This article was originally published on fivestarman.com. It has been republished here, with permission.
It was the most unlikely training ground for good manners — the wrestling room. Coach Ken Praytor’s athletic philosophy focused as much on how we conducted ourselves off the wrestling mat as it focused on how we conducted ourselves during our matches. He had rules of conduct. It didn’t matter how capable we were as wrestlers — if we didn’t live up to his rules, we didn’t represent the team.
One of the rules was Coach Ken’s demand that we wear suits (at minimum, sport coats and ties) to tournaments. It was the late 70s, and America was coming out of a cultural revolution. Casual jeans and T-shirts were the norm for most boys our age. When we walked into gymnasiums, everyone looked our way. You could hear the hush as intimidated eyes admired our presence. Amazingly, that respect transferred onto the mats when the whistle blew.
We learned a lot from Coach Ken, most of which had nothing to do with wrestling. We learned life lessons — how to carry ourselves in a room, represent ourselves in conversations, how to stand upright, look others in the eyes and shake hands — things that distinguished us from our peers.
Here’s how to transform a teenage boy into a gentleman.
1. Teach the language of gentlemen
“Please. Thank you. Excuse me.” If a young man habitually uses these phrases, he will be distinguished among his peers. A restaurant is a good place to practice during childhood years. Teach your child to look directly at the waiter while ordering his food. Teach him to say, “Thank you,” when he receives his meal. If he needs to go to the restroom, teach him to say, “Excuse me.” When the waiter asks, “Would you like more soda?” teach your son to respond, “Yes, please.” Being young doesn’t excuse bad manners.
I was determined to teach my children how to conduct themselves with courtesy and grace while in restaurants. If they didn’t do so, I simply wouldn’t take them. This taught my children how to handle adult situations, and I knew they would represent themselves (and me) with dignity. My children learned to be well-behaved — not because of intimidation or threats of punishment but because they’d learned manners.
2. Teach how a gentleman speaks to and treats a female
Gallant — it’s an old-fashioned word, somewhat archaic in our language; however, it perfectly defines a gentleman’s relationship with the opposite sex. He is to be gallant, meaning that he “shows special attention and respect toward women in an honorable way.” A gallant man treats older women as he would his own mother, and he treats younger women as he would his own daughter. He treats female peers as he’d treat his own sister. A gallant teenage boy is surely a standout among his peers. He will never want for attention from young ladies because true ladies will always take notice of him.
I taught my son how to treat his mother with respect and dignity, showing her special attention. I modeled standards by opening doors for her, always taking her hand on steps, standing up to greet her properly. I privately and politely corrected my son if he forgot to do the same.
When my son was about 14 years old, he replied to his mother in a gruff, dismissive tone when she asked him a simple question. I asked him to walk outside with me. When we were alone, I said, “Son, you need to understand something. Your mother isn’t just your mother. She is also my wife. I don’t speak to her that way. I don’t allow anyone else to speak to her that way. You don’t have permission to speak to her that way either.” He understood perfectly and immediately apologized. He changed the way he spoke to his mother. He’d gained a new perspective of his parents’ relationship.
3. Teach your son how to make eye contact and shake hands
As an author and speaker, each week I speak at men’s conferences. Invariably, I am introduced to men with their sons standing nearby. Usually, the teenager stands a couple feet from his father as we engage in conversation. It is my habit to reach for the young man’s hand and pull him into the conversation. I want him to feel welcomed and involved.
Very often, a young man won’t know how to properly grip a handshake, look me in the eye and introduce himself by name. So, I do exactly that to him. Such young men immediately catch on and return my greetings and gestures. Offer your son these experiences — short seminars on being a gentleman. He will remember those moments. He will use what he learns. It will become his starting point for being a true gentleman.
As we all do, I reflect upon my high school experience, surveying the things that I learned and the paths that led me where I am in life. For me, there isn’t a more profound experience from any teacher that surpasses what I learned from Coach Ken on how to be a more than an athlete — on how to be a gentleman.