Earlier this week, I was helping the son of my neighbor who died last year gather some of his mother’s belongings for a yard sale. He handed me a book, “How to Raise a Lady,” and asked if I wanted it.
Of course I did.
One of my greatest fears as a father is that my daughter will have to go through her childhood and young adulthood as an outcast because of something I did or didn’t do. The possibility came to light earlier this year, when one of her teachers sent a note home on Kalista’s daily behavior log stating she had been reprimanded for not being polite. Come to find out, when someone calls for you in the South, it isn’t nice to reply, “What?”
“Instead, we’d like her to say ‘Yes’ or ’Yes, ma’am,’ ” the teacher informed me when I called to ask about it.
I thought telling Kalista to explain to these people – a woman at her daycare also decided to make Kalista say “sir” and “ma’am” in lieu of a “What” – her dad never taught her these things because he’s not from the area would be a reasonable explanation that evoked some understanding.
It was not.
A week later, I received a note from Kalista’s teacher stating my daughter had been “very disrespectful,” telling another teacher she didn’t have to be polite because her daddy’s not from the South and doesn’t teach her manners.
That made for an awkward parent-teacher conference.
I decided after the conference that I had to – for Kalista’s sake – learn the language of the natives and pass it on to her. That’s why I jumped at the chance to read “How to Raise a Lady,” which is clearly written under the presumption everyone is white and golfs.
It took me one chapter to realize I’m never going to remember all of it, two to pretend I could remember it all and three to become downright annoyed.
“Southerners have a tendency to cloak what they really mean in euphemisms,” the book states. “ For instance, two southern ladies are having lunch and discussing an acquaintance to recently lost her children’s entire college education fund playing the stock market. They speculate on what could have led her to do such a careless thing. ‘You know, until he died, he always took care of their money while she took care of the house and children. She’s just darling, and the most wonderful mother, but she never did have a head for figures. Bless her heart.’ In the North, the same conversation would have gone like this: ‘Thank God Tom always took care of their money because she can’t balance a checkbook to save her life. She’s a fiscal disaster.’ ”
How do you teach that to a child?
Later in chapter three, the author shares this story: “When the church I attend in Nashville called a clergyman from New York City to be our rector, many were a little apprehensive about a Yankee in the pulpit. But the new reverend was warm and charming and gave brilliant sermons in a frank and straightforward manner. After services one morning he was talking with a group of church members who asked him what was the biggest difference he had found between the Yankees and Southerners. ‘Well, in the North, you know exactly where you stand with people. In the South, no one ever seems to say what they mean.’ Bless his heart – he just hadn’t learned the language yet.”
It seems more important as children than during adulthood that we suppress our true feelings about another person. For instance, youngsters shouldn’t be telling their classmates they do not appreciate their company; their minds cannot support the delicate balance between honesty and tactfulness (there’s never a need to be mean), plus they haven’t learned exactly what they like and don’t like. Consequently, I’ve always encouraged Kalista to learn more about a person she doesn’t like, make sure she truly does not like him or her, then simply stay away.
Now I’m wondering if that was the best advice. It seems to me the Southern way to handle situations practically begging for honesty is to actually employ dishonesty. Or speak in a secret code. I’m a lost cause – there is a zero percent chance of me adopting a policy of untruthfulness because it’s “polite.” But Kalista’s still malleable.
Speaking of the “secret code,” the term “bless your heart” or “bless his heart” or “bless her heart,” according to the book, can mean a multitude of things. It can mean “I feel sorry for you/him/her,” “You/he/she is an idiot but I’m far too dignified to say it” or “Screw you/him/her, but I’m far too dignified to say it.” To me, “bless your heart” is worse than stating directly what you mean because, quite frankly, it’s cowardly and insincere to say one thing and mean another. We teach our children – at least I do – to take responsibility for actions, not hide them in some secret code so we can say “that’s not what I meant” when the results aren’t favorable.
Perhaps the book will change my opinion after chapter three. Thus far, raising my lady to be earnest, strong and sincere despite the “politeness” around her seems to be my best option.