Many people today lament society’s seeming lack of chivalry — especially in the “younger generation,” the 21-and-under set. They declare that “kids these days” have no sense of courtesy and respect, and are simply focused on themselves. These critics often seek to place the blame on a variety of sources — the Internet, feminism, reality TV, video games, or public education, just to name a few — for eroding the sense of chivalry and good manners that were once widespread in society.
There was a scene I witnessed in a local restaurant just the other day that depicted this sort of thing to a tee. The restaurant wasn’t a fine-dining establishment — it was one of those places where you order at the counter, then go pick up your meal on a tray when the attendant calls your name.
The scene in the restaurant was this: A family of five had come in for lunch. There was mom and dad, two children (middle school-age brother and a sister a year or two younger), and grandmother. They placed their order, then sat down at a table to wait. The adults carried on a conversation while the kids whipped out their high-tech gadgets — a video game for the boy, a text-messaging mobile phone for the girl.
Then, when the food came out, the kids sat playing with their electronic devices, while dad and grandma went to fetch the trays, along with all the necessary condiments and utensils. The children watched grandma (who was walking with a cane) carry their food to the table before she returned to the counter and picked up her own lunch. By the time grandma and dad sat down, the kids were already half-way through their meal.
“A perfect example of the lack of chivalry today!” you might say to yourself. Yes … but perhaps not in the way you might think.
Because the real chivalry-offenders in this tableau were not the two adolescents, but rather, the adults. In a situation like this, it is dad’s duty and responsibility (and mom’s as well) to become the “chivalry coach,” to lean over and discretely tell the young folks what’s expected of them. Learning to be of service is part of the education of adolescence — that transition from childhood to adult status. Recognizing that the responsibilities of duty and courtesy are part-and-parcel with the pleasures of liberty and privilege (such as, for example, having your own high-tech games and texting gadgets) is part of the rite of passage of a young man or woman into the modern “order of chivalry.”
The Spanish knight and author Ramon Llull, in his 13th century manuscript The Book of Knighthood and of Chivalry, recognized the duty a knight has in “passing of the torch” of the values of chivalry. He knew that a deliberate effort had to be made on the part of the knights of one generation to inculcate the values of chivalry into the next.
Llull said: “Every man who would come to knighthood should learn, in his youth, to carve at table, to serve, to arm and to attend a knight. The sons of knights must be instructed in the ways of chivalry, just carpenters must learn to hew, and clerks must learn the science of study. If a knight does not learn the ways of chivalry in youth, he will never learn them in his old age.”
One of the more noble aspects of human nature is that the more that’s expected of us, the more we tend to rise to meet those expectations. Tolerate discourtesy and inattentiveness, and you may find that that’s exactly what you get. But if you challenge your children to be thoughtful, compassionate and respectful of other’s needs, they’ll surely take up the gauntlet with pride. Passing the values and customs of chivalry to tomorrow’s generation is part of the duty of today’s knights in shining armor.