Teaching Morals And Manners To Our Children by James Dobson

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us. 
Charles Dickens
A Tale of Two Cities

Dear Friends, 

It feels in many ways as though the entire human family has been dragged into a “winter of despair,” to quote Dickens. We have been sequestered for weeks, hoping to avoid the strange and deadly new virus that threatens us all. You and I are not alone, of course. People around the world have been staggered by this pandemic, followed by universal economic woes. Who would have believed it? In just a short time, America has been transformed from being the most prosperous nation in the history of the world to one that is teetering on the brink of an economic recession. I’m reminded of Thomas Paine who wrote during the Revolutionary War, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” We can identify. 

So many have been praying for a recovery as we place our trust in God who is sovereign and loves us. My heart goes out to those who are sick, or have lost a loved one, or suffered financial ruin. Those painful experiences will never be forgotten, and I trust that the Lord, in His faithfulness, will see them through this time. 

As I write this letter, there is good news on the horizon, and I believe it may be appropriate to discuss another topic of great importance. I’d like to turn our attention to our children. I have said for years that their spiritual development is “job one” for parents. Toward that end, I will share in this letter a portion of my book, Bringing Up Girls, which is among my favorite writings. The following chapter is titled, “Teaching Girls to be Ladies.” 

Let’s step back more than 200 years to consider some principles that have been largely forgotten by our culture. Yet, they are highly relevant today. I have chosen this subject for the month of May because it is focused on mothers and the role they have in training their sons and daughters. 

We’ll begin by revisiting the beliefs and writings of the second President of the United States, John Adams. He was a prolific reader, statesman, and author, and he made an incalculable contribution to our country. He was not a perfect man, but he lived by a standard of righteousness throughout his adult life. In his autobiography, Adams wrote a commentary on the subject of moral behavior, which he called “manners.” Though the language is formal and dated (and I have made a few grammatical edits), I urge you to read these words carefully and thoughtfully. They carry great meaning for the younger generation and ultimately, the nation. Consider these words from one of our beloved founding fathers. 

From all that I have read of the history of government, of human life, and manners, I have drawn this conclusion, that the manners of women are the most infallible barometer to ascertain the degree of morality and virtue in a nation. All that I have since read and all the observations I have made in different nations, have confirmed me in this opinion. The Manners of Women, are the surest criterion by which to determine whether a republican government is practicable in a nation or not. The Jews, the Greeks, the Romans, the Swiss, the Dutch, all lost their public spirit, their republican principles and habits, and their republican forms of government when they lost the modesty and domestic virtues of their women. . . 

The foundations of national morality must be laid in private families. In vain are schools, academies, and universities instituted if loose principles and licentious habits are impressed upon children in their earliest years. The mothers are the earliest and most important Instructors of youth.”1

How insightful it is that John Adams placed the primary responsibility for the moral character of the nation squarely on the shoulders of mothers. Fathers play a key role in it too, of course, but moms are absolutely indispensable. It is their task to transmit enduring principles of right and wrong to the next generation. The old proverb “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world” is still true today. If women grow weary of that responsibility, or if they lose sight of their own moral compass, no other institution or governmental agency will be able to save the nation. So wrote President John Adams. 

On another occasion he elaborated on the link between national character and the preservation of a democracy. He wrote: “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”2

To paraphrase again, Adams was saying that a representative form of government such as ours cannot survive without a spiritual foundation, because its citizens are masters of their own destinies. That is the great vulnerability of a democracy. Our political system, which Abraham Lincoln said is intended to be “of the people, by the people, for the people,”3 can be no more stable than the collective character of its citizenry. It’s up to us. There is no king, dictator, or tyrant to restrain our behavior. If we choose evil, there will be no stopping us. In short, our national sovereignty depends on the transmission of the nation’s morals and manners to children, and that task should begin in the nursery. 

But what form does this early training take in today’s world? It begins with basic civility, because manners and morals are directly connected. As Horace Mann said, “Manners easily and rapidly mature into morals.”4 The first tends to lead to the second. In centuries past, cultured and religious families understood this relationship. They were aware that girls and boys, and all of humanity, are flawed and inherently sinful. Thus, Old English and Early American societies worked diligently at teaching what were called the “social graces.” Teaching manners was their highest priority because of the connection to Christian piety. 

Alas, American and British cultures in the twenty-first century have swung to the other end of the continuum. Young girls are often allowed, and even encouraged, to be brash, rude, crude, profane, immodest, immoral, loud, and aggressive. Some of this behavior has been consciously taught in recent years under the rubric of “assertiveness training.” To the extent that such programs were designed to instill confidence in bashful, frightened young women, I support them. But some girls have been taught the worst characteristics of “uncivil” males. I know my words must sound horribly old-fashioned and archaic at this point, but there is something important here for us to consider. 

Obviously, human nature has not improved much in the past several hundred years, nor will it ever. What has changed, as I have described, is that many parents have become too distracted, overworked, and stressed out to care much about teaching morals and manners to children. 

Jolene Savage, who ran the Social Graces School of Etiquette in Topeka, Kansas, said society has reached an all-time low when it comes to matters of civility. Exhausted moms and dads seem not to have noticed what has happened to their children. Clearly, instruction in civility is needed now more than ever. Getting that done, however, can be a challenge. As the late dancer, Fred Astaire, said, “The hardest job kids face today is learning good manners without seeing any.”5 If that is unfair in your case, please forgive him—and me. 

Once again, speaking directly to mothers, it is your job to acculturate your daughters and to help them become ladies. Does that sound chauvinistic in our high-tech world? I suppose it does, but even so, it makes sense. As Lisa Fischer, an instructor at the Final Touch Finishing School in Seattle, Washington, said, “Etiquette has to do with knowing the rules.”6 Therefore, girls should be taught how to eat, talk, walk, dress, converse on the phone, and respond to adults with respect and poise. Parents should demonstrate good posture and table manners for them, such as putting a napkin in their lap, showing them where to place silverware, and not talking with food in their mouths. They should also explain that burping, smacking, gobbling food, and picking teeth are rude. 

I also firmly believe that you should require your kids to say thank you and please, to demonstrate that ours is not a “gimme-gimme world.” Appreciation is an attitude best cultivated at home. Teach techniques of personal grooming, hygiene, and nutrition. Role-play with them about being gracious hosts and how to formally introduce parents or friends to each other. Require them to excuse themselves when leaving the table, and explain how to make friends, how to take turns talking in a group, and how to make eye contact. You might even help them learn how to cook and care for children. Wouldn’t that be something novel? 

While manners tend to facilitate morals, there is another good reason to teach them. They also help develop confidence and poise. A girl who has been trained properly is never completely knocked off balance when she is in an unfamiliar circumstance. She knows what is expected of her and how to deal with it. Her sense of self-worth is reinforced by the way adults react to her charm, poise, and grace. For the mother who wants to give her daughter a headstart in life and help her compete socially, this is a great place to begin. 

These diverse skills used to be taught to girls in mandatory homemaking classes. Alas, most of these programs were canceled after the social revolution of the sixties, and America became the worse for it. Road rage, loud cell phone conversations in restaurants, cutting in line, throwing litter from car windows, and general nastiness are now everyday occurrences. 

Monica Brandner taught at an etiquette business for children and youth called Final Touch Finishing School. She said that manners are primarily about how we treat others and ourselves.7 Sheryl Eberly, who wrote 365 Manners Kids Should Know, agrees. She said living by the Golden Rule releases the power of a thankful heart to those trained to practice it. She also reminded us—and this is a great point—that when we teach social graces to our children, we are training the next generation in self-government and self-control.8 John Adams must be smiling from the other side. 

In short, teaching manners to girls is about helping them to become young ladies in a not-very-civil world. I assure you that our increasingly crude culture will do everything possible to carry our daughters (and our sons) downstream toward that which is boorish and uncouth. You can help them paddle upstream. 

A technique that my wife utilized to teach social graces to our daughter was playing little girl games together. For example, they held elaborate tea parties when Danae was four or five years of age. The child loved them! 

Their make-believe names were Mrs. Perry (Danae), Mrs. Snail (a name given by Danae to her mom), and a little boy named Mr. Green who was drafted into service. Other available kids and their moms from the neighborhood were invited on occasion. This fun activity allowed my wife to explain how silverware was supposed to be arranged, how to eat soup without slurping, how to hold and drink from a teacup, how to use a napkin, how to chew with mouths closed, how to hold a conversation, why they should wait to eat until everyone at the table was served, etc. It was amazing how effective these tea parties were in teaching common politeness. I was never invited to join them and definitely felt left out! 

But what about moms who haven’t been trained in social etiquette themselves? They can hardly pass on what they haven’t learned. And what can we suggest for those who are simply too busy to tackle the job? That is where professional etiquette training comes in. Classes are popping up in cities across the country to meet this precise need.9 

Though these training programs can be expensive, they are worth the cost for parents who can afford them. For those who don’t have the resources, some churches and women’s clubs are providing assistance. Furthermore, we should never forget what some grandmothers have to offer in teaching these concepts. They are likely to remember a more genteel era, and their granddaughters will enjoy the attention that comes with the training.Another source of assistance for moms and dads is the array of materials and manuals now available. One of my favorite books is a four-hundred page teaching manual entitled Everyday Graces: A Child’s Book of Good Manners, written by Karen Santorum.10 She is the wife of the former senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum, and one of the most impressive women I have met. Karen has a law degree from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and a bachelor of science degree in nursing from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Obviously, she could have had a successful career in either medicine or law, but after thoughtful prayer, she and her husband had a different plan. 

Karen is the mother of eight children, one of whom is in heaven, and she has homeschooled the others. Her youngest, born in 2007, is a precious young girl with a chromosomal anomaly similar to Down syndrome. She is named Isabella, and they call her Bella. Senator and Mrs. Santorum were aware during her pregnancy that their baby might have this condition. They and their physicians were right. Bella will be mentally disabled for what is likely to be a short life. Sadly, over 90 percent of parents today abort babies who have this and other genetic conditions.11 Bella was welcomed into the Santorum home with the open arms of a very loving family. 

Some years ago, Karen Santorum was a guest on my radio program. Here is a short excerpt from our conversation. After greeting her, I asked why she chose to be a full-time mother instead of pursuing a career as an attorney or a nurse. 

Karen answered, “Oh, I just feel like my role as wife and mother is the most important thing I will ever do. I love raising my children, and I feel very blessed to be able to be at home with them. It’s really wonderful. 

JCD: Have you ever asked yourself whether you made the right decision to stay at home? 

Karen: Yes, when Rick was leaving in a tuxedo for a banquet and I was on the floor cleaning up milk, I asked myself, “What’s wrong with this picture?” [laughter in the studio] But then I fast-forward to the end of my life and I’m standing before God. He will hold me accountable for loving Him, loving my husband, and loving my children. 

JCD: Well, you have now written a book that reflects part of what you are doing at home. It’s called Everyday Graces. It is different from other books on manners because it focuses primarily on classic literature. Explain that approach. 

Karen: Rick and I believe that children learn best through role modeling and by hearing stories. That’s why we have read thousands of stories to our kids. Good things happen when a child is sitting on your lap. It lends itself to emotional and physical bonding. He or she identifies with the characters in the stories too, and that allows you to explain the moral lesson being taught. 

JCD: Most parents don’t have time to read to their children, do they? But I remember fondly the stories my mother read to me when I was a kid. They have stayed with me throughout my adult life. 

Karen: Oh, they are remembered. We all need to slow down a bit, turn off the TV and radio, except for your program [laughter], and read to our children. 

JCD: Shirley used to take our son, Ryan, to the library, where they would check out a big stack of books, maybe eight or ten of them. Ryan is a strong reader and would have them all finished by the next day. Shirley wanted him to get out and play too, so she had to ration the number of books he would bring home. That is a pleasant problem to have. 

Karen: Children love good stories such as Anne of Green Gables. I’ve included it and the entire Tolkien series in my book, as well as C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series. We also read Brian Jacques’s Redwall. One of our favorite things during that time was to light a fire and then pray and read together. We also read such books as Aesop’s Fables and similar literature.The conversation with Karen Santorum lasted an hour and offered many good ideas about teaching morals and manners to children. 
I can hear some of my readers objecting vigorously to the goal of teaching girls to become young ladies since that is hardly the direction the popular culture has taken us in recent decades. Some would question whether it is even desirable for a girl to be feminine in a traditional sense, fearing that it will signal a return to the oppression of a patriarchal era when women felt they had to hide their intelligence and conceal their accomplishments. 

Hear me out, moms. Not for a moment would I try to take away the hard-won achievements of respect and emancipation enjoyed by today’s women. Those cultural advances are here to stay, and may they long endure. 

On the contrary, I would point out that femaleness and weakness are not synonymous. Femininity and strength of character are often very close neighbors. I come from a family of strong women who knew who they were and where God was leading them. They took a backseat to no one. My grandmother co-pastored a thriving church with my grandfather. She could preach up a storm. I can’t imagine anyone telling her to sit down, fold her arms, and keep her mouth shut. One of her daughters became my mother, who was also a very confident and accomplished lady. Yet, my mother and her sisters were undeniably feminine. 

Well, my time and space have been consumed. I hope you have found this discussion helpful. Despite the deprivations of “social distancing” and sequestering, I hope the moms among my readers will have a meaningful Mother’s Day. Perhaps being required to stay at home as a family could “set the table” for one of the best celebrations in many years. That is my prayer for you. 

May I share some good news with you? Ten years ago this month, we aired our first Family Talk broadcast. How thankful we are for God’s goodness and for friends like you who have stood with this ministry! I will leave you now with the lyrics of a wonderful old hymn, “Till the Storm Passes By,” written many years ago by Mosie Lister. It is my encouraging message to you and your family at this challenging time. 

In the dark of the midnight, have I oft hid my face.
While the storm howls above me, and there’s no hiding place
‘Mid the crash of the thunder, Precious Lord, hear my cry,
Keep me safe till the storm passes by. 

Till the storm passes over, till the thunder sounds no more,
Till the clouds roll forever from the sky,
Hold me fast, let me stand in the hollow of Thy hand,
Keep me safe till the storm passes by. 

Many times Satan whispered, “There is no need to try,
For there’s no end of sorrow, there’s no hope by and by.”
But I know Thou art with me, and tomorrow I’ll rise,
Where the storms never darken the skies. 

Till the storm passes over, till the thunder sounds no more,
Till the clouds roll forever from the sky,
Hold me fast, let me stand in the hollow of Thy hand,
Keep me safe till the storm passes by.

Your friend, 

Dr. James Dobson