Something is missing in today’s youth: the concept of class.
From a political standpoint this is an excellent thing, but when it comes to training and manners, we are falling woefully short in certain areas. The problem with progress is that when we discard a concept, sometimes we throw away more than we intend. Hmmm…this is difficult to explain, but I will try to marshal my thoughts and look at this issue as it affects girls growing up today.
In Victorian times, Edwardian, or even going as far back as the Puritans, women were taught to emulate a set of rules that were associated with being proper, better educated, or at its most socially incorrect, better bred. Clearly, no one wants a return to those times. The feminine freedoms we have today were gained through hard fought battle. Modern women are fortunate to exist in a fairer time, free to experience more equal society. We know that morally or through heredity, there is no such thing as one human that is intrinsically better than another. At least in America, social class distinctions have largely been erased. Hallelujah!
There are ideas from those times, however, that contain value. Aspiring to be a better woman, to learn manners and appropriate conduct are noble goals. My grandmother and mother instructed me to “be a lady”. In the early 1960’s this translated into dressing appropriately for functions, minding the words used to express oneself, knowing where to draw boundaries between the public and the private , and the importance of manners. There was always a definite right and wrong choice and I was expected to be able to distinguish between the two extremes. I was raised to give thought to my actions, and I was expected to behave in a way that reflected well not only on my self but on my family.
Moral relativism is more common today. The world appears less black and white, our children negotiating shades of grey, encouraged to consider all perspectives without judgement. Appropriate dress is much less important, clothing less formal and certainly less restrictive as time moves on. Language is colorful. Individualism is king, personal expression a revered right. Technology has opened up the world, connecting us in new ways. The media has considerable influence on development, and programming that would have been unthinkable in past eras is now commonplace. Traditional family structure has changed. Our views on love, intimacy and marriage are irrevocably altered.
This is progress, and much of it is an improvement. Yet something was lost when we tossed the old rules out the window. We sacrificed a certain innocence, a set of behavioral guidelines that defined social structure, as well as losing an underlying sense of respect for ourselves and others. What on earth would make me say that?
Well, my examples are from modern experience in educational environments. I admit to being shocked when a pre-school parent informed me that her child was encouraged to masturbate at nap times to encourage body awareness, and that she expected her child to be free to do so during the school day without restriction. There has been emphasis on the subject of school bullying but not as it presents in parents in dealing with teachers. I can testify that there are many aggressive parents. Ask any sports coach witnessing sideline conduct at sporting events. Often it is the adults present who are so focused and engaged rooting on their own child’s cause that they neglect the rules of good sportsmanship. Boisterous arguments with coaches or fellow observers spontaneously erupt, some that devolve into physical altercations.
Chaperoning a middle school dance I was truly appalled to see young girls grinding on their partners, though their peers expected nothing less. Walking through modern halls I am saddened by student choice of clothing, some provocative, much simply careless. Conferences with parents are often unattended by one or both parents who are too busy elsewhere to participate. Social websites are easily available, arranging meetings for all and sundry and are booming with business, much of it from our teenagers. Posts are made anonymously under screen names that hide identity. Because of ever evolving technologies many parents remain unaware of what there children are doing online.
Kids celebrate individuality but struggle to find common ground. There is an atmosphere of accusation and defensiveness. Everyone is hyper conscious of offending others, “safe spaces” and “triggering” common terms. Yet students feel free, in fact are somewhat encouraged to speak derogatorily of government, parents, staff and peers alike. We cannot mention holidays on public property or salute our flag yet individual sexuality is publicly pronounced and celebrated. It is fashionable to loudly express opinions. At high school level, whether you are informed is less important than the ability to be viewed as conforming to current fashionable rhetoric. Ironically, this pressure to be seen as socially aware and liberally minded is its own stricture, noncompliant students facing loud public ostracism. In some ways the freedom to think as an individual is more limited now than in times past.
It truly is a tough, confusing time to be parent, teacher, or concerned citizen. With the current emphasis on total individual freedom there is a void, a vacuum where we are unsure of where or how to enforce rules. Losing rules can free us but it can also do the opposite: trap us in a world where we need to make our way and lack a road map. Imagine the confusion of today’s teen negotiating her way through cacophonous mixed messages. Face to face communication, questions and differing viewpoints are largely restricted because of public pressure to conform to modern standards. It is not simply the family or even friends but mass media exposure that is largely supplying those standards. And in many ways, though we have benefitted from freedoms, we have erased limitations that kept our youth, particularly women, protected.
Take an obvious example of generational social change: our attitudes towards sex. We must acknowledge that sexual freedom carries risks of pregnancy and disease, not to mention our kids facing situations they are not yet prepared for, from potentially dangerous unwanted personal encounters to the simply awkward morning after walks of shame. There are consequences to our choices, physically, socially and emotionally. It is too late to put the genie back in the bottle. No one wishes to revisit 1950. Instead it is more important than ever that we revisit the concept of class.
Having class implies that you conduct yourself with dignity. You do not lower yourself to indulge base instinct but choose to take the high road, the measured choice. Reason takes precedence over emotion. That is not to say you lack feeling, but rather you elect to express your feelings in a socially acceptable way. You avoid scandal whenever possible. A classy person embodies sophistication, elegance and refinement. Class implies a code of ethics to which you adhere, a set of internal guidelines that determine how you express yourself and interact with others.
As pertains to sex, exhibiting class means making conscientious and deliberate choices. It means not only demonstrating respect for others but also carrying boundaries within yourself that you need to adhere to for the sake of self-respect. For women it means that it is not only acceptable but desirable to set personal boundaries. This does not equate to eternal virginity. Rather, class necessitates putting reason behind our action. It makes our choices less casual. Intimacy in turn gains a level of respect and importance that is somewhat lacking in current society.
In previous generations, privacy mattered. Getting to know potential partners mattered. It took time to establish real connection, and the time that it took was appreciated, fraught with romantic uncertainty and excitement. Swipe right or left situations did not exist. Parents enforced curfews and questioned whereabouts. You dressed so that it expressed your individuality but also indicated that you held yourself in high esteem. Today if we mention the seeming inappropriateness of attire we are “slut-shaming”. Then, we shuddered at the thought that someone might perceive us as being easy, and took that into account when choosing our clothing.
In my generation our families set down clear expectations for our behavior. If we acted outside these boundaries, we would be called upon to defend our actions. If we were disciplined at school, we were often punished again for our transgression at home. This common set of shared behavioral expectations reinforced accountability . Mom said to do your homework and be respectful. If you did not comply, word returned home via the teacher. School and parent cooperatively functioned to discipline and instruct. The student learned that their code of behavior applied outside the home.
By the way, we were expected to address teachers and adults by their titles, using Mr. and Mrs. as a sign of generational respect. We did not have teachers attired in jeans urging us to call them by nicknames. The current informality is engaging yet removes some of the professional mystique, as well as the sense of inherent respect given to those who trained for their positions. Likewise our focus on celebrating the individual has diminished our capacity to see ourselves as common citizens who share not only physical space but similar lifestyles and beliefs. Our focus is not on the similar within each other but on what makes us different.
Of course back then we knew how to swear and did it very well. But we also understood when we could use colorful language and when it was deemed socially inappropriate. To pepper our speech with curses demonstrated lack of education and manners. Because of this, the moments we chose to use colorful words held power. We gave our language emphasis rather than using profanity as verbal placeholder.
Even table manners were important, but of course we usually ate at tables with our families at a designated hour. If you were spending a night at a friends, you endeavored to eat everything that was offered with a polite smile and effusive thanks, whether or not the food was to your taste. Guest rules mattered if you were to be invited into someone’s home or were hosting a gathering yourself. Likewise it was polite to pitch in with any work. Picking up after yourself meant you were properly trained, and respectful of shared surroundings.
What is the point of this walk down memory lane? Sometimes remembering reminds us of important facts. Formality has a function. Rules exist for a reason. Respect is a critically important value, essential to our success not only as individuals but as a society. In celebrating the individual and freedom we must remember that our ancestors ways, although different from ours, still had value. Perhaps we should check ourselves on occasion and make sure that we did not, as grandma used to say, throw the baby out with the bath water. Perhaps we should endeavor to resurrect some past values that improved our society.
Were people better in times gone by? Did old-fashioned parents perform better than their current counterparts? Not necessarily. We produce winners and losers in every generation. I know parents who are doing or have done a tremendous job negotiating the modern landscape. They have raised amazing children, fully equipped for success as productive adults. How do they manage? What is it that these parents do?
First of all they take time to fully parent. They are present and actively engaged in their children’s lives. They listen as well as speak. They teach their children to take pride in their accomplishments, that hard work and determination matter. They address the difficult issues, and face difficulties head on. They acknowledge that their children have faults and teach them how to listen to their own internal voices , to recognize their strengths and weaknesses. They set rules and expect their children to live up to them. They teach humility. They teach that there is a clear difference between right and wrong and that it is important to take a stance for what you believe in. They emphasize qualities of friendship and citizenship. They focus on the positive whenever possible but are unafraid to voice the negative when necessary. They comfort, reassure and discipline. They love.
Not to sound like an old curmudgeon but I am glad my children are grown.
When I have a granddaughter I expect to be politically incorrect. Yes, I will marvel at her beauty inside and out. I will share soft quiet moments with her. I will encourage her to be strong and carry herself with pride. She should be adventurous and bold when warranted, unafraid to voice her own opinion. I will hope my granddaughter is true to herself and that she will respect her family, her teachers, her co-workers and peers. I will hope she has a personal code of honor and maintains ethical boundaries, able to recognize the difference between right and wrong. I will urge her to work hard. I will remind her that she always has choices, and a responsibility to face the consequences of whatever choices she makes. I will always love her. She must learn to love herself, to accept and appreciate the quirks and foibles that make her unique. But be warned: Even though she will know how special she is and how precious she is to me, I will expect her to conduct herself with class. I will expect her to be a lady.