Teaching Girls to be Ladies By Dr. James Dobson
Having explored a few of the neurological and physiological intricacies of the human female brain, let’s take the next logical step and consider how girls should be raised. That will take us from nature, where we began, to nurture, which is another infinitely complex subject. To address it, I want to step back a couple of hundred years and get a running start at the principles that matter most. The ideas and perspectives I will share were true two centuries ago, and they are precisely on target today.
We’ll begin by revisiting the beliefs and writings of the second president of the United States, John Adams. He was a prolific reader, statesman, and author, and he made an incalculable contribution to our country. He was not a perfect man, but he lived by a standard of righteousness throughout his adult life. In his autobiography, Adams wrote a commentary on the subject of moral behavior, which he called “manners.” Though the language is formal and dated, I urge you to read these words carefully and thoughtfully. They carry great meaning for us today.
From all that I had read of History of Government, of human life, and manners, I [have] drawn this conclusion, that the manners of women [are] the most infallible Barometer, to ascertain the degree of Morality and Virtue in a Nation. All that I have since read and all the observation I have made in different Nations, have confirmed me in this opinion. The Manners of Women, are the surest Criterion by which to determine whether a Republican Government is practicable, in a Nation or not. The Jews, the Greeks, the Romans, the Swiss, the Dutch, all lost their public Spirit, their Republican principles and habits, and their Republican Forms of Government when they lost the Modesty and Domestic Virtues of their women. . . .
The foundations of national Morality must be laid in private Families. In vain are Schools, Academies and universities instituted if loose Principles and licentious habits are impressed upon Children in their earliest years. The Mothers are the earliest and most important Instructors of youth.
How insightful it is that Adams placed the responsibility for the essential moral character of the nation squarely on the shoulders of mothers. Fathers play a key role too, of course, but moms are absolutely indispensable. It is their primary task to transmit enduring principles of right and wrong to the next generation. The old proverb “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world” is still true. If women grow weary of that responsibility, or if they lose sight of their own moral compass, no other institution or governmental agency will be able to save the nation. So wrote President John Adams.
On another occasion he elaborated on the link between national character and the preservation of a democracy. He wrote:
We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
To paraphrase, Adams was saying that a representative form of government such as ours cannot survive without a spiritual foundation, because its citizens are masters of their own destinies. That is the great vulnerability of a democracy. Our political system, which Abraham Lincoln said is intended to be “of the people, by the people, for the people,” can be no more stable than the collective character of its citizenry. It’s all up to us. There is no king, dictator, or tyrant to restrain our behavior. If we choose evil, there will be no stopping us. In short, our national sovereignty depends on the transmission of the nation’s morals and manners to children, and that task should begin in the nursery.
But what form does this early training take in today’s world? It begins with basic civility, because manners and morals are directly connected. As Horace Mann said, “Manners easily and rapidly mature into morals.” The first tends to lead to the second. In centuries past, cultured and religious families understood this relationship. They were aware that girls and boys, and all of humanity, are flawed and inherently sinful. Thus, Old English and Early American societies worked diligently at teaching what were called the “social graces.” Teaching manners was their highest priority because of the connection to Christian piety.
Alas, American and British cultures in the twenty-first century have swung to the other end of the continuum. Young girls are often allowed, and even encouraged, to be brash, rude, crude, profane, immodest, immoral, loud, and aggressive. Some of this behavior has been consciously taught in recent years under the rubric of “assertiveness training.” To the extent that such programs were designed to instill confidence in bashful, frightened young women, I supported them. But some girls have been taught the worst characteristics of “uncivil” males. I know my words must sound horribly old-fashioned and archaic at this point, but there is something important here for us to consider.
Obviously, human nature has not improved much in the past several hundred years, nor will it ever. What has changed, as I have described, is that many parents have become far too distracted, overworked, and stressed out to care much about teaching morals and manners to children. Jolene Savage, who runs the Social Graces School of Etiquette in Topeka, Kansas, says society has reached an all-time low when it comes to matters of civility. Exhausted moms and dads seem not to have noticed what has happened to their children. Clearly, instruction in civility is needed now more than ever. Getting that done, however, can be a challenge. As the late dancer Fred Astaire said, “The hardest job kids face today is learning good manners without seeing any.” If that is unfair in your case, please forgive him—and me.
Once again, speaking directly to mothers, it is your job to acculturate your daughters and to help them become ladies. Does that sound chauvinistic in our high-tech world? I suppose it does, but even so, it makes sense. As Lisa Fischer, an instructor at the Final Touch Finishing School in Seattle, Washington, says, “Etiquette has to do with knowing the rules.” Therefore, girls should be taught how to eat, talk, walk, dress, converse on the telephone, and respond to adults with respect and poise. Parents should demonstrate good posture and table manners for them, such as putting a napkin in the lap, showing them where to place silverware, and not talking with food in their mouths. They should also explain that burping, gobbling food, and picking teeth are rude.
I also firmly believe that you should require your kids to say thank you and please, to demonstrate that ours is not a “gimme-gimme world.” Appreciation is an attitude best cultivated at home. Teach techniques of personal grooming, hygiene, and nutrition. Role-play with them about being gracious hosts and how to formally introduce parents or friends to each other. Require them to excuse themselves when leaving the table, and explain how to make friends, how to take turns talking in a group, and how to make eye contact. You might even help them learn how to cook and care for children. Wouldn’t that be something novel?
Although I am not an expert in teaching girls some of the social graces I have named (I learned a masculine version of the rules), I know them when I see them. Let me offer a technique that I came across several years ago. It is designed to teach both boys and girls the art of conversation. I have shared it before, but I include it here for the benefit of those who haven’t been paying attention.
It begins by facing your daughter about six feet away and telling her that you are going to play a game together. Then call attention to the tennis ball you are holding, which you proceed to bounce in her direction. After she catches the ball, stand there looking at each other for a moment before saying, “It isn’t much fun if you hold the ball, is it? Why don’t you throw it back?” Your daughter will probably return the ball rather quickly. Stand motionless for few seconds, and then say, “Okay, I’m sending it back to you now.” The child will be curious about what is going on. Then sit down together and describe the meaning of the game. Tell her that talking together is a game called conversation, and it only works if the “ball” is thrown back. If a person bounces a question to you and you hold it, the game ends. Neither you nor your partner has any fun. But if you throw it back, you are playing the game properly.
Follow up by saying, “Suppose I ask, ‘Did you like the book you have been reading?’ I have thrown the ball to you. If you simply reply, ‘Yes,’ you have caught and held the ball. But if you say, ‘The book was very interesting. I like reading about animals,’ you have thrown the ball back.”
Then tell the child, “I can keep our conversation going by asking, ‘What kind of animals interest you most?’ If you say, ‘Dogs,’ you have held the ball again. But if you tell me, ‘I like dogs because they are warm and cuddly,’ the ball has been bounced back to me. The idea is to keep the game going until the two of us are finished talking.”
Kids usually catch on to this game quickly. Afterward, you can build on the concept by commenting on interchanges that occur with friends and adults. For example, you might ask your daughter, “Did you hear Mrs. Smith ask you this afternoon what kind of food you liked? She was starting a conversation with you, but you just said, ‘Hamburgers.’ Do you think you threw the ball back to her?”
The child may acknowledge that she held it. Then the two of you can discuss what could have been done differently. Suggest, perhaps, that the question could have been tossed back by saying, “I like the hamburgers my mother makes.”
Mrs. Smith might then have asked, “What makes them so good?”
“That,” you tell the youngster, “is another example of a conversation. Let’s practice ‘throwing the ball’ to each other. Now, start one with me.”
While manners tend to facilitate morals, there is another good reason to teach them. They also help develop confidence and poise. A girl who has been trained properly is never completely knocked off balance when she is in an unfamiliar circumstance. She knows what is expected of her and how to deal with it. Her sense of self-worth is reinforced by the way adults react to her charm, poise, and grace. For the mother who wants to give her daughter a head start in life and help her compete socially, this is a great place to begin.
These diverse skills used to be taught to girls in mandatory home-making classes. Alas, most of these programs were canceled after the revolution of the sixties, and America became the worse for it. Road rage, loud cell phone conversations in restaurants, cutting in line, throwing litter from car windows, and general nastiness are now everyday occurrences.
Monica Brandner teaches at an etiquette business for children and youth called Final Touch Finishing School. She says that manners are primarily about how we treat others and ourselves. Sheryl Eberly, who wrote 365 Manners Kids Should Know, agrees. She says living by the Golden Rule releases the power of a thankful heart to those trained to practice it. She also reminds us—and this is a great point—that when we teach social graces to our children, we are training the next generation in self-government and self-control. John Adams must be smiling from the other side.
In short, teaching manners to girls is about helping them to become young ladies in a not-very-civil world. I assure you that MTV and an increasingly crude culture will do everything possible to carry our daughters (and our sons) downstream toward that which is boorish and uncouth. You can help them paddle upstream.
One technique that my wife used to teach social graces to our daughter was to play feminine games together. For example, they held elaborate tea parties when Danae was four or five years of age. The child loved them!
Their make-believe names were Mrs. Perry (Danae), Mrs. Snail (her mom), and a little boy named Mr. Green who was drafted into service. Other available kids and their moms from the neighborhood were invited on occasion. This fun activity allowed my wife to explain how silverware was supposed to be arranged, how to eat soup without slurping, how to hold and drink from a teacup, how to use a napkin, how to chew with mouths closed, how to hold a conversation, why they should wait to eat until everyone at the table was served, etc. It was amazing how effective these tea parties were in teaching common politeness. I was never invited to join them and definitely felt left out!
But what about moms who haven’t been trained in social etiquette themselves? They can hardly pass on what they haven’t learned. And what can we suggest for those who are simply too busy to tackle the job? That is where professional etiquette training comes in. Classes are popping up in cities across the country to meet this precise need.
Though these training programs can be expensive, they are worth the cost for parents who can afford them. For those who don’t have the resources, some churches and women’s clubs are providing assistance. Furthermore, we should never forget what some grandmothers have to offer in teaching these concepts. They are likely to remember a more genteel era, and their granddaughters will enjoy the attention that comes with the training.
Another source of assistance for moms and dads is the array of materials and manuals now available. I’ve mentioned several of them, which appear in the addendum of this book. Another helpful publication is a four-hundred-page book entitled Everyday Graces: A Child’s Book of Good Manners, written by Karen Santorum. She is the wife of the former senator from Pennsylvania Rick Santorum and one of the most impressive women I have met. Karen has a law degree from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and a bachelor of science degree in nursing from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Obviously, she could have had a successful career in either medicine or law, but after thoughtful prayer, she and her husband had a different plan. (By the way, it occurs to me that Karen Santorum would make a wonderful first lady for our country.)
Karen is the mother of eight children, one of whom is in heaven, and she homeschools the others. Her youngest was born in 2007, a precious baby girl with a chromosomal anomaly similar to Down syndrome. She is named Isabella, and they call her Bella. Senator and Mrs. Santorum were aware during her pregnancy that their baby might have this condition. They and their physicians were right. Bella will be mentally disabled for what is likely to be a short life. Sadly, over 90 percent of parents today abort babies who have this genetic condition. For the Santorums, however, abortion was never an option. They chose not to even request amniocentesis to confirm the diagnosis. The senator told me, “It wouldn’t have made any difference, so why do it?” Bella was welcomed into their home with open arms from a very loving family. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin made the same choice regarding her baby Trig.
I interviewed Karen and Rick Santorum for our Focus on the Family radio broadcast before Bella was born. Let me share some excerpts from that conversation, edited for clarity:
JCD: You have chosen to be a full-time mother instead of pursuing a career as an attorney or a nurse. Why?
Karen: Oh, I just feel like my role as wife and mother is the most important thing I will ever do. I love raising my children, and I feel very blessed to be able to be at home with them. It’s really wonderful.
JCD: Have you ever asked yourself whether you made the right decision to stay at home?
Karen: Yes, when Rick is leaving in a tuxedo for a banquet and I’m on the floor cleaning up milk, I ask myself, What’s wrong with this picture? [laughter] But then I fast-forward to the end of my life and am standing before God. He will hold me accountable for loving Him, loving my husband, and loving my children.
JCD: Well, you have now written a book that reflects what you are doing at home. It’s called Everyday Graces. It is different from other books on manners because it focuses primarily on classic literature. Explain that approach.
Karen: Rick and I believe that children learn best through role modeling and by hearing stories. That’s why we have read thousands of stories to our kids. Good things happen when a child is sitting on your lap. It lends itself to emotional and physical bonding. He or she identifies with the characters in the stories too, and that allows you to explain the moral lesson being taught.
JCD: Most parents don’t have time to read to their children, do they? But I remember fondly the stories my mother read to me when I was a kid. They have stayed with me throughout my adult life.
Karen: Oh, they are remembered. We all need to slow down a bit, turn off the TV and radio, except for your program [laughter], and read to our children.
JCD: Shirley used to take our son, Ryan, to the library, where they would check out an entire stack of books, maybe eight or ten of them. Ryan would have them all read by the next day. Shirley wanted him to get out and play too, so she had to ration the number of books he would bring home. That is a pleasant problem to have.
Karen: Children love good stories such as Anne of Green Gables. I’ve included it and the entire Tolkien series in my book, as well as C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series. Now we’re reading Brian Jacques’s Redwall. One of our favorite things is to light a fire and then pray and read together.
Sen. Santorum: Karen becomes the storyteller during those family times, interpreting the readings for our children.
JCD: Explain how you teach good manners through stories.
Karen: We do it through such books as Aesop’s Fables and similar literature.
JCD: Why don’t you give us a taste of something you have read to your kids.
Karen: Okay. Here’s a sweet poem called “Mr. Nobody,” by an unknown author. Children, of course, never want to admit doing anything wrong, so they say, “I didn’t do it.” Here’s a poem about that situation:
I know a funny little man, As quiet as a mouse, Who does the mischief that is done In everybody’s house! There’s no one ever sees his face, And yet we all agree That every plate we break was cracked By Mr. Nobody. ’Tis he who always tears our books, Who leaves the door ajar, He pulls the buttons from our shirts, And scatters pins afar; That squeaking door will always squeak For, prithee, don’t you see, We leave the oiling to be done By Mr. Nobody.
He puts damp wood upon the fire, That kettles cannot boil; His are the feet that bring in mud, And all the carpets soil. The papers always are mislaid, Who had them last but he?
There’s no one tosses them about But Mr. Nobody. The finger marks upon the door By none of us are made; We never leave the blinds unclosed, To let the curtains fade. The ink we never spill, the boots That lying ’round you see Are not our boots; they all belong To Mr. Nobody.
JCD: And the kids obviously loved it, I’m sure. I notice that you have written a little commentary after each story or poem.
Karen: I have. Would you like me to share an example?
JCD: Please do.
Karen [reading]: Just as your parents do so much for you every day, you can respond by doing loving things for your parents. One of the best ways to express your love for them is through your actions. Even the smallest thoughtful act, like picking flowers for your mother, will demonstrate your love. Remember that Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Good manners are made up of small sacrifices.”
JCD: Karen, didn’t you say that before you wrote Everyday Graces, you had been looking in bookstores and libraries for good stories and literature, but there were few options? That’s why you decided to write your own book.
Karen: That’s right. I began writing for my own children. I thought it would be so much fun to have a publication in the tradition of Bill Bennett’s The Book of Virtues. Instead of giving the kids a list of rules and dos and don’ts, I wanted to teach them through stories. It is so very important for parents to introduce values to their children, and I know of no better way of doing it.
Sen. Santorum: America today is a me-centered culture. It is about doing whatever a person wants to do, regardless of how it affects other people. Manners convey just the opposite. They show respect for others, especially looking out for their interests, whether it’s opening the door or waiting in line or just saying a kind word. These social graces reflect an entirely different worldview. But unless parents are consciously working to instill those values and behaviors in their children, the culture will stamp its own perspectives on them. What Karen has done here is to give parents a tool to help them use storytelling to accomplish that purpose.
JCD: Thank you, Karen, for writing this book, Everyday Graces. And thank you, Senator, for being my guest. I appreciate the way you both are modeling good family life and parenting techniques for all of us, and for the way you have chosen to live your lives.
The Santorums make a convincing case for teaching manners and morals to children, and I concur with them wholeheartedly. At the same time, I can hear some of my readers objecting vigorously to the goal of teaching girls to become young ladies since that is hardly the direction the popular culture has taken us in recent decades.
Some would question whether it is even desirable for a girl to be feminine in a traditional sense, fearing that it will signal a return to the oppression of a patriarchal era when women had to hide their intelligence and conceal their accomplishments. Hear me out, moms. Not for a moment would I try to take away the hard-won achievements of respect and emancipation enjoyed by today’s women. Those cultural advances are here to stay, and may they long endure.
On the contrary, I would point out that femaleness and weakness are not synonymous. Femininity and strength of character are often very close neighbors. I come from a family of strong women who knew who they were and where God was leading them. They took a backseat to no one. My grandmother copastored a thriving church with my grandfather. She could preach up a storm. I can’t imagine anyone telling her to sit down, fold her arms, and keep her mouth shut. One of her daughters became my mother, who was also a very confident and accomplished lady. Yet my mother and her sisters were undeniably feminine.
My mom and dad loved each other deeply and had a very healthy relationship based on their identities as a woman and a man. He was very respectful, protective, and supportive of her. I never saw him treat her rudely or harshly. After I was grown, I remember getting upset at my mom for something she said that irritated me. I made the mistake of telling my dad about it. I’ll never forget him turning his steely blue eyes on me and saying angrily, “Listen, Bud, your mother is the best friend you have, and I won’t stand for you saying anything disrespectful about her.” It was the end of our conversation. When Dad called me Bud, I knew it was time to back off.
On the other side of the ledger, my mom honored my dad, not just as her husband, but also as a man. She would not have thought of failing to have a meal waiting for him when he came home. Being from the South, she was not offended when he called from his big chair where he was reading a book. He would say, “Hey, Myrt, bring me a cup of coffee, please.” He was her man, and she took care of him. It was a relationship based on mutual respect, and it was highly successful. They both understood manners and morals, and their relationship to spirituality, masculinity, and femininity. My parents modeled them consistently throughout my childhood.
I displayed that training on my first date with a cute coed named Shirley. I took her to a classy restaurant in Hollywood, California, where I told the host where we wanted to sit. Then I helped Shirley with her chair. I asked what she wanted to eat and conveyed her order to the waiter. We engaged each other in conversation for more than an hour, mostly about Shirley. Then I paid the check and took her to my car. I walked on the outside of the sidewalk nearest the street, which was (and still should be) symbolic of a guy’s responsibility to protect the woman in his care. I opened the car door for her, and we drove back to our college. I parked, came around to her side of the car, opened the door, and walked Shirley to the front door of her dorm. She thanked me with a smile, and we said good night. I didn’t try to kiss her, since that would have put her in a compromising position on a first date—as though she owed me something as a “payback.”
I must have done something right on that enchanted evening, because we have now been married for forty-nine years. I think it’s going to work. I still try to show her the same courtesies and respect that helped me win her heart in the first place. And she knows all the ways to please me.
By the way, two weeks ago, my wife and I were back in Southern California, and our daughter asked me to take her and her mom to that restaurant where it all began. I was delighted to do that. I pointed out the very table where we sat fifty-two years ago and talked about what we said and did on that significant night where love began.
So much has changed in the culture since then. I will tell you that I am disgusted by the way young men treat their girlfriends today. Some guys will honk from the street, waiting for a girl to come out. They stay behind the steering wheel while she opens her own door, and then they take her to a McDonald’s or a Taco Bell. Often, the guy will even expect his date to pay for her food! Do you know why this happens? Because girls tolerate it. I would advise a young lady who is expected to pay for her meal to do so only once. She should then ask to be taken straight home and never agree to see the dude again. Any man who is that disrespectful doesn’t deserve a second chance.
Women hold the keys to masculine behavior. Guys are inclined to take what they can get and be no more accommodating than they have to be. To some degree, the lack of culture and refinement we see in many of today’s men is the fault of women who ask for, and get, little or nothing. If a girl sees herself as a lady, she will expect her escort to behave like a gentleman. He will respect her if she respects herself. If she wants him to be spiritually sensitive, she should go out with him only if he accompanies her to church. If she objects to his use of profanity, she should simply not accept it. If she wants him to think of her often and call her on the phone, she should wait for him to get the idea himself. Female aggressiveness is a turnoff to most men. I don’t care if the rules have changed; it is still a bad idea for a girl to pursue a guy breathlessly. She should let him be the initiator. That is the way he is made.
Parents, teach these concepts to your girls! If your daughter wants her boyfriend to take her to nice places, she should expect him to make the plans for an evening together and to ask her out at least a week ahead of time. If he shows up unannounced on Friday night and says, “Wanna hang out?” she should tell him she has other things to do. If she wants him to be a gentleman, she should require him to act like one, and she should always remember that she is a lady.
If a woman wants a man to marry her, she must not make herself available sexually. That wrecks a relationship. Besides, it is morally wrong. Under no circumstances should she live with a guy before marriage. She will probably wind up getting hurt and living to regret it. He will get what he wants, and she will get nothing. The number one reason men give for marrying late or not at all is because they can get everything they want— including love and sex—without commitment. A moral, self-respecting woman simply will not play that game.
If it becomes obvious that a guy is not going to commit, she should send him packing. Period! Don’t argue with a jerk about it. Just cut him loose. Don’t blame a guy if he is unmannerly and exploitative. Show him what you expect, and if he balks, move on—quickly. If he is a big drinker or uses illegal drugs, run from him. He is trouble on the hoof. Don’t give him a beachhead in your heart. There is someone better out there for you if you set your standards high.
It comes down to this: the relationship between a man and a woman throughout their lives together, if indeed they do marry, will reflect the ground rules set by the woman when they are courting. She can change him then, but probably not after. She should not settle for anything less than what she needs emotionally. High on her list of priorities should be a mutual understanding about manners and morals. It is the way men and women have related to each other for thousands of years, and it still provides the basis for healthy families that are equipped to go the distance.
However, teaching girls to be ladies is not enough. We must also give them a strong biblical foundation from which morals and virtues can evolve. Our hope is that our daughters will someday pass along those verities to the next generation. No other priority comes close to this one in significance.
For now, it seems appropriate to return to the words of President John Adams, who gave this solemn charge to the nation’s women. You’ll recall that he said:
The foundations of national Morality must be laid in private Families. In vain are Schools, Academies and universities instituted if loose Principles and licentious habits are impressed upon Children in their earliest years. The Mothers are the earliest and most important Instructors of youth.
It was true in 1778, and it is still true today.
From Bringing Up Girls by Dr. James C. Dobson
Copyright © 2010. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.