Mocha Moms Talk Manners

When it comes to kids in this digital age, have email and text messages replaced old-fashioned "thank you" cards? Mocha Moms Jolene Ivey, Asra Nomani, Leslie Morgan Steiner and guest mom Karen Grigsby Bates discuss how social etiquette is evolving with the new generation.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child. But maybe you just need a few Mocha Moms. We visit with members of this mother support group each week for their comments and savvy parenting advice.

Today, we are taking on etiquette. Now, you know you've said this. You're kid has a better social life than you do, play dates, birthday parties, pool parties, sleepovers. So in this whirl of activity, whatever happened to the thank you note? Is it just one more hassle for busy moms and sometimes dads? Doesn't a phone call or email work just as well? And are there other proper does and don'ts? Here to talk about all this our usual Mocha Moms, regulars, Jolene Ivey, Asra Nomani, and Leslie Morgan Steiner. We are joined by special guest mom, Karen Grigsby Bates. She's a correspondent for NPR and co-author of the book, "The New Basic Black Home Training for Modern Times." Welcome ladies, moms.

Ms. JOLENE IVEY (Mocha Mom): Hi.

Ms. ASRA NOMANI (Mocha Mom): Hi Michel.

Ms. LESLIE MORGAN STEINER (Mocha Mom): Thanks Michel.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Great to be here.

MARTIN: So I have to tell you, the idea for this discussion came about because of an email to the D.C. urban moms and dads website, and it was as I'm sitting here wrapping yet another present for yet another birthday party, another 20 dollars spent, I just realized that my son, age five, hasn't received an acknowledgment for the last three or four gifts he's brought to a party this spring. I am beginning to suspect that this is a trend.

I know this topic has been covered before, but I have a fairly specific question for those of you who have birthday parties this year, let's say three to seven who did not acknowledge the gifts your child received. What is your reason? And I must tell you, this triggered a very spicy discussion on this website. So I have to ask each of you, moms, tell the truth. Jolene, thank you notes? Yes or no?

Ms. IVEY: It's a mix. Sometimes we do them. Sometimes we don't. It really depends on what's going on in life. But they do them often enough that they know what it is, and they know how to do them.

MARTIN: OK. And you've got five boys, so that's saying something. OK, Leslie?

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: Thanking somebody for a gift is really important, but I don't think that thank you notes for children are an important part of childhood.

MARTIN: Eww. Second mom. Asra?

Ms. NOMANI: I am breathing a sigh of relief. I thought I would have to shame myself to not only these wonderful moms, but all of this world. I've got a love-hate relationship with thank you notes. And I am trying to embrace my anti-thank you note self.

MARTIN: You have a love-hate relationship with RSVPs, as I recall?

Ms. NOMANI: I knew you'd bring that up. And by the way, you know, for that wonderful Easter egg party you have? We have that thank you note.

MARTIN: I'm over it.

Ms. NOMANI: Yeah.

MARTIN: I'm over it, even though it was last year. Not really. Not actually. Karen? Help us out here. You've written about this.

GRIGSBY BATES: Oh, my, my, my. I think thank you notes are an important part of childhood. I think when your child is really, really little, obviously he doesn't know how to write. But somebody's going to have to do it, and I think just the act of seeing mom write a little something, getting him to scribble his X or something at the bottom of it is important because...

MARTIN: Why? Why is it important?

GRIGSBY BATES: Subliminally, we observe the knowledge that when people give you things, they didn't have to, you know. Nobody made it a law that your kid has to have a present on his birthday, just as you didn't have to send invitations to his party. When you receive something, you acknowledge the fact that you've been given it, and you thank the giver.

It doesn't have to be this huge exegesis. It doesn't have to be eight pages. It could be two lines, you know, dear auntie Michel. I love my stuffed duck. Love you, Nick. You know, the end. And I'll tell you, people are blown away when they get these little notes because so many people do not do them.

MARTIN: So, Leslie, you kind of fessed up here that you believe in them, but don't always do them.

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: Well actually, I don't believe in notes, but I believe in etiquette and manners, and I think...

GRIGSBY BATES: Then how can you not believe in notes?

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: Well, let me finish, and I'll tell you. Etiquette is actually practical. And thank you notes originated as a way to confirm that you had received a gift. And manners at its core is about telling everybody on this planet, whether it's a stranger, somebody you like, somebody you hate, that they matter. That we're all in this together.

And my solution is that, at my kids' birthday parties, we open the presents in front of everybody, and my child thanks everybody and their parent, if their parent is there, for the gift. Because the important part is not writing something on a piece of paper. It's making another person feel special for caring about you.

And my mother never made me write thank you notes, and she is as waspy as they come. She comes from an old New York family that's been here for like, you know, like a thousand years. And she taught me to be considerate of other people, but not to write thank you notes as a kid. Though I've got to say, it sunk in, and I write them now.

MARTIN: But see, I don't know. Karen why don't you...

GRIGSBY BATES: My mother came from an old family in the South, and I don't know how many hundreds of years they've been there. But basically, her thing was, if you got this, and you'd like to keep it, then you need to write a note to tell people thank you for having thought of you and sent it to you.

MARTIN: Why do think that the written note matters? I mean, what is your thought about email thank you, email acknowledgement?

GRIGSBY BATES: I think, if there is no other possible way to do it, then yeah, sure, fine send an email. But it's not the same thing. And I'm sorry, but I forgot the name of who of you has five boys.

MARTIN: That's Jolene.

GRIGSBY BATES: Jolene?

Ms. IVEY: yes.

GRIGSBY BATES: Jolene, big props, by God. They're boys, and she has them write notes. Now, I do have friends who say well, I make my girls do it, but I don't make the boys do it.

MARTIN: Jolene?

Ms. IVEY: Well, you know, I found a great method. When my kids were little, and when I was actually a good mother back then, and had more time...

GRIGSBY BATES: I hear you.

Ms. IVEY: I would take a picture of each child with the person who gave them the gift with the gift, that way when it came time to write the notes, we could remember who gave each person what thing, and I'd also print out the picture as a little note. So when you mailed the note, it would have the picture of your kid and their kid and the gift and with the note inside saying thank you for whatever.

GRIGSBY BATES: And, you know what? There are yellow curling pictures of those on bulletin boards and...

Ms. IVEY: Oh. I've seen them.

GRIGSBY BATES: Refrigerators everywhere because people really cherish things like that.

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: And they cherish that because it makes them feel so incredibly special.

MARTIN: But, you know, Leslie, I have to tell you, though, this whole thing about opening presents in front of everybody, that's something that I think a lot of people have moved away from because they feel that what if it sort of becomes a competitive thing, or what if it makes a child feel bad who isn't able to bring a gift or...

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: You know, I think also people have moved away from it. This is another big challenge to teaching manners to kids today, is that we've moved away from that because we are very overscheduled, and we have birthday parties with, sort of, like, six activities, and it seems like opening the presents isn't that important a thing.

But I think it is one of the most important and gratifying things for the gift giver to see their present be opened. You know, if you've ever seen a bunch of kids opening presents, they all fight for whose present can be first or last because it's such an honor, and I think that if we can go back to some of these sort of more old fashioned kind of things, there's a lot of rewards to them.

MARTIN: Asra?

Ms. NOMANI: I actually think it's really impolite to project on other people your own expectation for what gratitude looks like because not everyone expresses thank you in the same way. And I honestly resent this notion that thank you can only be expressed on a little card that you get with Crane, you know, marked or imprinted on the back of the card or, you know, your kid's little X.

I grew up in an immigrant culture where the message was very much engrained into my head that you didn't need to say thank you. That acts of gratitude and acts of kindness to each other were part of what it meant to be in our community, and I still remember my uncles always saying, oh thank you, you do not need to say thank you. It is an insult to us to hear thank you. And, you know, I did my little survey of immigrant community folks over the last couple of days, and it's the same thing. I mean, they have not grown up with this idea that you sit there and write a thank you card for everything.

MARTIN: But isn't it a life skill for this culture? I mean, isn't there a reason why some of the colleges now have to teach kids to write thank you notes because they don't know how to do it.

Ms. NOMANI: It could be. Sure. It could be.

MARTIN: Isn't it like using the utensils that are appropriate for this culture, so that you can move properly through it or comfortably?

Ms. NOMANI: Yeah, but I think we're, like, presuming what this culture needs to look like then, and that that's exactly my point's about. Like, why does thank you have to be on a little four by six card with, you know, a butterfly front and thank you written on the back.

MARTIN: Go ahead, Karen.

GRIGSBY BATES: It doesn't. It can be on a ripped off piece of notebook paper, basically.

Ms. NOMANI: The same though - the point is, my point is exactly the same, though, which is that it doesn't always have to come in this written form. I mean, to me, to look at what I am very, very clear with Chibly (ph), my son, about, is you look somebody in the eye, and you give them a hug, and you say thank you. But you look them in the eye because we have to speak heart to heart. And to me, formalities can often times negate that kind of connection.

MARTIN: Well, let's move to the other question though, one of the other issues we wanted to talk about - this whole question of speaking respectfully to adults and that has - there are cultural differences attached to that. Karen, what's your sort of rule of thumb here? I know one of the issues for me in the school that my children attend is that the adults are addressed by their first names.

GRIGSBY BATES: I knew you were going to say that.

MARTIN: In our culture it's put a handle on it. In our culture it's put a handle on it. It's Miss Andrea, Miss Shirley, you know, Mr. Bill, whatever. It's not, Bill, hey Bill, a four-year-old, and I must tell you, it's hard for me to adjust to that, so Karen, what's your thought on that?

GRIGSBY BATES: My child's 16 now, but when he was in that time of play dates when he was in, like, preschool and elementary school, I went to pick him up from a classmate's house after he'd been there for a few hours after school, and when the lady opened the door and I said to him, you know, gather your stuff we're getting ready to leave, we were sort of chatting in the kitchen getting to know each other a little bit, and she sort of had this bemused smile on her face and she said he's so polite. I kept telling him, you know, call me Hadassah, and he wouldn't do it. He'd call me, no, this is Mrs. Pom (ph). Mrs. Pom may I have some of this? Mrs. Pom may I whatever? And I said well, you know, it's probably cultural, but the way I was raised, we didn't call adults by their first names except in very, very, very rare exceptions. They were aunt somebody, or Miss Somebody or Mrs. Somebody, but we didn't just step up and go, hey Andrea, it just - it wasn't done.

MARTIN: So the fact is that people do have different standards and expectations on this. Could I quickly go around and hear from everybody how you teach this question? Asra?

Ms. NOMANI: Well, raising Chibly in the middle of West Virginia, at the Wal-Mart, he - I have had him call everyone auntie and uncle and the lady is, like, I'm not your auntie. So there was a little bit of confusion, but we use auntie and uncle as our immigrant culture code.

MARTIN: Leslie, how do you handle this?

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: I really like, as you said, adding a handle, Miss Leslie, Miss Michel. But also there are often times where I will say in front of my child to an adult, how do you like to be called? Do you go by Ms. Martin or do you like to be called Ms. Michel? And then my kids take a cue from me and I found that it's not important to have a really strict rule about it, but the respect really matters and the thing...

MARTIN: Can they code switch though? Can they switch circumstances, like...

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: I think they can. Yes. I think they can.

MARTIN: in this circumstance this way, and in another circumstance this way?

MORGAN STEINER: Yes. Because all it is is a name to them, and they might call their basketball coach, Coach Bryan, and one of the parents Mr. BJ, they can move around. I mean I think kids can do that. I think the thing that's really hard about teaching kids manners is that it takes so much patience and time and repetition, and that's not stuff that we at excel at in our culture today. You know, everything is overscheduled and kind of fast, fast, fast, and hurry up, and, you know, it gets - it's not a fun part of parenting to just nag and nag and nag and say you need to look an adult in the eye, you need to call - you can't call him BJ, you got to say Mr. BJ, and I found from raising my own three kids that the key is to be really patient and to just say it over and over and over again and that they get it.

Ms. NOMANI: And to get the logic behind it, because lots of times I think they bristle at the idea of yet another piece of adult arbitrariness.

MARTIN: Jolene? Jolene, go ahead, let's hear from you, what do you do?

Ms. IVEY: Well, I let my kids go according to what the adult wants, and it doesn't really matter to me, and personally I prefer to be called Jolene, that's just me. But what I think is more important is that my kid look in the eye, look in the adult's eye, and speak first. Don't sit there looking at your feet waiting for the adult to talk to you. It's your job. You go up and you say hello John or hello Mr. Smith, or whatever it is. The thing is, a lot of times adults are so not expecting that that they don't acknowledge that my kid just spoke to them and that drives me crazy. So then I have to say speak louder, they didn't hear you.

MARTIN: You know, I think you're raising an important point is that sometimes adults aren't very polite to kids and they get that sort of there's this ambiguousness about what's acceptable. Of course in the olden days adults didn't speak to kids so it really wasn't necessary to figure it out. Karen, your book title references modern times. What are some of the other sort of issues of sort of modern etiquette we should at least think about, talk about, even if we're not going to necessarily agree?

GRIGSBY BATES: Well, when we did the revisions of this book, the first "Basic Black" had been out for about 10 years and Doubleday called us and said, you know, some stuff has happened and one of the things that's really happened is that there had been a real change in technology. Can you, you know, we want to do a revision, can you include a chapter on that? That's one of the things we did, you know, the whole business of can you be at somebody's house for dinner and texting under the table.

Ms IVEY: No. No.

GRIGSBY BATES: You know, that sort of thing. Can you, well, can you write, you know an e-mail thank you note.

MARTIN: What's the answer to that?

GRIGSBY BATES: I say that, you know, on some occasions, OK fine.

MARTIN: OK. What else?

GRIGSBY BATES: The other thing that we had in the book that was not in there originally was sort of living safely in a post 9/11 world. That the whole business of what happens when you go through security now may - your experience may be different depending on what you look like, and you have to be prepared for that.

MARTIN: Why is that an etiquette question?

GRIGSBY BATES: Well, as the little clip that Rob played before - as the tease before this segment started said, we really look at - Karen Hudson, my co-author and I, really look at etiquette as not just a do and don't and where the fork goes, these are life skills. You know, back in the day when these things were first formed, they were to help keep us alive and in one piece so a next generation could be born and go forward and build on that. And there's still a lot of that that's necessary. One of the other things that we felt really strongly about that our editors didn't get at first was putting in the protocol for what happens when you're pulled over when you're driving because we knew so many young brothers who had been pulled over, made to assume the position when they were driving mom's car or maybe even their own car, and so I went out and talked to police. I mean, as a reporter I talk to them anyway...

MARTIN: OK.

GRIGSBY BATES: To say, what is it that makes you uncomfortable, what is it that they need to know, and they told us and we put it in the book.

MARTIN: OK. Asra, if I could hear from you just briefly on this whole question of post 9/11 etiquette, since this is something you've obviously had to think about?

Ms. NOMANI: Well, what I think happens is that, you know, you just don't know what to do when you deal with confrontation, and one of the things that I definitely try to teach Chibly is you don't engage. This woman cut me off in this parking space the other day and just started swearing and, you know, cutting it up. And I was, like, all right, Chibly, here's how we don't act when there's a confrontation, and to me that's etiquette. You know, it's like OK, you got a conflict. How are - are you going to engage and battle or are you going to disengage?

MARTIN: OK. Leslie, final thought from you, what's the most important thing you think to teach your child?

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: Absolutely that it's a blessing to be part of a community, and that a community is not necessarily your family or people you know. Sometimes it includes strangers or a person who works at a store or a police officer, and that's part of society, and we have to treat everybody with respect.

MARTIN: Jolene, very briefly?

Ms. IVEY: That's it. It's all about respect. I think that's all I can add to that.

MARTIN: All right. The Mocha Moms, Jolene Ivey, Asra Nomani, and Leslie Morgan Steiner joined us in our Washington studio as always. Guest mom Karen Grigsby Bates is co-author of "The New Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times." She joined us from NPR West. Ladies, I thank you so much and I'm so sorry if I was rude to any of you and I'll be sending you a lovely note - a lovely note on monogrammed and perfumed stationary.

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: Thank you, Michel.

Ms. NOMANI: Thanks, Michel.

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: I'm waiting for it.

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