It was a rainy afternoon this spring, on a day when the Alaskan sun had yet to show us her affectionate smile. My six-year-old daughter and I were peeling back the layers of Abigail Adam’s childhood in an autobiography we had recently stumbled upon at a local bookstore. As I thumbed through the pages, I was suddenly gripped with the idea that we had lost something. I combed through my mind, searching for the lost thing.
The missing “thing” had been highlighted in the book we were reading.
And it wasn’t really an object at all. It was a lesson. A truth. In early America, parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles invested themselves in children in a way we may have relegated to the dusty accounts of history in search of fresher ideas. I was reading that Abigail Adams was groomed to be gracious.
It was more than good manners, although that was part of the training. There was loving attention given to instructing a young girl to be gracious, welcoming, and kindly thoughtful of others. Much of this was wrapped up in the domesticity of that era. However, guiding a young girl or boy to put aside selfishness and make a habit of purposefully extending grace to others should hardly be considered a stale, outgrown venture. In bygone times this looked a million different ways: standing when others walked into a room, looking others in the eye to address them. It looked like actively caring for the temporal needs of others- whether a cup of tea, a meal, a kind word or a mended sock. And, it looked like waiting until every family member had food on their plate, and the blessing was offered, before shoveling in the meal. This teaching, much rooted in principles of faith, formed a foundation for good manners. My heart swells for this kinder society.
Oh sure, those times were uncivil in many, many a way.
But let’s not lose the golden thread of goodness in our history. Some roots are meant to be planted deep.
In an effort to captivate my little girl’s heart with these ideas, we’ve instituted a new family tradition, Manners Monday. We all dress up in our fanciest clothes, we wear jewelry and ties, and serve a meal on the few pieces of grandma’s china that remain. We light candles, dim the lights, and us girls wear lipstick. She sets the table properly and makes a menu for her daddy, thinking through everything a person might need to enjoy a meal. We sit together and eat slowly, talking and listening and sharing. And under all this built-up importance, she sees that graciousness in actions begins with graciousness in thought.
We aren’t after the Emily Post, finishing school effect. Not at all. We are after cultivating a heart of graciousness and hospitality in our children. We have manners not because we are in a fancy place or are wearing fancy clothes, but because we care about the people surrounding us. If you’re eating dinner with the President, do it with gentle ease and confidence; and, if you’re sitting on the side of the road splitting your sandwich with a homeless man, do it with just as much humility and thoughtfulness about the other person in your company. We don’t show off, we don’t put on airs, and we don’t pretend. We care. This gracious way of living with an eye toward the people around us is worth teaching to our littles.
And before you go looking for me in some ivory tower, take a peek through my front window some Monday night.
You’ll likely see a little boy in a high chair with food smeared in his hair, my husband hilariously squirming in the suit jacket he hasn’t worn since before the babies were born, and me feverishly toggling on the hardwood in my heels, filling sippy cups. There are no illusions of pomp.
But these silly-looking efforts at painting pictures of bigger life-themes seem so worthwhile and precious now, should they prove to paint in a little more grace between the lines in the pages of the future.