What Is Our Bad Behavior Teaching Our Kids?

Blowing off birthday-party invites. Lashing out online. Everywhere you look, we grown-ups are forgetting out manners. Why are we behaving so badly? And what, exactly, is that teaching our kids?

Phones at dinner Sasha Gulish

For her daughter's fifth birthday last year, Anna, a mom of two in Westchester County, New York, invited the whole class to a party at a kid's gym. A few parents never RSVP'd, but on the day of the party one of them showed up with her daughter. "That wasn't a big deal," says Anna, who hadn't exceeded the gym's 20-guest limit. Twenty minutes later, though, another mother reappeared
-- the party was a drop-off event -- with her 2-year-old in tow. While the toddler stumbled around on the floor mats, the gym instructor had to repeatedly interrupt games to keep the small child from getting trampled. "If the mother had showed some sign of caring, I wouldn't have been as bothered," says Anna (who, for the sake of politeness, asked that we not use her name). "Some people's lack of consideration is pretty rude."

No matter where you turn in 2015, you can find people behaving badly. At the playground, parents sip lattes while their kids bulldoze others off the slide. Online, commenters bash everything from Renée Zellweger's face to their fellow parents' child-rearing styles. And even in such seemingly peaceful oases as Hawaii, a mom recently hopped out of her minivan to unload a YouTube-worthy heaping of road rage.

What in the Emily Heck Post is going on? As a country, it seems, we're getting ruder and ruder. However, what parents consider rude -- or not -- and why people are getting so bold may surprise you.

    America the Rude-iful

    According to the fall 2014 Civility in America survey, our entire country needs a time-out. Ninety-three percent of the thousand Americans surveyed agree that incivility is a problem in our culture, 70 percent believe rudeness is worse compared with just a few years ago, and 70 percent think the Internet encourages impolite behavior, according to the survey, which was conducted by public-relations firms Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate in partnership with KRC Research.

    Young parents, in particular, reported that they encountered more rudeness on a weekly basis compared with young adults without kids or Americans on average. "Millennial parents probably are more sensitive to acts of incivility, because they are intent on raising their children in a better world," says Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist at Weber Shandwick. "They've also experienced incivility growing up online and therefore have keen antennae that pick up on rudeness and disrespect."

    While everyone seems to agree that certain behaviors are just unquestionably rude, there are many points of confusion, especially when it comes to kids. In response to a Parents survey asking if it's okay to prop a DVD player or a tablet on a restaurant table to keep your kids quiet, 35 percent of more than 1,000 parents said yes, 30 percent said only if you give your child headphones, and another 35 percent said it was never okay. Why the three-way tie? Technology is evolving so fast, the rules of etiquette can't keep up.

    "I wrote a book on technology and etiquette in 2009, and most of it is now completely out of date," says Jodi Stoner, Ph.D., a family psychologist and etiquette expert in Miami. "At that time, just leaving your cell phone on the table during a meal was rude. Now it's widely considered appropriate behavior." That is, if the kids haven't gotten to the phone first: In Parents' survey, 70 percent of those polled said they've given their children their phone to play with at a restaurant table.

    The fact that one person's rude behavior is another's no-big-deal is an important factor to keep in mind when, say, another parent curses in your presence (only 36 percent of millennial parents are bugged by it, according to the Civility in America research) or blatantly ignores the school sick policy and delivers a sniffling, coughing kid to class (in the Parents survey, half of respondents were fine with that scenario, and half were appalled). While you may be fuming, the mom you're giving the stink eye to may just have a different point of view.

      Manners & Responsibility: 3 Manners All Kids Should Know

        Dealing with rudeness online

        The Facebook Effect

        Rude woman in line Sasha Gulish

        If you want to know how impolite parents can get online, one mom who can tell you is Allison Hart. She writes a popular blog about parenting's most difficult and disgusting moments. "As a blogger whose audience is mostly made up of other moms, I've encountered incredible kindness and support, but also incredible rudeness," says Hart, whose blog title, Motherhood, WTF?, is probably enough to offend some people. "I've been told that I'm unfit to be a mom, that I should never have had children, that I should do my kids a favor and abandon them. People have called my kids names, wished illness or death upon us, and thanked God that they don't know my family in real life. I've even been called 'the Antichrist.' "

        Of course, you could argue that bloggers are practically begging for abuse by putting themselves out there. A regular, non-blogger mom isn't likely to be subjected to the same in-your-face vitriol, right? Not quite: This is where the passive-aggressive stuff comes in. "It drives me nuts when a mom says something rude on Facebook that she never would in person but then throws in an LOL or a smiley face or a winky emoticon so she can pretend she was just kidding if someone has the nerve to get their feelings hurt," says Angel Kalafatis, a writer and yoga instructor in Evans, Georgia, and mom of a boy, 8, and a girl, 5. "I recently wrote a post about how I had programmed my kids' tablets so they can only have two hours of screen time a day, and someone commented 'I would never ever give my kids a tablet or anything like that. That's just wrong in my opinion. Kids need an imagination ;)' "

        Why are we so ruthlessly critical of one another? Insecurity is at the root of most attacks, according to Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D., health psychologist and author of The Hidden Feelings of Motherhood. "There are intense debates around so many aspects of parenting that mothers are constantly having to choose which side of an issue to come down on," she explains. "Once we do, we take it personally when someone disagrees with us because it feels like a rejection of not just our choice but who we are and how we parent. As a result, we get defensive and want to lash out."

        There's also the false perception that what happens online stays online. "The Internet gives us distance; people act as if it's just a virtual space where everyone has multiple lives and there are no real consequences," says Kalafatis. Of course, that distance is an illusion. The mom you make a snarky comment to on Facebook today may very well be standing next to you on the soccer sidelines tomorrow.

        In fact, what we do online affects our offline behavior in ways we might never imagine. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that having a close network of friends on Facebook with whom you regularly share positive information about yourself ("I'm loving this new nail color!" or "I married the world's best cook") can prompt you to be less considerate when communicating with others in person.

        "We call it the 'licensing' effect," says Andrew T. Stephen, Ph.D., study author and assistant professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh. "The positive feedback you get from a tight-knit group on Facebook boosts your ego and leaves you feeling good about yourself and your life. And the better you feel about yourself, the more likely you are to 'cut yourself some slack' and devote fewer resources to self-monitoring and self-regulation." Cue the mom who doesn't bother to hold back her righteous opinions.

        However, millennial parents, especially, don't stand for repeat rude offenders. According to the Civility in America survey, young parents are significantly more likely to defriend, block, or hide someone online compared with the rest of Americans. They're also much more likely to flag or report a comment or a post they deem inappropriate. And in "real life" millennials are twice as likely as older people to defend a person they feel is being treated uncivilly. Take that, haters.

          Take time to be kind.

          Too Busy to Be Nice?

          How many of us can claim that we've never been rude because we were too busy to see things from someone else's perspective? I confess I canceled on the very day of a new friend's son's birthday party and never heard from her again. (What I didn't say in my text, though, is that I'd just discovered I was 15 weeks pregnant and was reeling with shock.) "I'm guilty of burying my nose in my smartphone while waiting at school pickup when the friendly thing to do would be to strike up a conversation with another mom," admits Allison Hart. "This may come off as rude, but my intention is not to be rude, just alone for a second with my own thoughts."

          Which brings us to another major factor behind modern-day lack of manners: stress. "As most of us know firsthand, today's moms are under a crushing amount of pressure," says Katrina Alcorn, author of Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink. "The bar for good parenting has risen so high, it can feel like you're never doing enough. At the same time, moms with a job are expected to work as if they don't have a family. It's easy to feel like we're constantly behind, that we never have enough time, and that our own needs as a person are always being pushed aside."

          Tell me if this sounds familiar: You're on a rare moms' night out with friends and the first thing you do is trade horror stories about sleepless nights, epic tantrums, and husbands who aren't helping as much as they should. "Moms often do something I call 'rehearsing our stress,' where we tell ourselves and others over and over how tired and overwhelmed we are," says Dr. Kendall-Tackett. "We think it's just venting and that it helps us relate to each other, but it may make things worse by feeding into a demoralizing life-is-unfair mentality."

          What does that have to do with mom-on-mom rudeness? Research shows that people who believe they have been treated unfairly feel more entitled to engage in rude behavior. In one study at Stanford University, participants were asked to either write about a time in their life when they were treated unjustly or an instance when they were bored. Then they were asked how likely they'd be to engage in selfish behaviors such as answering a cell-phone call in a library. Those who wrote about an unfair experience were more likely to take the call despite the fact that they'd be bothering others.

          Let's take a second to review. If you're feeling great about yourself and your life, you're more likely to be rude. If you're feeling like life stinks because it's so unfair, you're more likely to be rude. I'm starting to see why we have a nationwide crisis of crappy behavior and why 41 percent of millennial parents admit to having knowingly acted rudely toward another person (the number of people who have done so unknowingly is probably double that). As parents who are intent on bringing up our children in a better world, we're not exactly providing our kids with model behavior -- a reality that hits me hard every time I hear my 3-year-old toss out a comment like "C'mon, I don't have time for this!" while waiting for me to get her baby sister dressed.

          The takeaway is really quite simple: We need to make a bigger effort to be considerate -- especially around our kids -- but also let the odd act of mom rudeness roll off our back. We're all severely handicapped by a fragmented attention span, massive to-do lists, and a never-ending stream of new technology that is making it harder to be civil.

          But that's no excuse. Repeat after me, please: There are always, always a few extra seconds to be gracious.

          Originally published in the February 2015 issue of Parents magazine.