Tuesday, February 17, 2009

yes, ma'am

I live in The South. When I first started working down here, at an elementary school, I was amazed at the good manners I encountered. A group of children would stop in their tracks to let me pass. Children always let grown-ups go first. All adults went by a title with their name. Kids answered every teacher, "yes, ma'am."

I got used to the manners and stopped appreciating them. I didn't see any reason to refer to adults as Mrs. Lastname or expect to have my kids say "yes, ma'am" to me. But I'm coming to regret that decision.

When Pook was little, all the moms and teachers went by Miss Firstname and when I mentioned them to CD or to him, I usually skipped the Miss portion. He then became familiar with the first names of all the neighborhood moms. Suddenly, at age three, all the rules changed and teachers became Mrs. Lastname. Neighbors referred to me as Mrs. My-mother-in-law! And, all the kids started yes ma'aming. Not being used to it myself, I continued as I had and taught Bug the same as I'd taught Pook. Usually I remember to add "Miss" to the first name, but not always. Most of the time I'm lucky to remember someone's first name and having to remember both that and their last name is a serious challenge I'm unlikely to achieve.

Now my kids look rude. I know they're good kids, but they're good Yankee kids without being Yankees. Just Sons of Yankees. At our weekend camping, I listened to my friends' children responding to their parents "yes, sir", "yes, ma'am". Mine answered "uh huh" or "yeah" if anything. I think I need to introduce better Southern manners before it gets too late.

At the dinner table tonight, Bug kept sliding down in his chair and putting his knees against the table. Again and again I'd ask him to sit up. "Nuh uh" or "But mama" or "I don'wanna" were my answers. I hardly want robots, but a "yes, ma'am" would go far.


  1. I love, love, love this post.

    When we moved from Georgia to NC, I guess I packed my southern manners and brought them with me. In fact, at one point, our neighbor's son informed me that his mom didn't want him repeating the word, "Ma'am"! His mom is from the Midwest and "ma'am" is a southern expression that they don't like to use in their home. Oh my, were we guilty of instilling bad habits in their son? The child is highly gifted and he's been taught to question and challenge authority. He once told me that he used a much higher percentage of his brain than I used of mine. Using as much brain power as I could muster and my best southern manners, I talked with him about the importance of being polite and how one never has to utter the word "Ma'am" when it comes to good social skills. I explained to him why he should be a gracious guest in another person's home...simply put, respect your host if you want to be invited back. The core of our discussion was this - you are the child and I am the adult (even if I happen to be intellectually handicapped).

    This story has a happy ending. The child (excuse me, teenager) still frequents our home and he has come a long way in the etiquette department. I like to think that our family has had some small part in that. He and our son are the same age and playmates (excuse me, teen friends) are hard to come by in our rural community. I honestly can't tell you the exact words or responses he uses when he talks with me and my husband these days. I just know he expresses himself with genuine respect and courtesy for others - that is what really matters - especially when they become teenagers!

    Please pardon the essay.

  2. A new family has moved into AJ's school. They are from somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line, a fact I know because he is the only kid in the entire school who, when I ask him if he's ready to check out his library books, says "Yes, ma'am." Up here, though, the ma'am doesn't exactly read as manners. Some people get offended by it, thinking it is an assumption of elderliness. Mostly, though, it just comes off as antiquated. Still, I like it. This boy is, in fact, unflaggingly polite, especially for a 3rd grader.