Parents, let's teach boys this essential life skill, for everybody's sake.
I remember reading something a few months ago about Prince Harry teaching a young boy some basic manners — in a very fun way, of course. During a visit to the Field of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey to honor war veterans, the prince was introduced to 6-year-old Harrison Degiorgio-Lewis, who’d lost his uncle during combat in Afghanistan. The young boy, dressed in his uncle’s beret and campaign medals, immediately caught Prince Harry’s eye. So the royal made a beeline to greet him with a handshake. He stretched out his hand and the cute youngster returned with a pretty unsatisfying effort. Harry was having none of it. He went back for a longer, more thoughtful greeting. The video made me smile, but it also made me think: kids and especially our young men are losing the art of a decent handshake.
Growing up I was always surrounded by boys: two big brothers, a little brother, a million uncles — yes, I am related to the whole of Ireland — my neighbor Daniel, who happened to be my first love until my family moved when I was eight, and finally the man I admire most in the whole galaxy, my amazing daddy. This admiration doesn’t just stem from the fact that he loves me unconditionally, is full of kindness and compassion, has twinkly eyes, and is great with a hammer. No, it’s because he’s a man of values and impeccable manners and he took the time to impart this on his eight children.
Part of his “school of manners” involved the handshake. I remember my father telling my brothers that the essence of a true man was his ability to look someone directly in the eye, reach out and shake their hand. Firmly. In fact, very firmly. I cannot begin to tell you the number of times my delicate little hands were crushed by his vice-like grip, as you see I was the willing guinea pig used for demonstration.
I never questioned why his five daughters didn’t get the same lesson. However, I look back and realize that he was giving my brothers the very foundation of social etiquette: to respect those they meet, acknowledge their existence by taking the time to look at them, and to show them that they are worth the effort. It’s not that a girl shouldn’t do this, it’s perhaps that we acknowledge people in a different way. We may hug, kiss, or even air kiss, more, leaving shaking hands to our professional arenas.
I think my father, being a traditional man, felt the burden was on him to lead the way in greeting a lady. In fact, if you’ve ever watched Downton Abbey you should know a woman should proffer her hand but the effort should be on the man to actually shake it, or offer a sweeping peck — slightly Victorian but I have to say I love it. To those who cry anti-feminism, bah. I don’t feel any weaker or subordinate, I feel like a lady.
I was lucky to grow up in a family where my father openly adored (and still does) his wife. He always puts my mother first, opening her car door, carrying any shopping. This consideration is his way of telling her how important she is to him, her accepting this is my mom’s way of showing him the confidence she places in him. Our gestures reflect who we are and how we feel about people. So when we meet strangers, we should afford them a level of consideration. And nothing says this more than a firm handshake.
In our modern world, this art seems to be slipping away. Young boys these days are never “hands-free,” with their electrical gadgets permanently attached to their palms. Taking time to greet someone actually takes an effort, and what if they miss catching a Pokemon? The only way I can release my own three sons of their screens is by hiding their chargers.
As a parent, there is no way I’m letting my sons grow up with such anti-social behavior. So both their dad and grandfathers have enrolled them in our traditional “school of manners.” They will learn the fundamentals of what it is to be a man. And as a mom, my role is to teach them exactly what I expect of them. If someone enters a room, raise your head, ditch the screen, walk over and shake their hand. Or, if it’s a loved one, plant a huge kiss on their cheek and make them feel loved.
Luckily I’m not alone in these thoughts. An elementary school teacher decided to start a “Gentleman’s Club” for his students who were without a father. Providing boys with jackets and ties, he is teaching them not only how to dress, but how to comport themselves as true gentleman. This fine initiative is so welcome in a society where sadly not every child has a dad to teach him these qualities. It is also a reminder that there are those who still care enough about the young generation to show them that being a gentleman involves respecting yourself as well as others.
In a world of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, rapid texting and other impersonal forms of communicating, we can’t forget the importance of the traditional, easy-to-do (no app needed!), person-to-person handshake. Those high fives, fist bumps, quick nod, grunt, or total ignorance just don’t cut it. And as parents it’s our duty to make sure our kids realize this.
The late Fr. Henri Nouwen said: “Our humanity comes to its fullest bloom in giving. We become beautiful people when we give whatever we can give: a smile, a handshake, a kiss, an embrace, a word of love, a present, a part of our life … all of our life.”
It really doesn’t take much to give a little.