and will look after their souls.

Schools first started doing parental tasks because they thought parents were neglecting them; and now there are parents desperately trying to make up for the neglect of academic subjects on the part of teachers. The neglect, on both parts, is rarely mere callousness. On the contrary, it is often connected with the idealistic belief that the object of anyone entrusted with a child is to make that child happy, and that the happiest child is one free of constraint. Miss Manners loathes that theory, and doesn’t notice that it has much of a record of success. It is her belief that happiness is a by-product, and that the happy child is one who has been carefully trained to use his abilities to take on challenges and overcome them.

The happiness theory is full of self-defeating characteristics. It directs the child’s attention back into himself, instead of taking the natural self-absorption with which we were all born, and which we are in no danger of losing, and turning it outward, so that the ability to take delight in a varied and curious world may be developed. It also coddles our natural laziness, so that energies that could be put into growth are put into finding excuses and examining reasons for the lack of it.

The parent who is doing remedial academic work, like the teacher doing parental work, is at a disadvantage. Home time, when duties and homework are done, is supposed to be leisure time. The trick, then, is to demonstrate to the child that learning is one of the great joys of life. As an educator of Miss Manners’ acquaintance puts it, “Life is full of wonderful passions that come and go over the years, but the only one that will never let you down is reading.”

That is not to say that the parent should adopt the school’s misplaced emphasis on field trips and dramatizations, and away from what are inevitably now called “dull, dry facts.” As a matter of fact, children adore dry facts, and if you don’t make them learn historical dates, they will memorize timetables or batting averages. It is adults, whose memories are going, who are rightly afraid of being tripped up by smarty little kids if they admit that facts are a necessary framework for supporting thought.

The excursions are all very well, but they are more often in real danger of being dull and dry. A child who is taken through a museum without preparation will show enthusiasm for only the cafeteria and souvenir shop, and one who is fed history through unexplained movies will retain only the irrelevancies. An interesting briefing beforehand, an idea of what to look for, and a debriefing, in which the child can shine by showing what he has learned (it is particular fun, as we all know, to catch filmmakers in historical error), are what make excursions fun.

While children soak up facts easily, they should not be asked to take in opinions without a struggle. Family discussions in which the facts are discussed so that the conclusion is open for argument are tremendously entertaining. You do not, for example, deliver a lecture on the benefits of democracy. You let the child argue them, in the role of the framers of the Constitution, or in that of, say, George III. Part of the pleasure is in making people think within the terms of the discipline--no anachronistic thinking allowed in historical discussions, for example.

After all, not only is the active use of the mind one of life’s greatest forms of recreation, but testing one’s parents, and occasionally outarguing them with a case so solid that they must yield, is surely one of the greatest pleasures of family life.

Dear Miss Manners:

I am just starting out on a teaching career, somewhat intimidated by what experienced teachers tell me of today’s discipline problems, and the lack of cooperation from parents, either in training kids or in punishing them when misbehavior is reported. My first class will be 2nd graders in an urban public school. My hope is that if I get them young enough, and show enough authority (keeping my qualms to myself), I will set the proper tone and they will pick it up. Can you suggest some rules for classroom decorum? I want to be fair. But if there is trouble, how do I find out who is really responsible without turning the children into tattletales and getting them into deeper trouble with their peers?

Gentle Reader:

According to a wise school director of Miss Manners’ acquaintance, a teacher rules through force of personality. Here are some of her suggestions for law enforcement:

  • All feet belong on the floor at all times.
  • Personal remarks are never allowed, not even compliments. If you can tell the teacher she is pretty, you could presume it all right to mention that a classmate is ugly. If it is acceptable to point out that a child has nice new shoes, it would seem reasonable to point out that he also has crossed eyes.
  • Do not debate family values, as in “My mother says you should hit back.” School rules prevail.
  • You are not allowed to say everything you think; the idea is to learn to think things through first, to sift out what is offensive, irrelevant, or otherwise inappropriate.
  • The idea that a free society permits anything should be squelched immediately, and a lesson be given instead in the meaning of law in a democracy.
  • When you have permission to leave, leave quietly.
  • As for crime detection, Miss Manners is told that it is not necessary to use informants because children can easily be persuaded to incriminate themselves. The exercise of letting them do so also serves as protection to the tipster.

    First, you round up the suspects and give them a general lecture on the necessity for obeying rules, fairness, and so on--slowly and painfully closing in on the particular infraction. You then question small groups, suggesting that you know a great deal more about what happened than you are ready to share. The weakest of the wrongdoer’s cohorts--they always have cohorts--will crack, and start to blurt out what happened. Before the others can turn on him, you say, “Isn’t that brave of him?"--thus reshaping his reputation from that of a squirt whom it is safe to attack later to something of a leader himself. The actual leader will have been powerless to keep his troops in line, and will be a leader no longer.

    Miss Manners hopes this will be of use to you as a teacher. If not, she can think of several other lines of work in which you might try it out.

    A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 1984 edition of Education Week as Miss Manners: Rules for Teachers, Parents