Values we teach our kids change – but good manners are timeless

<span>Photograph: Ralf Nau/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Ralf Nau/Getty Images

Do as you’re told! As a child growing up in the 1960s and 70s, I seemed to hear that phrase all the time; these days, it’s rare to hear parents or teachers utter it. So it was no surprise to read last week that the importance we put on our children being obedient has, according to the World Values Survey, plummeted in the past 30 years. The proportion of Britons who think children should be brought up to be obedient is now 12%, down from 42% in 1990.

What we value in our kids these days, is, apparently, “hard work” which is up from 29% to 48% over the same period. “Imagination”, is up from 18% to 37%, and “determination and perseverance”, from 31% to 41%. But in some values, we remain roughly the same through the decades: about 85% of British adults see good manners in children as especially important – that’s only slightly lower than 1990 – and as for being unselfish, 43% of us value it highly in children, second only to France where the figure is 45%.

Some of this is reassuring. What are good manners, after all, other than respect for others? And who wants to live in a society where people value selfishness, or don’t value its opposite? But when it comes to obedience, the research points up a pretty hefty change, not just in parenting but in the wider population: we’ve swung heavily towards not wanting to simply tell our kids how to behave, we want them to understand why we want them to behave that way. It has to be better for a kid if we explain what’s going on around them rather than just expect them to baldly “do as they’re told”?

This new mindset has its roots, in the UK at least, in a postwar generation that valued obedience in a militaristic way. The way out of the mass trauma of the second world war seemed to be to hold onto doing the “right” thing, without questioning whether it was in fact right, or why it might be right. Those values, after all, had “won the war”; now, they could win the peace as well.

The 60s and 70s changed all that; but people of my generation were raised by the wartime generation, and it’s today’s parents who were themselves parented by adults formed in the more liberal and permissive times after the war. It makes me feel quite hopeful for a reappraisal of the elements of British society that seem to be overvalued and underquestioned, such as the military, and the royal family. Both of these institutions are about an unquestioning attitude to authority and place – if today’s parents don’t want their kids to blindly follow anything “just because”, then that feels optimistic.

Less cheering is that the new focus on self-expression and what we might call “self-starting” values, could further benefit the kids who already have advantages, while not being as accessible for more impoverished children. And though we’re paying lip service to being unselfish, the reality may be more subtle; raising our kids to be good citizens isn’t just about teaching them to persevere, work hard and be imaginative, it’s about encouraging them to understand why not everyone can persevere, why some find it easier than others to work hard, and why some children might have more time for imagination than others.

But, as with everything in parenting, it matters far less what we say about any of this, and more what we do– the behaviour we role-model will be what lasts. Also, be prepared for your children to (rightly) upbraid you if you go against what you’ve told them matters. The other day my youngest daughter told me off for being short with someone at an airport check-in desk. My excuse is that I’ve just broken my foot, and it was painful; but she was right, and I was wrong.

Manners matter and if you forget that, expect kids who’ve been taught them to remind you.