WATCH: Are "Yes, Ma'am" and "No, Sir" Things of the Past?
Every time we get off a plane in Memphis (where I grew up) coming from New York (where we live), I tell my two oldest children the same thing: "Turn on your Memphis manners." When they were younger, it was my shorthand for: Look adults in the eye when they speak to you; remember to say "please" and "thank you"; use a fork; and do not, under any circumstance, utter the word "pee" (my mother prefers "tinkle"). Now, at 6 and 9 years old, their manners are consistently decent. This has left Memphis manners a call for one simple thing, which they can blessedly flick on like a switch when we change time zones: Say "ma'am" and "sir."
I admit that, for the past few years, I'd assumed I was asking my kids to say that for the benefit of my parents—who certainly drilled the habit into me—and for their friends who stop by the house to see the grandkids when we visit. I didn't really think all of my fortysomething friends were still yelling, "Yes, WHAT?" at their own kids a dozen times a day. My sister's three boys, who live in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, say it, and I occasionally hear a "ma'am" from an older child. (Maybe my friends' kids are too young to have picked up the habit?) I honestly thought it might be on the wane. (Wait, don't leave; I'm still firm on the vitality of table manners and thank-you notes.)
So I started asking around whether people were teaching it to their kids. There were solid yeses in Birmingham, Nashville, and Richmond, not to mention over 100 affirmative responses from our Southern Living etiquette Facebook group (There's No Excuse for Bad Manners). But my friends in Atlanta, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C., said it wasn't a big deal. One childhood friend in Memphis said it felt so oppressive being required to say it as a kid—plus, she believes there are plenty of people who are very polite and respectful without ever using formalities—so she's not raising her boys to say it. Maybe you live in a community or go to a school that's socially diverse and saying "ma'am" and "sir" smacks of privilege or class distinction to you. (I've actually heard that more than once.) Maybe, like one of my friends admitted, you think it's fine to not teach it until your kids are around families who do, and then you start to feel inadequate. Or you wish they'd say it in public as some sort of salve for all the atrocities committed in the back seat on the way over. (Isn't that all of us? How many times have I pleaded, "Please wear this collared shirt instead of the T-shirt you pulled out of the laundry hamper"? Because otherwise, what will people think?)
Here's where I stand: Manners are important; children should respect adults and honor grandparents in the way that makes them feel loved. But so often, our motivation is our pride, not our child's character. If they appear polished, I'm doing a good job. If you're reading this as a transplanted Southerner living in Los Angeles and are feeling conflicted because you aren't raising your kids with the exact same manners you had, don't! I'll argue that a clear "yes" or "yes, Mom" along with eye contact can work just as well. "Ma'am" and "sir" are special in the South, but of all the things I miss (free drink refills, mostly), that doesn't top the list. I'm curious about how other parents* feel. Write in, and let us know.
*Not you, Mom. I already know exactly how you feel. See you at Easter!