I wish that there were more people reading this article. These days, it almost feels like the very idea of raising a boy child to be a gentleman is outdated.
There is a lot of focus these days about bringing up our girls to be strong and confident, and to teach our boys to respect women’s boundaries.
But a lot has fallen off, I think, as far as respect and manners overall, for both girls and boys.
There is a lot of time spent on screens and phones, and that time has to come from somewhere. Unfortunately, a lot of the time now spent on phones used to be spent talking to parents or spending time with other adults who would and could teach children about respect.
First, to get started, what is a gentleman and how should he act?
To get started, the first thing you actually have to do is decide what a gentleman should act like. This is not something that is the same across the board. To some degree, gentlemanly behavior is going to vary depending upon the age, race, socioeconomic status, background, education, and experience of the person you ask.
If you are a parent (mother or father), start this exercise by thinking of times when you came across someone and you were impressed by their gentlemanly behavior. Was it politeness that struck you? Chivalry? Manners? Hard work? Confidence?
This is a list that will grow and change over time. But here are some ideas for places to start, as example of how a gentleman might act:
- A gentleman says “please” and “thank you” without prompting by an adult.
- A gentleman respects elderly people, and spends time with them, and listens to them speak.
- A gentleman helps elderly people whenever can (to carry in groceries, to cross the street, to wash the car, to pick up heavy things, to mow the lawn, to walk the dogs, anything, sometimes at a moment’s notice) without expectation of anything in return.
- A gentleman has a firm handshake.
- A gentleman looks other adults in the face/eyes when he speaks.
- A gentlemen respects women, and shows them respect by listening to them, following their established boundaries, and using appropriate language around them.
- A gentleman helps women whenever he can, even if the lady can do it herself, by doing things such as: opening doors, carrying things, putting himself between her body and sketchy looking people or cars, offering his coat or umbrella when it is raining or cold, carrying groceries, doing outside chores, etc).
- A gentleman has good table manners (eating neatly, using a napkin, knowing how to eat with a knife and fork, knowing which fork to use, waiting to eat until everyone is served, thanking the cook/host, praising the meal, avoiding criticisms of the food or presentation, making good conversation, in general acting in a pleasant way at the table).
- A gentleman helps anyone whenever possible (no matter who, what, when, where, or why).
- A gentleman gives up his seat on the bus, metro, etc to women (especially pregnant women), elderly people, injured people, or anyone who looks weaker or is in need of the seat more than he is.
- A gentleman dresses neatly, and knows how to dress up and down depending up on the situation.
- When dropping off a friend, date, girlfriend, colleague, acquaintance, co-worker a building or a car, a gentleman will wait until that person is able to get inside the building or start the car before leaving, to make sure he/she is safe.
There is definitely more to being a gentleman than please and thank you (and certainly more to being a man than manners). But this is a place to get started.
If you want your son to be a gentleman, you must first model the behavior you want to see
Our children look to us first as a model for how they should behave. If we want them to take quick steps ahead of another person or group to open a door to be polite, this is something we need to do. We need to show them how to do it, and explain to them why it is important. Take turns opening the doors out in the world, and then be very gracious when they do. Thank them profusely, as well as other adults when a door is opened for you.
If you want your child to use a napkin at the dinner table, make them available to them, encourage them to use them, and then use one yourself.
If you want your child to chew with his mouth closed, listen to elderly people, speak without using curse words, and look adults in the eye, you must also do these things.
You can’t expect your child to do things that you do not do yourself.
Work on gentlemanly behavior over time.
You are raising a human being, not training a monkey. This is going to take time and effort. Further, it is not going to happen all at once. Some of gentleman training will have to wait until your son is older, and has both the discipline to do what you’ve asked, and the language to be able to comprehend what you are talking about. Some of it is also about experience. Young men sometimes need to see it done wrong or do it wrong themselves before they can do it right.
When your boy is younger…
Start with basic manners. Please. Thank you. You are welcome. Excuse me. These are simple to demonstrate, and you can work on them over time in your home and out in the world.
Start with politeness basics, like opening doors. Assuming the child is old enough to open doors, start encouraging him to do so, for you and your family, as well as other adults who might have laden arms or big bags.
Take your son to visit with elderly people, and talk to him before and after about how is expected to act. The younger he is, keep the visits shorter so that his natural exuberance and energy doesn’t take over.
Take him places where the manners matter. Go to a fancy restaurant, just you and him. Go to some place where dressing up is necessary. Show him what a tie is and how to tie it, even though it might be a while before he can do it himself.
As he grows, naturally increase his expectations…
As your son gets older, he is going to have more opportunities to show off what he has learned (or not). This is the time for you to calmly talk with him about his behavior, and remind him of what the expectations are.
Again, don’t expect him to just know how to act. You need to put him in situations where he’ll be called upon to shake a hand, or talk to an adult. Help him stay on track by putting devices away before going to a gathering, or setting the expectations in advance (you’ll stand by me and talk, not sit in the car and sulk).
As he grows, make sure to point out in the world when you observe the behavior you want to see. And now just the person being polite, but also the impact of that politeness on the receiving person. For the old woman who can now rest in a seat on the bus, or the pregnant neighbor who doesn’t have to carry all of her groceries inside on her own.
Help him get his education. Maybe that is watching YouTube videos together about where the forks go. Maybe that is enrolling him in a class (like Cotillion) if it is available. Put him in situations where he has to talk to adults and girls, too (such as martial arts where the classes are not divided by gender or age).
When he meets new people, encourage him to shake hands, and to make small talk.
Teach him to work/Handle discomfort
Every child (male or female) is going to have to learn how to work to get by in the world. The sooner your son learns to handle discomfort (and overcome it) the sooner he will be able to master his body and emotions. While it is normal to feel frustration, it is not polite or gentlemanly to snap at waiters because the food took to long, or to road rage at someone out on the freeway after getting cut off.
Learning to work hard is a key component of this, I think, because it teaches kids how strong they are, helps them build confidence, and gets rid of a lot of those petty insecurities that result in bad behavior. When a young man is confident in his work and in himself, he is much less likely to act out, lose control of himself or his behavior, or hurt others.
You can do this by starting in your home. Set age appropriate expectations for chores and help around the house. Everyone in the home has to do things that they don’t like, without complaining or throwing fits (though I want to sometimes).
You can also do this by putting your child in uncomfortable situations that they have to overcome. Climbing to the top of a local hiking trail, where the going gets pretty hard at times. Joining sports teams in skills that he isn’t good at just yet. Trying out things that are hard that he will be sure to fail.
Do it without rewards/bribes
What we want to create is an adult who acts in a certain way on his own, not because someone told him to, and not because he’ll be rewarded afterwards for doing it. We want him to open the door, not because someone will notice or appreciate it, because it is the right thing to do. And if you focus on external rewards for behavior, it is very difficult for kids to do things on their own without those rewards.
Over time, if you model the behavior, emphasize the behavior, and show the child how their behavior is received and what it can mean to the world, they will start to do these things on their own, without the promise of a sticker or piece of chocolate.
Teaching kids to be good citizens
Boy or girl, it is vital that parents take time to teach their kids how to live in our society. People with good manners are more likely to succeed, to make good friends, to get jobs, to land a high quality mate.
People who are generally disliked will miss out on opportunities that they are otherwise qualified for and deserving of.
Manners and gentlemanly behavior will be encouraged at school to some degree, but not as much as I think it should be done. Ultimately, there are 20+ kids in a classroom with one adult, and that adult is focused on reading, writing, math, and all of the other various subjects that are soon to be tested on.
It is up to us parents to take the lead in our children’s manners and behavior.
Let’s not fail them.
Emily Anderson is a mother of three children, all under the age of 10. Located in the Pacific Northwest of the US, Emily is a mom and part-time blogger, jumping in front of the computer when the kids are sleeping. She started this blog in April of 2019 and is proud that the blog is now paying for itself. If you want to know about her journey as a blogger, check out out her personal digital journal or her post about failing her way to blogging success.