What children tell us about civility

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A kindergarten teacher told me that she was reading a story to her class one day and came across the phrase "eyes as big as saucers." The children wanted to know what a saucer was. That startled her, until she realized that these children probably had never seen anything resembling a cup and saucer in their own homes. America, for better or worse, has been "mugged."

I have to admit that, ever since I gave the wedding china to my daughter when my husband and I moved to a log cabin in the woods, I haven't had a cup and saucer in the house, either. I have hand-thrown stoneware mugs, English bone-china mugs, souvenir and birthday mugs, but no cups and saucers. I just hadn't realized this until the teacher brought it to my attention.

It made me wonder when this change came upon me and the nation, and what other changes have been going on without my paying attention.

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Just as I was beginning to puzzle about this, my kindergarten informant told me that five-year-olds can't figure out what a "blouse" is, either. I decided that whether or not losing cups and saucers in our society is significant, the disappearance of the blouse is.

When I was growing up, men wore shirts and women wore blouses. Men wore the shirts when they went out to work, and women stayed home, wearing blouses and ironing their husband's shirts. Women usually wore skirts with the blouses, but sometimes they wore "slacks." No woman ever wore "pants" unless she was regarded as domineering and bossy, in which case she was known as "wearing the pants in the family."

All this certainly seems quaint now. At some point, probably when more and more women began working outside of the home - not only as teachers, librarians, and secretaries, but as high-school principals, lawyers, and truck drivers - women stopped wearing blouses and started wearing shirts. They stopped wearing slacks and began wearing pants. So it is that "blouse" became extinct, at least in kindergarten.

This little blip on the radar screen of language scholars alerts us to changes in our society more effectively than a sociological study might.

When I was a freshman in college, our class was given a test to help us determine in what role we'd be happiest in life. I rated fairly high as a social science teacher, a little lower as a journalist, but was rated only C-minus as a housewife.

It took me a while to realize that boys in the class were given different options for their possible happiness and success than were girls. None of the boys, of course, was considered housewife material. So if any boy happened to score rather high in whatever it was that purported to show housewife happiness, it might have been suggested to him that he would enjoy being a chef or hotel manager.

To an extent that most of us probably didn't realize, society was defining our appropriate station in life according to gender. People who seemed to be in the wrong place were given titles such as "male secretary" and "lady lawyer." Those who rejected traditional roles were regarded as either daring and glamorous (in the case of women) or inferior and peculiar (in the case of men).

Much of that has changed, now. But the blurring of gender roles in our society, while essentially liberating, has been a bit worrisome for some of us. We feel that there has been a general coarsening of American society, as evidenced by everything available on television: People use words and discuss topics that in the old days were not even mentioned in private gatherings of people of the same sex. We think this might be the result of the loss of "appropriate" gender roles.

In a sense, the disappearance of the cup and saucer in typical American homes does reflect the disappearance of refinement and gentility, an era when ladies presided at the tea table and were always there to remind us of the higher standards to which we should aspire. The lady of the house was the guardian of morals, the enforcer of manners, and was assumed to be much too delicate to hear rude words.

Lamenting how coarse our society has become, we may long for those old days and want to put Pandora herself back into a box, believing that civility will be restored only if women go back to their traditional roles, removed from the harshness of life, which means being removed from money, power, politics, education, government, the arts, and most other human endeavors. But I've never heard of a society that progressed by going backward.

Instead, I think we should be smart enough to figure out a way to expand civility and make it permeate all aspects of society instead of reserving it for womenfolk at the tea table. The mistake we made in the old days was to have only one-half of our population in charge of being nice.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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