To the Manners (Not) Born

It isn’t always wise to follow the time-honored axiom “Just Be Yourself.” The reason is simple: my family is from the U.S. Northeast, but now we live in England. If that doesn’t boil it down enough, imagine this: Tony Soprano of the Sopranos and Lady Mary of Downton Abbey seated next to each other at a dinner party. Random, inappropriate remarks received with bafflement and horror. Or maybe that’s a little extreme. Maybe it’s better to use a metaphor from the animal kingdom. We Americans are like the slobbering yellow labs of the human race – happy, goofy, let’s-be-friends-until-one-of-us-dies. The British are more like border collies: watchful, observant, skeptical. Loyalty must be earned.

Whatever the analogy, there are cultural differences between us, and these become more apparent with regard to parenting:

1. There’s the whole “manners” thing. Now, to be fair, when compared to other typical American kids, my own fall somewhere in the middle of what I like to call the Horrendousness Continuum. At one end of the scale you have, basically, a Robot: responds affirmatively to all commands, does their chores, maybe even waits on you. At the other end, you have Regan, the main character from The Exorcist. Projectile vomits, head spins around a full 360 degrees during a tantrum, says the “f” word at whim. My own two fall somewhere in the middle, and tend to scale from Robot to Regan depending on 1. The phase of the moon; 2. The promise of sweets or the uneven distribution thereof; and 3. Whether my children are dressed in wool.

Against the British offspring, though, it’s a thrashing, because the British are known for their impeccable manners and training in this department starts very young. British children are absolutely charming. If you overhear them talking to their friends, you actually hear phrases like “Wait just a moment” or “My mummy gave me these apples, would you like to share?” They actually listen to their parents’ commands. It’s astonishing. I think it comes from teaching them early: no drama.

2. Then there’s the appearance of the British kids. Their hair is shiny, their socks folded nicely over their crisp black school shoes, their clothes neatly pressed and tucked in where they should be. Their hair is thoroughly brushed and/or tightly and expertly braided (compulsory in the primary schools because of “nits,” the infestation of which seems to occur more often here, and is consequently viewed as a public nuisance rather than as a private shame). This stands in stark contrast to my American children, who are still getting adjusted to wearing “uniform” every day. My daughter’s french braids look like they were woven with an egg whisk, and my son is lucky if anyone has deigned to smooth down his cowlick with a palm of spit. To look at my kids sometimes, you’d think I have serious fundamental issues with the act of ironing, or using bleach. My six-year-old is still wearing his toddler socks (luckily he thinks they’re just ankle socks), and we recently discovered he’d accidentally mixed up his school shoes and had been wearing his classmate’s on his right foot. For four months.

3. And then there are The Mums. Look, I’m an American who lived in the suburbs. 75% of my life happened in my car, including the transportation of my children. There was no school run. There was just me, naked-faced in a big, closed car with a jacket over my pajama pants, and no one other than my kids was any the wiser.

But here, school drop-off is a very public thing. Everyone does the School Run, which is actually a walk, and the outer appearances of the mums suggest they expect to be judged by others. Hair is brushed; makeup is on; everyone sports the tailored casual look that would be labeled “weekend” in a J Crew catalogue. I, on the other hand, keep delaying the haircut and root touch-up I desperately need, so my own appearance sometimes suggests that of a she-wolf, pulled from her bed by the magnetism of the full moon, still garbed in her loungewear. There’s often a canis lupus attitude to match. My children’s memorization of their morning tasks continues to elude them even after years of routine, so almost every day, the whole neighborhood hears me howling at them to put on socks, brush teeth and root out their shoes before we all finally exit the house in a flurry of slammed doors, angry tears and heartfelt apologies. (Who does which is a changeable thing. We never learned the whole “no drama” thing.)

So no, just being OURSELVES won’t do at all. It will be challenging to determine our new personas. We’ve got about a snowball’s chance in hell of ever speaking with an English accent, at a volume less than that of a jumbo jet coming in for a landing at 500 feet. I’m not sure who or how we’ll be at the end of this experience, but in the meantime, I’ll keep cringing while I live out the scenario of Tony Soprano trying to woo Lady Mary, surrounded by Brits, wolves, and slobbering yellow labs.


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