Lack of etiquette planted seeds for coarseness that now dominates American culture

A recent video posted on social media by comedian Rickey Smiley was another jarring reminder of how far society has drifted away from traditions and mores that set clear boundaries.

It was encouraging to see Smiley use the medium to not only teach his 5-year-old grandson but thousands of followers about behavior that was once commonplace — in African-American households, in particular. He used his grandson’s failure to say “hello" upon arrival at grandpa’s home to teach the child that such behavior was unacceptable.

“What are you supposed to do when you come into somebody’s house?" Smiley asked. "You say ‘hello.’ You speak. People who don’t speak are rude. It’s disrespectful.”

Last time I checked, the two-minute video had more than 10,000 “likes’’ and several thousand comments such as, “Great teaching.”

Why am I making a big deal out of what amounts to a lack of etiquette? Because it’s how seeds were planted for the coarseness that now dominates American culture.

Ask almost any public-school teacher about the disrespect they endure almost daily from students. It’s no wonder when those same students aren’t being disciplined or reprimanded at home.

Because this untenable situation shows no sign of abating, Gainesville For All has made helping to strengthen families one of the top priorities of the Gainesville Empowerment Zone Family Learning Center, which we plan to open next year on the campus of Metcalfe Elementary School in east Gainesville.

James F. Lawrence, director of Gainesville For ALL, places a toy house on a table in preparation for the opening of the Gainesville Empowerment Zone Family Learning Center
James F. Lawrence, director of Gainesville For ALL, places a toy house on a table in preparation for the opening of the Gainesville Empowerment Zone Family Learning Center

Though it’s been established for generations that many of the worst-performing students are from struggling families often headed by low-income and poorly educated parents in their teens or early 20s, too little has been done to bolster their parenting skills. Remember, these parents can’t teach what they too often were never taught at home.

At the Family Learning Center, we’ll help provide parent coaching on such fundamentals as the importance of discipline and acting responsibly and respectfully, among an array of services. That can begin to stem the tide of coarseness that manifests itself, for example, in school melees and suspension of kids as young as kindergartners.

As much as we’ll work hard to keep Family Learning Center families well-grounded, it will take a much bigger effort to turn around the incivility that has infected seemingly all segments of society from churches to local, state, national legislative bodies and even our courts. A friend who is a city judge in New York told me a few years ago about how a teenage defendant rolled his eyes and gave him grief when told to pull up his sagging pants in the courtroom.

More from James F. Lawrence:

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Adequately fund public education, but also provide help for struggling families

Gainesville For All's logo
Gainesville For All's logo

As a journalist, I’ve questioned authority for decades, but there were always boundaries. They’ve become too blurry.

Given the enormity of the problem, the axiom “It takes a village to raise a child” comes to mind. As adults, when we see boundary lines being crossed by children, we should feel compelled to say something, especially to family members, as Rickey Smiley did in his video.

Meantime, the state Education Department could buttress such efforts by making family living courses mandatory at elementary, middle and high school. Bring back the home economics classes from back in the day, with emphasis on behavior for building strong families.

James F. Lawrence
James F. Lawrence

Yes, state course requirements already jam most students’ schedules. Nevertheless, State Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. needs to make finding a way to include family living classes as a requirement.

Surely Diaz and the Legislature can see the value and virtue of such a course requirement.

James F. Lawrence is executive director of GNV4ALL. Send inquiries to

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This article originally appeared on The Gainesville Sun: James F. Lawrence: Turn around incivility that has infected society