Why do children like Cotillion? They like the fun and the games, the dancing and the chocolate chip cookies, the special decorations and the table full of prizes they dream of winning. But they also like it because of the way they are treated by their peers and their mentors. And even more importantly, they like it because of how it makes them feel to treat those same peers and mentors with the respect and consideration expected of them. They see and experience how others respond to them when they are using good manners. Eventually they begin to understand the power of good manners. By the time they finish 8th grade they have a firm grasp of the principles behind good manners and how they themselves can benefit from them, both externally in the way people respond to them, and internally in the way they perceive themselves - as capable, confident, thoughtful and knowledgeable people.
Do you realize what a huge benefit this is nowadays? I’m sure you do. You’ve seen how coarse many people have become. Selfish and self-centered behavior is becoming a pervasive epidemic more insidious than swine flu. Its effect on young people is far reaching and more apparent than ever.
Just last month I was approached by a former long time general chair of our Mesa Verde Cotillion. I hadn’t seen her in twenty years and she was delighted to find that Cotillion was still going strong. She told me that, as a teacher, she has noticed “a general lack of refinement” in her students over the last decade. What an interesting way to put it, I thought. I never really would have thought of the word refinement in that context, but I knew what she meant. Coarse behavior has not only become widely accepted, it has become cool. And what is “cool” today? Looking and acting like you don’t really care much. About your clothes, your speech, your attitude or your effect on the people around you.
Sometimes this is a cover for ignorance. If they don’t know what to do, they act like they don’t care anyway. “I mean, c’mon, manners are just stupid and fake. Just a way to act like you’re better than everybody else.” People who take such a stance don’t know what manners are. Sometimes it is a rejection of authority - the typical teen attitude that for many extends into adulthood. The attitudes and stages kids go through aren’t really any different than they’ve ever been. What is different is the number of influences to which they are exposed, unfortunately most of which are negative. There have always been those who are “too cool for school.” But according to many who have reason to know, the problem is growing increasingly worse. Even Eddy Haskell had the ability and know-how to turn on the charm and impress his betters when the situation required it.
Over the holidays I got into a discussion with a friend about the difficulty of finding new applicants for the multi-billion dollar technology company where he works. Recruiters go to universities to interview soon-to-be-graduates whom they intend to groom for sales. Most often they are very discouraged because of the lack of refinement and people skills in their applicants. Some can barely manage to look up from their PDAs. Many cannot maintain sustained eye contact. Some are practically incoherent, speaking in monosyllables. Few are the young adults - though accomplished in academics - who even know to stand up to greet their interviewers, who actually look them in the eye, smile and engage with personality. And it’s getting worse.
Many moons ago, children actually wanted to be like their parents. Or at least like other adults. They strove to be taken seriously by adults, to be seen as mature and knowledgeable. But ever since the 50’s the trend began to shift toward celebrity worship. I believe that the shift was caused by a very useful piece of technology - television. Not only was it a window on the world that began to grow exponentially, it was an alternative and even replacement for parental authority and respect. What do my parents know when compared to all these experts and famous beautiful people on TV? And who is it that the young and inexperienced - and even those older who should know better - look up to? Celebrities. People who have accomplished nothing except name recognition in many cases. These are the people who inspire awe, whose lives we must know all about, whose words and opinions are awaited with bated breath. At least in the past, parents were better able to control the inputs to which their children were exposed. They did not have to contend with the internet, cell phone, iPod Touch and wireless networks. One TV. Off. Easy. Now? Now we have Ke$ha to deal with.
The small and accessible world technology brings us is not going to go away. Nor should it. What we need is a way to balance these myriad less-than-desirable inputs with wholesome good examples. A way for children to see that taking the care and trouble to look presentable, stand up straight, look others in the eye and practice thoughtful awareness of others is beneficial. The young people who have heard and practiced these concepts the most will have a distinct advantage over their peers. And they will also have the added benefit of greatly increased inner confidence and personal satisfaction to go with it. •GMS