Last week in England, Kate Reardon, editor-in-chief of the high-society magazine Tatler, gave a graduation speech at a private girls' school in Gloucestershire in which she highlighted the importance of manners over good grades. Her exact words were, "It doesn't matter how many A-levels you have, what kind of degree you have – if you have good manners people will like you. And if they like you they will help you."
Reardon was immediately pilloried in the British press for impressing upon a bunch of teenaged girls the outdated message that being polite is preferable to being ambitious. Telling young women to mind their manners is anti-feminist, the critics cried – who cares about good behaviour when we can drive our girls to lean themselves inside-out?
"Editor Tells School Girls Politeness is More Important than Good Grades," read one headline. In fact, if you read the entirety of Reardon's speech (available on the Tatler website), you will see she devoted just as much airtime to hard work as she did to the importance of being punctual and tidy. Reardon herself passed up university for an entry-level position at American Vogue (something that could never happen today, but never mind) and worked her way up from there, so she knows from personal experience the value of attitude over A-pluses. The point is, hard as it may be for some parents to hear it, Reardon is absolutely right.
Institutional achievement and politeness should not be mutually exclusive, but both are essential for young people to find fulfilling work and relationships later in life. The problem is that many middle-class parents today – of both daughters and sons – are obsessed with the former and unconcerned about the latter. Most parents I know spend far more time ferrying their children to extracurriculars or supervising homework than they do encouraging them to engage in conversation with adults or insisting they pass around the canapés before taking one for themselves. There is a sense that these social skills will somehow take care of themselves so long as the child "does well" on paper.
This is a huge mistake – not just for ensuring your children's future achievement but also if you have any interest in making a contribution to society as a whole. Raising well-behaved children well should be a significant civic duty.
Manners, which an increasing number of parents dismiss as old-fashioned, actually matter more than ever before. As Reardon pointed out in her speech, this is not about "using the right spoon for soup or eating asparagus with your left hand" but the importance of "being polite and respectful and making the people you interact with feel valued."
Such deep internal values must be impressed upon children from the outside in. When it comes to character we must fake it in childhood to make it as adults. Am I implying that teaching a child to simply say, "Excuse me," before interrupting can lead to a successful career and a happy marriage later in life? Yes, absolutely.
In the digital era, when kids are communicating through a coded vortex of social media and smartphone screens rather than face to face, it's especially important for parents to invest time and energy to impart social rules for how to communicate properly with other humans in the flesh.
If you don't believe me, take it from Myrrha Brady, a recruitment consultant at the Four Corners Group in Toronto. After 14 years recruiting executives, Brady points out there's a reason employers are still doing in-person interviews. "If they didn't care about manners, we'd just send them the transcripts and they'd hire graduates that way," she says. "Of course qualifications are important, but how you present yourself and interact with others is equally important."
The biggest problem she says she has run into with ambitious, overachieving youngsters is "a sense of entitlement which can lead to overconfidence." By which she means, well-qualified job applicants who essentially act like jerks.
The thing about manners is that they are actually much more time-consuming to instill in your children than, say, teaching them to play the cello or speak fluent Mandarin. That's because most parents will naturally outsource the latter two skills (unless they happen to be Chinese cellists) whereas good manners require tireless, everyday, hands-on effort. Take "please" and "thank you" – by far the most superficial of all our accepted behavioural etiquette constructs. To teach a child to say these things consistently and without prompting, the average parent must correct that child several dozen times a day from the time they are initially verbal until about 5 or 6. On average, that's more than 100,000 verbal cues until a child actually gets it. Your pet goldfish learns tricks faster than that. And that's not even counting the thousands of mandatory apologies, forced thank-you-notes and supervised household chores. Raising a well-mannered kid is a slog, and no babysitter, tutor or fancy private school is going to do it for you. In the old days, friends and neighbours corrected other people's kids for being selfish or insolent (often with a highly effective though hypocritical smack upside the head!) but no more. When it comes to instilling basic values and good behaviour, parents have never been more on their own.
This is why I agree with Kate Reardon as both a feminist and a mother. If you want the world to be a better place because you brought one more person into it, spend less time Googling top tutors and more time teaching them to pass the butter. The results – though they won't go on the transcript – might actually surprise you.