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The American moms: A back-to-school manners makeover, courtesy of George Washington


Andrea Candrian Reeve and Brittany Candrian Richman are twin sisters, moms, and former White House and Capitol Hill staffers. They are the authors behind The American Moms blog. This post originally appeared on their blog but has been republished with permission.

Backpack … check!

Sharpened pencils … check!

New shoes … check!

Manners … ch …

Wait … what?!

We often go above and beyond equipping our kids with all the material goods for a new school year. But what about in the manners department? Are our kids well-equipped with those?

We don’t need to start listing the behavior and social graces seemingly absent in kids these days. You could probably string off a long list yourself.

What, though, would teachers think if you sent your kids back to school with a whole new level of refinement?

Our nation’s first president, George Washington, learned a long list of rules of civility (110 to be precise) when he was a youngster. He made it a point to incorporate them into every aspect of his life.

Consequently, he had a stalwart reputation of being a complete gentleman. He didn’t talk back to authority. He warmly welcomed the “new kid” to the room and he even crossed his legs just right when he sat down.

These days, in an era of instant-everything, it seems manners often go by the wayside. But what if our kids tried out some of the manners Washington lived by?

All 110 of those rules are in a book called "George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation." They’re written in old English, and not all are applicable to modern times. But many — like covering your mouth when you sneeze or yawn and not picking your nose — are timeless.

They’re simple social graces that might help our kids outshine their peers in the classroom this fall, all thanks to George Washington.

Here are our top dozen favorites, with a modern-day translation, to help get the refinement process started.

(Note: all rules are listed with their original punctuation.)

1) Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.

Treat everyone around you with respect. Seems simple enough, right? That means speaking kindly, being polite, courteous and inclusive to those around you on the playground or in the classroom. Washington set an example with his respectful behavior, maybe we can too.

2) In the Presence of Others Sing not to yourself with a humming Noise, nor Drum with your Fingers or Feet.

All right, so we already know some people (adults and kids) like to sing whatever song comes to their mind at any moment. Turns out it’s bad form. And if you love to beat box or whistle while you work, there’s a time and place for it.

When my husband and I lived in Boston, we taught a youth Sunday School class every week. There was a particular teenager in the class who would break into song (in the middle of our lessons) whenever a word we used would jog her memory of certain tunes. After it happened week after week, minute after minute, it got really old and was completely disruptive. And according to Washington’s rules of civility, it was a clear violation.

3) Sleep not when others Speak, Sit not when others stand, Speak not when you Should hold your Peace, walk not on when others Stop.

If you have to wear a rubber band to flick yourself whenever you feel your head start to bob, go right ahead. Whatever it takes. Just don’t fall asleep when someone else is talking to you, or lecturing you, or teaching you. It’s just plain rude. I can’t tell you how many times I saw classmates sleeping in my college classes. I’m sure those professors were completely irked.

Furthermore, if someone else is talking, wait until they’re done before you speak. Don’t try talking over them.

Another component of this rule often overlooked in today’s society is when others are standing, you should be standing too. Don’t sit. If it doesn’t feel awkward to you talking to someone who is standing while you are sitting, it should.

4) Read no Letters, Books, or Papers in Company but when there is a Necessity for the doing of it you must ask leave: come not near the Books or Writings of Another so as to read them unless desired or give your opinion of them unasked also look not nigh when another is writing a Letter.

I’m sure Washington had no idea how much this rule would apply to modern days. If you put a modern twist on this one, cellphones replace letters/books/papers. When you’re with people on a one on one outing or even in a small group and your phone keeps lighting up with text messages, just ignore them. You have real-life people in front of you who are asking for just a few minutes of your undivided attention. Make eye contact. Engage in conversation. Those messages, or whatever your friends just posted on Facebook, are probably not urgent anyway. Pay attention to those in front of you.

If your phone rings and you really must answer it, ask to be excused for a moment while you do so. Additionally, don’t try to read the incoming texts of other people or what your buddy is texting to another friend over their shoulders. They’re really none of your business.

Many schools these days have rules in place about not allowing cellphones in classrooms. Is yours one of them? Can you imagine the poor teachers who were trying to teach before “no cellphone” rules were implemented?

5) Do not laugh too loud or too much at any Public Spectacle.

So many spectacles can happen in the classroom. We all have stories. Someone trips, slips, has something unknowingly stuck in their teeth, or someone makes a loud bodily function … there are so many reasons for loud, unexpected laughter. Just put yourself in their shoes and try to refrain.

6) Strive not with your Superiors in argument, but always Submit your Judgment to others with Modesty.

Don’t argue with your superiors (your teacher, parents, friends’ parents, grandparents, baby sitters, neighbors, etc.). It’s not respectful. Furthermore, it’s downright rude. If you have a suggestion, comment or otherwise, relay it to those in authority with some thoughtfulness in a more private setting.

7) Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation; for ‘is better to be alone than in bad Company.

We tell our kids this all the time … choose your friends wisely. It’s so important to hang around good-quality people. It’s better to be alone than to hang with the wrong crowd — even at school. Especially at school. If you don’t want a bad reputation, make sure the people you hang out with have good reputations.

8) Be not apt to relate News if you know not the truth thereof. In Discoursing of things you Have heard Name not your Author always A Secret Discover not.

We call this gossip these days, right? Half truths, half lies — whatever the case may be, don’t start gabbing about something or someone if you don’t have all the facts. Even if you do have all the facts, talking about others behind their backs is still unkind. And in the end, the messages you spread might come back to bite you.

9) Speak not Evil of the absent for it is unjust.

Don’t talk bad about people behind their backs. Or in front of them … or really anywhere. I mean we all know this one, right? But a reminder is always nice.

10) Put not another bite into your mouth till the former be swallowed. Let not your morsels be too big for the jowls/Drink not nor talk with your mouth full; neither gaze about you while you are drinking.

I wonder how many teachers (or other kids for that matter) get disgusted in the cafeteria? Certainly the rule of taking small bites and not talking with a full mouth can be appreciated, even at a young age. No one wants to see your food while you talk.

11) Be not angry at the table whatever happens & if you have reason to be so, show it not; put on a cheerful countenance especially if there be strangers, for good humor makes one dish of meat a feast.

These days we are taught to be in touch with our emotions. But all too often people wear their emotions on their sleeves when the time and/or place is clearly inappropriate. We could say school or the workplace might be a few of those inappropriate locations (unless of course something needs to clearly be resolved right then and there). Look, we are all human, we are going to get mad and have our feelings hurt. But it doesn’t mean we need to show it all the time, everywhere, always.

I remember in my high school biology class, I sat next to a guy who was upset about something different every day. Every day. And he let everyone know it. He was always in a bad mood with a scowl on his face. Boy, I hated going to that class. Those kind of moods affect everyone around you, so put on a happy face until the time is right to vent.

This could even be applicable online. We all have varying opinions. When we disagree with someone or get upset by something someone says, we don’t need to distastefully declare it online just because we can. If you wouldn’t say something to someone’s face in real life, don’t say it over the internet either.

12) Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.

Remember where you came from, those values you’ve been taught, and the morals instilled in you. Live by them. Don’t become jaded, cynical or forget your roots if things don’t seem to go your way, or if friends try to pressure you into something you know is wrong. Let that “celestial fire” (the good God above) guide you and let your conscience be your guide.

So there you have it: George Washington’s rules of civility for a modern era. There are little golden nuggets of wisdom within these rules that are good reminders for all of us. Your children’s teachers will thank you. After all, it’s the little things that make the biggest impressions.

Your kids might even think it’s fun to hear how George Washington lived his life and find ways to incorporate his rules into their own lives. Who knows, perhaps one day they too will be known for their gentlemanly, or ladylike, behavior.

Andrea Candrian Reeve is a former news reporter and served as press secretary in the United States Senate to Senator Bob Bennett and Sen. Pat Roberts.