You're sitting in a restaurant trying to enjoy your meal when the kids at the next table start acting up. First, just a poke here and there. Then some more serious wrestling. Then shouts of "You liar! You stupid idiot!"
Thuds. Blows. Hollering.
By now, a civilized meal is out of the question. And so, probably, is your own digestion.
Oh, yes – the parents are there, making efforts ranging from feeble to valiant to tame the small barbarians … unsuccessfully.
What's going on out there? Is it our collective imaginations, or is it true that kids just don't have any manners these days? Or is it the same old plaint that begins with the words "In my day … "
The data is sobering. In 2002, the last year for which statistics were available, 90 percent of Americans in a Public Agenda Survey thought rudeness was a serious problem in society. The troubling thing: 10 years earlier, in 1992, a U.S. News & World Report story reported the same statistic: a 90 percent disapproval rate on the state of American manners. No improvement in 10 years.
Several years ago, Louisiana became the first state in the nation to actually legislate manners. Public-school children are required to address staff as "Mr.," "Miss," "Mrs." or "Ms."
How did things get to this point?
Cindy Schiffman, a veteran educator and currently lead pre-school teacher at Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill, N.J., has seen literally hundreds of kids come and go, and still believes that the basics of courtesy and etiquette, along with proper synagogue decorum, must begin in the pre-school years.
"Children can definitely be taught how to behave as long as they are told what our expectations are," said Schiffman. "They can certainly learn to treat one another with respect and courtesy and can sit appropriately for 30 minutes for a family service.
"But the matter of synagogue and religious school behavior has become an issue in many congregations," acknowledged Schiffman, who has seen an increase in permissiveness in the last decade.
Still, this educator earnestly believes that kids are very smart and observant.
"If you show them that you expect special behavior in the sanctuary because the sanctuary is a very special place, most little ones will deliver. But without the parents reinforcing that idea, we end up with misbehaving children."
Mimi Polin Ferraro, education director at Old York Road Temple- Beth Am, in Abington, who has devoted her career to making Jewish education meaningful, is troubled, too.
"Children don't necessarily think about manners – they just are who they are," said this mother of four. "I believe that today's kids are more precocious and will push the limits more than we did as kids."
That being said, Ferraro also believes that when limits are made clear, and deviations are not tolerated, children will rise to the occasion. "At our bi-monthly Ma'ariv service, we begin each and every time with reminders of where we are, and how to sit and participate properly."
But, said Ferraro, "it's not easy."
Barbara Gilmour of Voorhees, N. J., is a former stay-at-home mom and flower-designer-turned-manners-expert who is doing more than just lamenting the epidemic of uncivil behavior.
Gilmour, who was reared in a family where manners were taught – and expected – has created a mini-empire with Tanner's Manners, a cottage industry promoting … well, manners, and for the audience that needs the lessons most: kids.
Tanner's Manners, which includes CDs, lesson plans and other teaching devices, has as its mission teaching children social skills so that their own comfort is enhanced. According to Gilmour, "The object is to cultivate 'kool' kids with kind hearts, to promote the Golden Rule and to teach youngsters to treat people with kindness, caring and respect."
And how did Gilmour become involved in this specialized field?
"My own daughter asked me to come to her sorority at Ursinus College and help the seniors learn some basic social skills as they were about to go out into the world. I was surprised that they hadn't learned all of this at home, and that they really were hungry for help."
Gilmour has since earned a national reputation for her work with kids and manners, or more specifically thoughtfulness, which, she suggests, is what manners are all about. "It's not just knowing which fork to use, it's knowing how to behave with others, how to be gracious, how to make others feel comfortable around you."
These days, Gilmour, whose work has received the coveted Parents' Choice Approved Award, is cautiously optimistic about how manners will fare in the modern world.
For information about the Tanners Manners social skills program, call 866-543-5463.