Goolbai Gunasekara rues the behaviour of some kids

There used to be a time in Sri Lanka and India, and probably all of South Asia, when children were polite to adults as a matter of course. It was an ingrained trait of the East and youngsters of the time never dreamt of breaking that unwritten code of courtesy.

We stood the minute an older person entered the room. We smiled politely and responded to the greetings of our parents’ friends, wherever and whenever we met them. We stood silently and almost to attention as our elders and betters conversed – and replied immediately with a smile if and when addressed. We might have been bored out of our little minds but we never dared to show it.

If we met an adult friend of our parents, we always went up to them and said: ‘Good morning, Auntie (or Uncle)!’ and usually added: ‘I’m so-and-so’s daughter’ – if only in order to save them the embarrassment of not being able to recognise us.

When teachers walked past us in school, we stood to attention and if we happened to meet the principal in the corridors or anywhere else, we practically genuflected. Adults had special places in the family and very senior citizens very special places. Children had no ‘rights’ as they seem to demand these days, whereby courtesy seems to have gone with the wind.

Of course, courtesy from juniors does not mean a servile attitude. A friendlier and franker response is so much better. Today, children are more poised and certainly more confident than they were in the past; but that confidence shouldn’t turn into rudeness – and alas, it often does!

Here are two occasions on which I felt like being rude myself and correcting the children in front of their mothers.

We were at one of those large ladies’ tea parties and for some reason, a mother had brought her son along.

It turned out that his tuition class was nearby and since the tea was in a suburb (near his class), the car brought him to the party rather than going all the way back to the city to drop him and returning to collect his mother. Traffic being the way it is, this was understandable.

His proud mother introduced him, saying: “You know he goes to school A,” naming an expensive school in Colombo. The boy looked at me blankly.

To be polite, I asked him what class he was in. He replied brusquely and turning to his mother, he said: “I can’t stay with all these ladies. Can’t you get a lift with someone?”

To my utter amazement, his mother replied: “Give me 10 minutes, darling – and then we can go home.”

“Okay, but hurry up!” he replied sulkily.

As a former teacher and principal, I couldn’t resist the comment: “He’s not very friendly, is he?”

“He’s shy,” she said dismissively, seeing nothing wrong in his boorishness.

The second incident involved a beautifully dressed young girl whom I met along with her mother at the supermarket.

I had known the mother quite well a few years ago but our paths hadn’t crossed for some time. And I had liked her very much so I hailed her with considerable pleasure. We chatted while the young girl ignored me and made a beeline to the cheese counter.

“Is that Rima?” I asked, remembering the sweet little girl of a few years back. She used to sit on my lap on occasion.

Here’s the conversation that ensued…

“So you recognised her, did you?”

“Of course, I did – but she doesn’t seem to remember me!”

“She has just returned from university in the UK. Rima, come and say ‘hello’ to Aunty Goolbai.”

Looking bored, Rima came back to her mother, saying: “Sri Lanka doesn’t import anything I need to cook what I like. No ricotta cheese or Parmesan. How do you manage, Ammi?”

She turned to me and said: “Hi.” And that was all. She was bored and disgruntled. Her mother was embarrassed but didn’t correct her. I could hardly believe what I was seeing and hearing.

“All cheeses are available if you look properly. I can see you have been away a long time,” I told the young ingrate.

Her mother caught the undertone of annoyance in my voice.

“Adjusting is difficult when they come back, isn’t it?”

“Clearly,” I replied frostily.

In both cases, parental inability to correct bad manners was plainly evident. Parents preferred to apologise for their offspring’s rude behaviour rather than correct the youngsters who have sadly not benefitted from an expensive education.

I find the whole scenario disturbing. Are our children going to become like many of those in the West, and treat adults with both indifference and rudeness? And are parents going to sit by and allow this?

Of course, there is the flip side occasionally. Recently, the daughter of an acquaintance saw me at a wedding. She was talking to someone else but upon catching my eye, came over and said cordially: “It’s so nice to see you here, Aunty.”

My faith in the next generation was somewhat restored.