I’ve said it at least a thousand times since we left the house for Tot Time.
It started when I saw another woman at the bus stop. Rose is shy and doesn’t like saying hello to strange grown ups; she hadn’t got much sleep, and was already promising to be cranky. Mommy got even less sleep. Mommy was on the verge of dozing off as I walked.
“Rose,” I hissed, “Be sweet. Mind your manners. Say hello.”
Rose did not say hello, but she did not cry or stick out her tongue. She walked up and down the curb, pretending to climb a mountain, until the bus arrived. It was Lynne driving, the driver who especially likes Rose and always greets her.
“Rose,” I said, “Be sweet to Lynne. Say hello.”
Rose did not say hello, but she didn’t snarl either. We went to the library together, and played until it was almost time for Tot Time. Rose went into the little playhouse, and then came running out, offended.
“Mommy!” she said. “There’s a one-year-old baby in the playhouse!”
I said it again. “Be sweet to her. Mind your manners. We play together at the library. Ask her to play.”
Then it was time for Tot Time. “Be sweet and listen to the story, Rose. Look at the bunny! It’s a bunny! Don’t you want to go pet the bunny? Rose, be sweet. Mind your manners. Don’t tell the teacher you hate bunnies. Rose, be sweet and don’t throw your puppet. Rose, be sweet.”
Next, we went across the street to Aldi. And I found that I’d forgotten my cart quarter.
The tiredness was full blown exhaustion at this point, and the wind was getting quite cold. I set down our bags and started awkwardly searching the sidewalk for dropped change.
“Maybe that lady will give us her cart?” Rose asked a little too loudly, as a well-dressed lady returned her cart to the corral. She locked her cart back in, took her quarter deposit back, stepped into an expensive car and jetted away. A gentleman returned his cart, took away the quarter– greedily, I thought, as I stood there in desperation– and drove away in a pickup truck. Then an older woman started to put back her cart, and hesitated. She tried to give it away to the people who had just arrived and were in the act of putting their own quarter into the cart corral, and the only thing that stopped me from swearing was that I was equally inclined to cry and to run away.
Be sweet, said my guardian angel. Mind your manners.
I minded my manners. The people standing next to us very sweetly offered the cart to me, and I took it. During grocery shopping, I can proudly state that Rose only had one tantrum and Mommy had zero, though I did threaten to put the marshmallows back on the shelf and only buy boring food. And when the shopping trip was done, I left my cart, with the quarter still in it, for the next person.
It occurs to me that so many human interactions could be eased by those words: be sweet. Mind your manners. So many verbal brawls I’ve witnessed in the past week, including a couple I’ve taken part in myself, could be avoided entirely.
Is someone making an awkward situation more awkward by what seems like unkindness? Be sweet. Mind your manners. Maybe they honestly didn’t see. Consider how often you yourself must have missed the opportunity to be kind, and mind your manners.
Were you doing something perfectly harmless, or something you meant to be harmless, and someone told you to stop– because it triggered their migraines, or because of their child’s allergies, or because it was cultural appropriation, or because it insulted them? Be sweet. Mind your manners. You don’t know who is really allergic and who’s merely a hipster. You don’t know what the other person has been through, because of being from another culture. Is your right to enjoy yourself exactly as you wish more important than their right to get through the day without an allergy attack? Is your desire to have a little harmless or seemingly harmless fun worth more than their desire that their identity be respected? Then never mind whether you hate being politically correct; never mind if they need to stop being so sensitive; never mind about the nanny state. Never mind whether it feels to you like making a mountain out of a molehill. These are issues that should be discussed and pondered over, and it’s fine to have your own opinions. But in the moment, when interacting with actual humans, be sweet.
Are you certain that a person acting annoyingly is not in distress, but is merely acting out for attention? Be sweet. Attention is a basic human need. Babies who have their physical needs met but are denied attention get failure to thrive and die. People kept in solitary confinement or stranded on desert islands lose their minds. Attention is vital for the human person, and maybe this person doesn’t have enough. Be sweet. Mind your manners. Compliment selfie-takers. Talk to homeless people. Listen to old people’s stories. Be as courteous as you can with nosy advice-givers. Commiserate with grumpy children in checkout lines.
Is someone struggling with a temptation you can’t understand– a sexual desire you’ve never had, perhaps? An anger management problem? An addiction? Are they responding to it in a way that shocks you, or that is against our faith? Be very, very sweet. You have no idea what they’re suffering or what brought them to this point. You have no idea if, with all of the grace you’ve been given, your own sins aren’t more odious to the only Just Judge than theirs. Mind your manners. Are they hurting you or someone helpless? Stop them with the minimum necessary force, and then be as kind as you can. Do you have words that you honestly, really believe might stop them? Say the words, say them humbly, and don’t be angry when they’re taken the wrong way; and then, be sweet. Is there nothing you can say that they haven’t already heard? Then find something else to talk about. Be a friend, and be an example of the fact that not all Christians are moralizing jerks. It’s far easier to stop sinning when you view yourself as a human being, than when you feel yourself as sinful trash. Treat them like human beings– not only to help them, but because it’s what they’re owed in justice. Be sweet.
Rose and I are home from our trip now, eating marshmallows and watching The Cat in the Hat. We’ve grumped at each other several times, as usual. I still haven’t had that nap. Communication is easier, though, when I remind myself to be sweet. The world in general is a cold and bitter place. There will be plenty of strife and misunderstanding, plenty of cruelty for everyone. We can’t change that, but we can make it a little easier for each other. Be sweet.