Once upon a time, women of a certain culture and class were educated at what was known as a “finishing school,” or a place where they were groomed for their role in polite society. Though these so-called charm schools still exist (and even thrive in places around the world), the modern western attitude about them has generally shifted its favor. The idea that girls should focus on their self-presentation, their manners, and their aptitude in old fashioned arts seems to us now passe at best, insulting at worst.
But what if we’re being a bit too dismissive? What if we don’t discard this model altogether, but update it for the age we now live in – not just for girls, but for all kids?
Make no mistake, our age is one of rapid change, a time of technological expansion and cultural consolidation, which could certainly use a refresher on etiquette. As the ground shifts beneath us, we parents confront historical levels of concern.
How do we raise kids on this new frontier of digital nativity? How do we ensure their social well being in a world that’s known for fostering cynicism and feeding trolls?
I think about this as I zoom forward in my imagination, to the day my daughter asks me for her own tablet or smartphone. I don’t want to hold her back or show distrust in her self-expression, but someone other than her lame old mom needs to seriously impress upon her the stakes of life online.
We’ve seen the consequences of immature internetting take the darkest turns: cyberbullying, doxing, child pornography charges resulting from underage sexting, and countless cases of lost jobs, ruined friendships, and damaged reputations. So I conceive a tentative curriculum – a reintroduction of the concept of ‘polite society,’ but with a democratic, post-patriarchal makeover.
Class 101: Manners
Life has gotten pretty casual, and honestly? I’m a fan of that. I don’t like wearing suits. Heck, I don’t even like wearing shoes, and most kids I know fall to that side of things. But as great as it is to bring our dogs to work and call our sisters “dude,” formalities still offer us a useful function, if only we can remember what that is.
Saying “excuse me,” “please,” “thank you,” et al., should not be an old-fashioned habit, or a means of manipulation. Manners are meant to free us to be honest and direct while still signaling respect and consideration for another person’s feelings. How can we retain good manners online without sounding like a bot? Excellent question.
Class 102: Civil Discussion and Online Debate
Here we explore some need-to-know terms to help us dialogue without the benefit of body language, intonation, and the immediate emotional feedback that those things usually bring. We’ll become aware of linguistic triggers – things we write or read that trip impatience, condescension, and close-mindedness – and devise alternatives.
We’ll investigate things like confirmation bias and learn how to check our sources before disseminating them. We’ll study rhetoric, specifically how to make a point without being passive aggressive, abusive, or supremacist, and how to counter points that bear those markers without escalating tension.
Mansplaining? Sea lioning? White fragility? If we introduce these concepts early, kids might have a better chance to develop a self-awareness that plugs into any screen.
Class 103: Online Courtship
Miss when a gal had to sit by the phone until it rang because she couldn’t go out without a date? Me neither.
Thankfully, the rules have changed, but we’re far from being on the same page about how things should work. Sexuality is everywhere, in everything, and believe it or not, relevant at any age. Kids are curious, sometimes unconsciously, about their attracted sex, and it’s stilly to ask them to use a social platform without exploring this aspect of their social nature.
So, flirting is going to happen online and via text. Sorry, Mom and Dad! Relationships will form, warp, and break down, just as they do anywhere else. But it’s important to talk frankly about the difference between wooing and harassing, discouraging and shaming.
We will reflect on the consequences of making our private lives public and of sharing intimate “content” through networkable media. We’ll talk about when gossip becomes slander, and how to recognize signs of a toxic relationship that may be calling out for intervention.
Class 201: Identity and the Internet
Hey, the digital world is one of forms and formulas. It asks us to check boxes and fill in blanks, which shapes how we look at ourselves and others. But the truth is, everything is relative.
This tension between how things actually are and how we represent them for the purposes of analysis can be frustrating, especially when people have different ideas about what terms to use or the grammar that governs them. Phobias and even hatred spring up where we feel resentful about not knowing how to navigate a social situation.
For example: not knowing the preferred pronoun of someone who appears to us transgender, or the preferred ethnic moniker of someone we experience as outside our own tribe. These are linguistic conundrums, products of mental inventions, but we experience them emotionally. They stimulate embarrassment – anxiety about looking stupid or having to ask a direct question that might offend (or being asked a question that might hurt). They stimulate guilt. And among the overburdened or immature, they stimulate resentment for having stimulated these feelings!
So this class will be dedicated to talking about loaded words and our resistance to the feelings they arouse in us. We’ll share – by invention, if necessary – techniques for getting to know each other’s preferences in a sensitive and sensible way.
Class 202: Posture
That’s right, we’re still gonna balance books on our heads. Because now more than ever, we need to be aware of how we are holding our bodies.
Sitting is the new smoking, as they say, and many of our kids will spend all their scholastic and working lives slouching in a chair if we don’t intervene. They deserve to know the consequences of compacting their nerves and organs while hunching over keyboards, as well as options to mediate those effects.
Class 203: Traditional Skills
Yes, we still need them. In fact, the tedium of old school crafts(wo)manship perfectly compliments the never-ending mental engagement of modern life. Here we pick up the needlepoint and put down the podcast. Because when we have some quiet and allow the mind to wander, we actually augment our memory and our reasoning.
Why? Because the brain doesn’t get smarter while taking in new data. It gets smarter playing with that data at recess. That’s when the so-called Default Mode Network synthesizes information from different parts of the brain so that what we know can actually build meaning. In other words, we have to take breaks from being taught and entertained in order to understand and create.
Who knew? Knitting lace is not just an artistic technology, but a cognitive one – and a spiritual one, if married with meditation.
The idea of a modern charm school is not to make more rules, and it certainly isn’t to create new levels of class. It’s to help brace children for the climate of this new social wilderness, and help them hold onto their perspective while they explore it. We still have plenty worth passing on from the trends of the past, even to our futuristic kids.