Grandparents Think Kids Are Ruder These Days. Are They?

I’ve worked as a school librarian in New York City for over 15 years, and I love working with kids. I appreciate young people’s unvarnished communication style, even when their honesty can sting. Once, after returning from summer vacation, a student looked me up and down and said, “You look a lot older now.”

One of my former colleagues in education, who asked that I not use her name, shared her feeling of discouragement about young people’s manners. “My grandchildren are always on their iPads,” she said. “They just get ruder and ruder.”

This same colleague and I were having a meeting after school when a teenage boy burst into my room. “Yo, I lost my hat!” he said. “Is it here?”

“Excuse me, young man?” my colleague said. “Why are you speaking to an adult that way?”

“Dude, I’m sorry!” the boy replied as he slapped his forehead. “I know! I should have said, ‘Yo, Ms. Librarian, have you seen my hat?’”

This exchange made me laugh out loud, but my colleague was furious. Should I have been stricter with the student? And what am I teaching my own daughters about respecting adults?

Are kids ruder, or is something else going on?

Another grandparent, JoAnn Hawker, has a much more optimistic view of young people today, and not just because her granddaughter has “stellar” manners. As the founder and CEO of therapeutic gardening nonprofit Good Seed Growth, Hawker supports young people who struggle with social skills due to trauma. In the garden, children learn to respect adults over time. Children need to be nurtured just like her plants, which don’t grow overnight but take time and patience. When she and her students have their hands in the soil, they find a calm and focus that might otherwise be hard to access during our frantic lives.

When I asked Hawker if she agreed that kids are ruder, she acknowledged that some of them are. “Kids are ruder now, but it’s not their fault,” she said. Our society as a whole doesn’t teach formal table manners, and families’ stress levels are through the roof. Parents work longer hours and have less time to spend with kids, and perhaps less ability to model their interactions with others.

“Individuals need to take the time out to understand kids and be an example and be patient with them,” Hawker said. “And don’t take it personally” when children do not automatically demonstrate respect, she added. She knows that kids like their iPads, but she knows that they also love kneeling in the soil, planting beans, herbs, sunflowers and marigolds. If we want kids to thrive, we must offer opportunities to connect and converse.

JoAnn Hawker is pictured with her gardening students.

Courtesy of Jess deCourcy Hinds

JoAnn Hawker is pictured with her gardening students.

Sara Glass, a psychotherapist and author in Manhattan, said that when she embarks on a conversation with a young person, she doesn’t consider it rude when they don’t follow typical social cues. Instead, she considers the possibility of social anxiety, trauma, neurodiversity or even something as simple as embarrassment.

If she asks a client, “How are you?” and they seem to ignore her or look away, “it could be disassociation,” said Glass. “They might not be in their bodies to respond at the moment.”

Interrupting may also be interpreted as rude by adults, but this might be a sign of anxiety, excitement or even attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. In my own teaching, I gently point out to students that they are interrupting to get them back on track. Polite conversation and listening take practice.

How can we teach manners, anyway?

As a parent, I sometimes force my daughters to repeat a script of how I think a polite conversation should unfold. If my 5-year-old says, “Gimme that cookie!” I ask her to parrot phrases like “Excuse me, may I have a cookie, Mama?” She will repeat what I say, but five minutes later, she’s back to saying, “Gimme!” — especially when she’s hungry. Concepts don’t always sink in if kids don’t understand why “may I” is preferable to “gimme.”

Speech pathologist Tara Ferrara, a co-founder and co-director of Social City, offers social skills classes for children from age 2 through young adulthood that include role-play and supported conversation practice. She noted that Social City does not instruct manners in terms of what is “the norm” or “scripted.” Ferrara doesn’t believe that clients learn positive social practices through verbal explanations; they need hands-on practice.

Ferrara shared an example: “If a child is told to simply say ‘sorry’ after accidentally stepping on someone’s foot, they might not recognize the need to say ‘I’m sorry’ after bumping into someone. Additionally, expressing manners in the expected way … doesn’t necessarily mean that the child understands what they are saying or doing, and may present as insincere.”

For clients with anxiety, Social City instructors teach self-soothing — and, for some clients, they teach how to be open about anxiety or the reasons for a lack of eye contact. Once, I was tutoring a student in the library who didn’t respond to my questions and said to me, “I’m not making eye contact, but I’m still listening.” This insight helped me recognize that the young person was overstimulated.

When Glass notices a young person acting less than polite, she feels as if she gains access to their “most vulnerable self.” What looks like selfishness or disregard for others might be an expression of suffering or a sign that a child is struggling. Instead of chastising a child, you can say something like “Hey, are you OK? I noticed that when you came in you seemed upset.”

Glass believes that if we correct rudeness too quickly, we might not get access to the child’s “internal experience.” When the moment is right, an adult could gently say, “I would rather that you say ‘please.’” But this suggestion doesn’t have to be the first thing an adult says. What might seem like bad manners could also be “trying to communicate something,” Glass said.

Here’s how to respond if someone thinks your kid is rude.

If you’re in an awkward spot because someone thinks your kid is rude, here are some phrases to keep on hand:

  • “Alex really appreciates your visit. I’m sorry he’s not showing that right now. He has a lot on his mind.”
  • “Can you give Alex a minute or two to warm up? I don’t think he means to be rude, but he might just need a minute.”
  • “Let’s get Alex back on track and try this conversation again.”
  • “What if we all went outside and took a little walk together?”
  • “Do you remember being in sixth grade? There are lots of stressors and anxieties at that age.”
  • “He may be a little overwhelmed. What if you asked him to talk about something other than school?”
  • “I’d like to see him speak more politely too! Let’s talk about that with him after we do an activity together.”

Hawker suggested reminding people not to “underestimate” young people. They are wiser and more sensitive than they might seem.

“When a child can express themselves honestly and openly, we can have a conversation about their thoughts and feelings, and get a better sense of their intentions and needs,” Ferrara added.

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