The Little Boy Who Waited

Manners. My child will learn manners.

It was a mantra I said to myself long before pregnancy, childbirth or actual children of my own entered my life.

But it was essential.

And so when wee Child A was born, the quest for manners began.

I did not crazy baby-proof my house, little boy learned that some things were not his to play with.

I did not let him commandeer conversations with hysterical toddler rants, he learned to wait his turn and know we would fully listen to him when his turn came.

Although he had dramatic sharing problems (only child syndrome) he was dutiful about taking turns.

When he told me he was hungry, he learned to wait while I fixed something.

Manners, manners, manners. Every scream or shriek or wail I endured while we worked out these rules would lead to good manners, I told myself.

There are those moments, the ones where our hearts clench and we want to storm into the fray and right injustices done to our children… the ones where we want to resort to parentally bullying a pack of six-year-olds so those most precious to us will be spared a hurt.

We do not. Or, if we are not crazy people, we do not.

And I did not see how my quest for manners would lead me to this moment over and over.

I watched time and time again while patient little boy waited politely behind a pack of swarming children all eager to get the Otter Pop or the rice-crispy treat or the goodie bag… and walk away with empty hands because by the time his “turn” came the treat was long since gone.

I watched him look around a pack of rambunctious children clearly lost as to how to work his way in through the tangle to reach the prize after a few of these experiences taught him that snoozing meant loosing, even though we’d taught him that what others called snoozing we called courtesy.

I saw him tentatively try to wiggle his way through a crowd of squished kids who were mostly larger than he because he was a year ahead in school, and give up time and time again because those “rules” didn’t make any sense to him.

I actually told him once or twice, “Just shove your way through, honey, it’s okay. There aren’t any actual lines you’re cutting.”

I wonder if starting his school experience in England helped reinforce this – the English are terribly polite about queues.

So mostly Child A went without in these scenarios. He came away from the snarl empty-handed and sad. And confused.

My heart broke for him over and over. Over the treat he didn’t get, or the toy from the bottom of the box that no one else took because it was broken.

I tell myself that he will be well served by his patience later.

He will wait out the relationship that is healthy for him.

He will understand the value of patience for rewards that are worthwhile.

He will know that the things people scramble for at first are more often small, flashy things than large, substantial things.

I hope this with a mother’s breast full of hope in that blind-wishful place where I know that what I tell myself is true may never really turn out to be so.

And my heart will have tiny scars for the rest of my life from each time I watched his excited expression melt slowly into disappointment over the consequence of his patient, polite nature.

Child A, Age 6

43 comments

  1. My stomach’s turning and I’m choking back tears as I read this. I was that kid and, I fear, my children are following. I’m a better person for it, but watching the boys go through it is physically painful.

  2. That is my kid exactly.

    Except when ice cream is involved, and then he becomes a greedy, ravenous beast who throws his manners to the wind.

    it is a delicate tightrope to walk, teaching a child manners, yet also teaching them to stand up for themselves.

    I usually fall off on one side, or the other.

    Love the photo :)

    1. That picture is Child A on a gondola in Venice. I look at the giant gawky teenager now and I almost can’t remember that little boy without pictures.

      And yes, the tightrope is almost impossible to navigate.

      I want him to have good manners, but, I didn’t know how to teach him that sometimes they’re not as important as others. A pack of screaming, laughing kids after otter pops? Heck, honey! Jump in!

      But I couldn’t make it make sense to him.

      *sigh*

  3. Yep, I freakin love this post.

    (Note how – though I am technically a professional writer – my replies are probably the most ridiculous, thoughtless and in general the least philosophical/moving in any way)

    I saw my littlest (note the use of an imaginary word) brother go through this and as a tween, he’s very polite and I am honored to have him as my brother.

    I think that besides breaking your (and my) heart in two, the outcome of whom those polite kids turn out to be far outweighs being first to shove through the mob.

    And you most certainly do NOT want one of those pushy kids. They grow up to be Socialists, you know. And that just does not work.

    1. We get regularly praised for how wonderfully courteous our kids are (even though Child B and Child C were not in my life till a little later), and I know how important it is.

      And I think they’ve mostly decided that the silly things that people trample each other over aren’t worth it.

      But it was still so hard to watch, wasn’t it?

    1. I hope so. I hope there’s a reward for him down the road, because watching that scene play out over and over…

      I just hope he gets a reward for it someday.

  4. this post is painfully beautiful. my nephew is JUST like this. He is so very polite and shy and giving and kind. It is a lovely trait, but heartbreaking to watch. I have time and again shoved myself out in front of other kids at parades for candy to get him a sucker. I make an ass of myself so he won’t go without. It doesn’t make him any ruder, but it does earn me auntie points!

    We will not have this with Eddie. He is a force to be reckoned with. Much like his momma.

    1. See, *I* had to be good parent. I needed him to have an auntie who later I could roll my eyes at the other parents over and shrug and say, “What can I do? She’s my crazy sister!” While all the while being secretly gleeful.

      And forces to be reckoned with…they get a LOT accomplished.

  5. This just about killed me. As I navigate blindly in these early months I know there will be so much more ahead. Yesterday in the car Aliza (six months) screamed the whole ride home and my heart bled and I wondered is it harder when they can tell you why they hurt? And yes it sounds like it is.

    1. It both is and isn’t. There is this desperate helplessness when they are little and the cry so hard you think you will break and you can’t figure out why they are crying, but if you could figure it out you could probably fix it.

      Later, they have all the words they need to tell you why they hurt…but their problems have moved so far out of your reach.

      *sigh* This is never in any of the books.

  6. I, too, am a big sister, auntie and a god-mom and it kills me when other kids are pushing & shoving their way to something and the patient, courteous, well-mannered are left in the dust…what a sad state our society is in that this is the lesson our kids are learning!

    1. I think…I hope…that we are teaching them things that they will desperately need later in our instant gratification, qet-rich-quick world.

      I hope I hope.

  7. You know the saying “good things come to those who wait” so hopefully these heart-breaking experiences will lead to some amazing things in the future for him. That patience and courtesy will turn him into a wonderful adult, make him a wonderful husband and friend and maybe cause less stress for him as an adult which will make him healthier. My son is a bit like him as well and has missed out on some things too. You know, your son won’t be the one to rush out and knock someone down for the newest iPhone but will wait until the price goes down and get a better deal a month later. That makes him smart in addition to patient and courteous. He’s a cute little thing too!

    1. In point of fact, he already does that, so I think you see it rightly.

      He can save money for big purchases, lots of his friends can’t.

      He can hunt out a good deal on the major things he wants.

      He will wait till his birthday or Christmas to get the gifts he’s hoping for, I never get fits for things.

      So…I hope those are the rewards for all those lost trinkets.

      And for you son too!

  8. Sigh.

    This is Maj, my older daughter. She cannot understand the rudeness and the shoving and the grabbing. Everyone should wait politely and take a turn.

    My younger daughter Kallan, who had the same parents and the same upbringing (sigh), is much more aggressive and pushy about getting what she wants.

    I am always stunned at how much comes down to temperament.

    And my heart aches for Maj when her polite and generous nature?

    Costs her.

    Sigh.

    A lovely post.

    1. I can see how the same rules-that-aren’t about these sorts of things would be bizarrely puzzling to Maj and unsettle her.

      Little boy never got unsettled, juts confused.

      But in the end we still watched them not get.

      And even though we tell ourselves that the greater lesson is being learned…

      …it hurts.

  9. I think childhood is full of these moments. As parents it is crushing to see it but it is part of growing up. Teaching kids to be assertive but not bullying, kind but not pushovers, seems really difficult. Your boy seems like such a sweet wonderful soul!

    1. He is a very sweet soul. And for as much as I wanted him to have manners, I couldn’t help him figure out that sometimes you could let them go. It wasn’t that I wanted him to be rude or aggressive, but to just know that sometimes they’re less important. (Assuming, you know, that he’s not giving some kid an elbow check to the eye for the sake of getting an otter pop.)

  10. I needed to see this today. I am currently exercising as much polite waiting and understanding as I am able. When I run out, somewhere a reserve kicks in, but so too does the measurer or the balancer, who keeps score of the ‘wrong’ or the ‘injustice’. I know this is my own choice, and I know it is not ok to whip it out all dripping in resentment and expect my needs to be met. BUT, even at my age, why is it that I am expected to be appropriate and others somehow can be self centered and me me me first and not pay a price, but how DARE I MAKE A DEMAND, how dare I express dismay–get over yourself can be one of the comments coming from one such self centered person when I finally ask for something to mention that I’m tapped out on the one-sided nature of things.

    My children, because it is the ‘right thing to do’, know how to use such manners and watch their own reactions for things too, and this last two weeks I’ve been able to see both benefits to them or to others and drawbacks, again both to them and for others. Thank you for posting. Sometimes we are not as alone as we may think or feel.

    1. That is one of the beauties of this medium is realizing how un-alone we are.

      But good manners and courtesy doesn’t mean perpetually sublimating your needs – it means prioritizing when someone else’s needs take precedence, or not screaming or breaking plates when you have to express your needs. (Although, ok, in one really desperate situation I broke a plate). If what you need or what you need to express are being perpetually ignored or diminished, sweet lady, then something is broken and needs fixing.

      I am sorry you’re coping with that.

  11. Such a difficult balance to strike. For me this mostly arises when my sweet gentle girl plays with the neighbor boys who are all rough and tumble and unpredictably so. I don’t want to keep her indoors forever but I don’t like the feeling of encouraging her to play with children when it’s very likely to end in her getting hurt for no good reason.

    1. Ugh…that’s hard. Little boy ended up friends with some kids a couple years older than he who were a bit more rough and tumble, just because they lived closest to us. That’s hard – you can’t pick your neighbors and kids will congregate.

      Will keep fingers crossed that what she learns is assertiveness and how to stand up for herself with a minimum of scraped knees or bruises.

  12. I’m Child A. Well, not your Child A. We have our differences, he and I. For starters, I’m not a he. And we have different parents. And I’m, like, at least a decade older.

    OK, upon reflection, Child A and I are apparently nothing alike. But the patience? And watching from the sidelines? And the broken toy at the bottom of the box? Yeah. That’s me. And I wouldn’t want to be any other way.

  13. Can’t comment from a Mum’s point of view (obv, we have met, haven’t we?), but I will say this:

    I think the patience and manners of the Brits are there most extraordinarily wonderful cultural characteristics.

    They are known for them the world over and spending time in their home, as I have these last five years, I have come to really value them and strive to emulate.

    I think its a fabulous trait for anyone, of any age, to posess and it can only serve your son well as he travels through life.

    Especially if he should move to London.

    Not a bad option, really.

    – B x

    1. It really is tremendous. The British joke about their propensity toward lines, and I always thought it was a joke. Until I lived there. (I also thought the tea thing was a phenomenon exaggerated for cultural humor. Uh, no. Dead on.)

      And at school, 30 little kids formed perfect lines to walk from class to class. There was no such thing as not getting a turn. And I’ve wondered sometimes if that was part of the problem when we moved back to the states. It took him YEARS to understand that a swarm was a viable approach to getting something. And he didn’t like it.

      But yes, patience certainly helps dispel the Ugly American impression. It’s hard to think badly of a polite person.

  14. Wow. I have so much to say on this topic.

    We are trying instill “executive function” in our daughter. Trying to program her little pre-frontal cortex to wait and work for the larger reward.

    There was a great article in the New Yorker awhile back that really inspired me: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/05/18/090518fa_fact_lehrer

    We recently gave our daughter the “marshmallow test,” could she forgo one marshmallow, right in front of her, for the promised reward of two marshmallows in a few minutes. She could. She did.

    I have not yet seen her get shoved about in situations such as you describe. I hadn’t really thought of that downside. Sometimes it is so hard to do the right thing.

    Sigh.

  15. My sone just turned 7 on 3 Sept. I, too, have watched him repeatedly be last because of manners. He gets pushed out of the way (literally and metaphorically) constantly. I, too, have questioned in my mind if I have done the right thing in what I have taught him. He’s just a baby, for goodness sake. 99% of the kids he’s around are pushy and grabby, while he waits patiently, often overlooked by whichever adult is in charge. I have not wavered, but I come darn close to whispering in his ear “just push your way through – don’t be so passive – you have just as much rights as they do”. I STILL don’t do anything. I am proud of him for being kind and patient, but I feel so bad for him, at the same time.

  16. Such a lovely post, Lori.

    There are times when it feels like we are the only ones teaching our children manners any more. And there are times when Katie wants so badly to say something in a conversation, but waits so patiently for her turn that by the time it comes, it has all been said or the conversation has turned.

    But, I never regret that we’ve taught her how to hold herself to higher standards. The day will come when it pays off exponentially. For Katie and for Child A. Of that much, I am certain.

    I love just this post, Lori. You have a beautiful way with words, my friend.

  17. Oh he’s beautiful. It’s what I expected my kidlets to looks like. I don’t know, should you give him boxing lessons now that he is older or has he figured out when good manners serve his best interests and when they do not?
    Dana

    1. It’s hard to believe that the giant, gawky teenager I have now was once that wee little boy.

      He’s pretty well decided that if he can’t get something by behaving reasonably, then it’s not worth the effort. Which is good. But something the other day had me totally reliving all those days of watching him hover tentatively behind a swarm of kids and looking disappointed, and I was almost in tears for the memory. So I decided to write it down. But I truly don’t remember what the spark was.

  18. There is nothing in the universe as beautiful as a child with lovely manners. Thank you for making sure your son knows how nice people behave. Thank you again. And again.

    The pushy, aggressive kids will eventually “get theirs,” but it’s hard, in the meantime, to watch them get HIS as well. I would rather have students with good manners in my classrooms than all the belligerent, rude, entitled, lazy, tantrum-throwing braniacs on the planet.

    1. I should mention, perhaps, that little boy was prone to being a bit of a know-it-all brainiac, but one of the things we worked on was “Stop arguing with the teacher! She actually knows MORE than you, hard as that is to imagine!”

      And he got it eventually. :)

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