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Parents, Mind Your Manners

It’s hard to teach kids etiquette when adults behave badly. So put down your smartphone and pay attention.

Marjorie Ingall
January 15, 2013
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Mike Hollander/Flickr and Shutterstock)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Mike Hollander/Flickr and Shutterstock)

In my last column, I discussed how to teach etiquette to your children. But then it occurred to me that it’s hard to raise others with good manners when you yourself act as though you were raised in a barn. Therefore I will be expanding my new etiquette-training empire by offering virtual manners classes for grownups, those lumbering post-toddlers who are often even less civilized than their offspring.

Unfortunately, when it comes to Jewish parents, the very worst behavior is often on display where we might hope to showcase the best of ourselves: in synagogue. So let’s start there.

First lesson: Put down your freaking smartphone! I see you using it in shul—the same way you do at dinner, and during visits with your in-laws. Don’t pretend you’re looking up commentary on the weekly Torah portion; we know you’re “liking” things on Facebook and “sexting” and checking the latest score in “the game.” Siri secretly thinks you’re a yutz when you make her work during services, and so do I. Focus on the humans you are with, please. (And if you want to focus on the Divine, too, that’s just grand.) Also—and this is true everywhere, not just in synagogue— let’s think about the message we’re sending to our children when we’re using electronic devices while ostensibly spending time with them: “My little offspring! You are less important to me than invisible people!” If there is a call or text or email that absolutely cannot wait, apologize to all around you and excuse yourself to deal with it. But really, how many things cannot wait long enough for “Adon Olam” to be over?

Not only are you smartphoning in shul—I see you because I have eyes in the back of my head (behind the horns)—you are also talking to your neighbor. I hear you. When JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen suggested that we “make some noise” during services, this is not what he meant. How is God supposed to hear my prayers over all your yammering? My personal peeve among peeves is adults chatting during children’s services. Now, I understand a few whispers now and then. Our people are talkers. We are not Episcopalians. But even so, jabbering with your friends conveys, again, that your individual needs (or desires) are more important than the collective needs of the congregation, and sends a very specific message to your kids: “I am bringing you to a place I do not myself respect. Synagogue is medicine, and this theological erythromycin is for you, not me.” Here’s a thought about how to pass the time in synagogue: Pray. Encourage your kid to participate if the rabbi or cantor asks questions of the group. (And don’t just give the kid the answer. What is wrong with you?) In a lot of synagogues, the gabbaim and community leaders will not silence the annoying parents, because they are chickens, and just as Woody Allen needed the eggs, they need the dues. Police your own farshtunkiner self.

And non-parents in shul: Please do not give parents the stink-eye if their child is fidgeting a tad in the sanctuary during regular services. If the parent is trying to quiet the kid, and there are only a few sounds, give ‘em a break. (If a kid is full-on wailing and the parent won’t take him out, feel free to break out the death ray.) Children don’t learn proper conduct unless given the opportunity to try it out in the real world.

While we’re still on the subject of shul: Parents, watch your children during Kiddush after the service. If they are leaving 400 little half-drunk mini-cups of grape juice all over the function room, this is your problem. If they have hoarded all the little cookies with jam filling and the festive brightly colored sprinkles, leaving only the disgusting fluorescent marzipan layer cookies for others, this is a problem. Being oblivious, or finding this behavior charming, is not charming.

Finally, saving 17 seats during High Holiday services is uncool. Stop laying your coat and purse over an area the size of Cleveland. You may save space for two people, tops, and if they haven’t arrived by the repitition of the Amidah, all empty seats are forfeited. It’s in the Torah. Or maybe the Talmud. I couldn’t hear what the rabbi was saying that day, because the people around me wouldn’t shut up, and I was sitting all the way in the back behind the seats everyone else had saved.

Once you’ve mastered synagogue etiquette, try some other lessons that will help you be a better parent. When you are dropping off your child at someone else’s house for a playdate, for instance, insisting on “no sugar” or “no screens” is out of line. At your house, you can make the rules. If someone else is hosting, just be thankful your child is out of the house. Have a cocktail and let it go—but not too many cocktails, because leaving a child at someone else’s house for hours on end is poor etiquette. So is not reciprocating playdate offers; one person should not be the perpetual host. You may feel that your home is too messy or too unfancy or too small to be the playdate person. You are wrong. The other parent does not care. She just wants a cocktail. Take her child off her hands.

Being a competitive weasel is another manifestation of poor adult manners. If you are the parent of a baby, do not ask other parents of babies how many words their babies know. We all know you want the answer to be “fewer than yours.” If you are the parent of a toddler, do not brag about what preschool your spawn got into. If you are the parent of a school-age child, do not discuss test scores. You are, however, permitted to bemoan the omnipresence and importance of tests in our children’s lives; that is unifying, not dividing, behavior.

Are you familiar with the term “concern trolling”? This is an Internet term meaning pretending to express solicitude about someone else’s welfare while actually pushing that person’s buttons in a judgmental and schmucky manner. When you say, “Have you considered talking to someone about little Ethan’s language delays?” or “My goodness, Lillian has really grown! I’ve been reading about the efficacy of the maple syrup and lemon juice diet for children, and I’d be happy to send you some links!” you are being gross. If another parent expresses anxiety to you about any aspect of childrearing or her child’s health, feel free to discuss to your heart’s content. But if your putatively helpful initiation of discussion or faux-casual offhand comment’s underlying agenda is to convey to the other parent that there is something wrong with her child, I don’t care how noble your intentions are: Shut up. You’re not a doctor. (Oh, you are a doctor? Well, you’re not that child’s doctor. So put a sock in it.)

I’m not done. Another parenting impoliteness is being over-process-y in a conflict-type situation. For instance, let’s say your child has just smacked another child on the head with an imagination-stimulating, unstructured-play-enhancing, hollow-core sustainable wooden block. Your response should not be to run to your child murmuring, “Phoenix, darling, what did he do to you? Can we talk about why he made you forget to use your words?” Your response should be: “We don’t hit. Time out. Right now.” You don’t negotiate when told it is the other child’s fault. You will never tease apart who did what. If your kid hurt another kid, your kid gets punished. If you feel time-outs aren’t effective, but taking away a privilege works better, do that. Soothe the child who was hit (even if you suspect he or she was being annoying before the smackdown). I am a believer in making a child apologize even if he or she does not mean it. We can discuss this (and why you think I’m a moron) in another column.

If your child is on the receiving end of the hitting, do not say, in earshot of the other parent, “Oh, did the ill-raised little vilde chaya use violence upon your person? He must have special needs or parents who went to a state school!” Please. If the other parent is apologetic, ease the way for him or her. Accept the apology. Distract your own child. Rise above.

Finally, here’s a bit of extended family etiquette. Do not make everyone else a hostage to your child’s nap schedule. If you cannot attend a bar mitzvah because of your kid’s nap time, do not huff about it. (While you’re at it, ponder whether you might be un peu rigid about naps, and/or food, and/or trying to ensure that your entire block is as silent as a crypt when your child is sleeping.) If your child is not invited to a wedding, do not snap what someone I know once snapped at a bride, “Savoy is my life!” (Also, do not name your child Savoy.) Do not ostentatiously refuse gifts that do not fit your values—when you are high-handed and self-righteous, you are the rude one.

Polite parents raise polite children. I’ve seen the saying (attributed to a ton of different people), “Character is how you treat people who can do nothing for you.” It’s true. If your rude boomer parents did not raise you to have manners, you’ve got some work to do. Having a child is an opportunity to make up for lost ground, and to help yourself (and by extension the wider world) in the process of helping your kid.


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Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.