Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Youthful poise

I went out on assignment from our local newspaper yesterday to interview a family with three children about a volunteer project that the kids and their mom had undertaken last summer. The volunteer work they did was impressive, but what was more impressive to me was the poise and manners the kids exhibited throughout my visit. When I arrived, the 14-year-old son was carrying garbage bins down to the curb. We met up in the driveway; he greeted me and led the way into the house, where both his sisters – one 11 and one 15 – greeted me politely as well. “How are you?” asked the 15-year-old. I’m not sure I’ve ever been asked that by a 15-year-old before.

These kids weren’t automatons; their manners and attitude were sincere. They simply didn’t seem to have a capacity for being impolite or even bashful. It wasn’t that I was a reporter or an acquaintance of their mom; it was, I truly believe, merely the fact that I was an adult who had shown up by invitation at their house that caused them to behave so pleasantly toward me.

My two children have fine manners; they know their pleases and thankyous. Any parent who puts in the time and effort can train a child to do that. The poise part of it is harder to come by, though. It’s a distinction I hadn’t given much thought to until my sister used the term last spring when talking about her 7-year-old daughter’s teachers. “We’re very happy that she was placed with a teacher who emphasizes poise along with manners,” my sister said. “When the kids arrive in the classroom Monday morning, this teacher asks them individually how their weekend was and expects an answer. Furthermore, she encourages the kids to engage in the conversation and ask her about her weekend.”

That part, I agree, is tough with some kids, who feel awkward talking with adults and, although not rude, have trouble with one-on-one discourse.

Not the kids I met yesterday, though, and it reminded me of the value of continuing to work on this with my own children. Some of it is disposition, of course. People of all ages vary in their ability to make small talk comfortably with strangers. As a journalist, I’m experienced in putting people at ease while I ask them questions, but that doesn’t mean I’m particularly good at conversation when I’m not on the job. My children tend to be sweet and charming, but also sometimes bashful. That’s not a bad thing, but finding the inner grace to overcome shyness tendencies is an admirable accomplishment for people who manage to do it.

The encounter with these very poised young people also reminded me that it’s always useful to look for good examples and role models. Later, I wrote to their mother that she’d have to share her secret with me, and maybe she can, but most likely this is a combination of how they were raised and their innate personality traits. Observing it was a pleasure for me, but it also reinforced me that this is an important thing to work on in my own household. Rather than just envy these children’s level of comfort with adults, I can try to find a way to instill that same comfort level in my children. After all, some journalist might show up to interview them some day, and I’d like to think they’d greet her just as warmly and speak just as openly as the subjects of my interview yesterday did.

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