Years ago at our local library’s annual summer book sale, we picked up a copy of a book called Manners by Aliki. It’s a bright, cheerfully illustrated picture book that goes through the whats and whys of polite behavior: “words and actions that show others you care.” Each page is laid out like a cartoon all to itself, and might address nose-picking or toy grabbing, or more complex issues like gossiping or alienating others. N has always liked this book, and we used to read it often, but like so many others it’s sat on the shelf unnoticed for some time, until last week she went looking for it, perhaps prompted by some ethical puzzle she didn’t share with me. Since then, we’ve read it every night from cover to cover.
And I can see signs of it popping up around the house. Last night, a note appeared on the bathroom door. “When door is closed, do not comme in. When door is open, you can comme in.” (I think the “comme” is French immersion influence.) The accompanying illustration shows a girl patiently waiting on one side of the door while on the other side, a second girl sits on the pot glancing at the door, mouth in a worried O.
Books that teach manners and broader morals are difficult to write, and can be off-putting for parents and kids alike. But Aliki handles the subject wonderfully, since we get to either giggle or gasp at the rotters in these pages. The kid who says “BLAAAA!” with an evil scowl when an old lady stops to pat his head, and another who burps and slurps his way through a meal.
Some pages use images and next to no text to get across the message (such as “Look at Daniel,” scratching his head, picking his ear, and coughing into the open air), while others are devised as little stories. A miserable boy terrorizes a birthday party, grabbing, throwing food, cheating, and tattling. After he leaves, “nobody missed him.” And this really is exactly what the book tries to convey: “manners are about feelings … they make others want to be with you.”
My favourite parts of the book use role-playing dialogue: “manners lessons,” in which a couple of kids act out a tricky situation. Each starts with a child saying “Let’s pretend” to another (as kids so often do), and then carrying out their mini play. In one, Aunt Bessie cooks up potage du toad’s legs and bisque de giraffe’s neck, and her nephew has to wend his way through the situation without saying “Yuck!” In another, a girl comes to her friend’s house for a sleepover and after an evening of disparaging remarks, says, “I get the bed. You can have the floor.”
But I suppose what I like even more than the messages of these little skits is the fact that N and I read them aloud together. I’ve mentioned many times in these posts that, while N can read, she loves to be read to. And I’ve struggled with that over the last while, wondering if perhaps I should be pushing her more to read aloud in English (as she does in French, for her homework). But I decided I would follow her lead, and trust in the process she seems to enjoy most. And I often glance at her and see her following along with me as we move through the text. Sometimes she corrects me when I miss a word, so I know she is indeed reading as well as listening. But what’s nice about this book is that we do these exchanges together, so it’s a manners review as well as a reading review all at once. (And also just fun.)
I should perhaps mention that sometimes N’s own manners leave a lot to be desired—but then, occasionally, so do mine. The other day she was whining incessantly and growing bolder by the minute, and I lost my temper in that way that can only be described as steam shooting out of my ears. We both felt horrible afterwards as we rushed off to piano, and then the incident was forgotten until bedtime. That night when we lay in her bed reading Manners, we talked about our fight now and again when we came to places in the book that reminded us. I relished the opportunity to point out behaviour of the kind she had exhibited, which had made me so angry. And when we got to the line “But you can’t treat bad manners with bad manners,” she saw her opportunity too.
“That’s what you did, Mom.”
Well, yes. Fair enough.