For good manners, just ask George Washington

[originally appeared in “Scheir Madness,” in The Dover Post, 1/14/09]

At the age of 14, George Washington compiled 110 rules which would serve as the lifetime guide for his actions and interactions with others.

Reading them now in a stately little edition entitled “George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour,” I see them as qualities capable of transforming a savage into a sage, a man into a gentleman, and a shlumpy teenager into the answer to an anxious mother’s prayers.

Out of the 110 rules, here are my favorites—

Rule number 5: “If you cough…do it not loud but privately…” (And not, as my children do, as if you are about to cough up a lung onto your neighbor’s dinner plate.)

Rule number 11: “Shift not yourself in the sight of others…” (Which I’m pretty sure excludes all permutations of public underwear adjustment.)

Rule number 12: “…roll not the eyes…and bedew no man’s face with your spittle…” (Unless of course, you are the one on whom the spittle falls, then go on and roll your eyes as you see fit.)

I’ve decided to use Washington’s guiding principles in a little manners emphasis I’m running with my children. Right now I’m reinforcing rule number 103, which instructs, “…lay not your arm but only your hand on the table.” No mention of elbows, chins, heads, hair, and sneakers, but it’s a start, right?

I should not fail to mention that Washington personally translated many of these rules from traditional French maxims. Yup, the father of our country was once a teenager himself, and even then he was self-disciplined, etiquette-minded, and bilingual to boot.

No doubt, there are some modern-day 14-year-olds who, like George, would eschew their normal menu of video gaming and Facebook socializing in order to undertake a similar project. Unlike George, though, I’m quite sure that the current pool of teenage authors would manage to cobble down the 110 rules into a concisely abbreviated text message, perfect for friends and family to read while driving.

And, topping the updated list of do’s and don’ts for acceptable social behavior would be something like this, “Thou shalt freely share all digital media,” with its corollary, “Paying for music is strictly for dorks.”

Historians seem to agree that the very young, very focused, and incredibly disciplined Washington undertook the civility project voluntarily. I suspect, however, that it may have been part of his lifelong campaign to finally put to bed the infamous cherry tree incident.

I’m no historian, but imagine the older, wiser General Washington, checking in with his Mom and Dad at the close of the revolutionary war:

“Look, Dad, I just led the Continental Army to victory against the British!”

“Great, son! How many cherry trees did you cut down to pull off that little stunt?”

In closing, I’d like to share with you the simple maxims that guide my daily life. First, always carry tissues. Second, when being chased by a movie villain, never go up. And finally, thou shalt conduct thorough Internet research before shelling out $8.99 for 110 18th century maxims that are readily available on the worldwide web.


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