Meet Karen Santorum and you get the feeling the last words that appear in her new book, Everyday Graces: A Child's Book of Good Manners, probably about sum her up.
They are the words that close the book's acknowledgments. She writes, “Finally, my greatest thanks goes to Jesus Christ, the Light of the World, for giving me strength through the long nights as I worked after tucking my children into bed and for giving me the honor of serving him through this world.”
Faith, family and service are what Karen and her husband, Rick, the junior Republican U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, are all about.
I spoke with Mrs. Santorum recently when she came to Manhattan to talk about her book, a collection of instructive literature she has edited for children. I was instantly struck by how qualified she is to have taken on this particular project. If anyone can impart good manners on children — and to have them enjoy the lesson — it is Karen Santorum. That first impression only deepened as our interview progressed.
Everyday Graces is the perfect companion to William Bennett's best-selling Children's Book of Virtues. It's a handy guide, a finely illustrated keepsake and an educational tool.
“This book,” she writes in her note to parents in the introduction, “grew out of my frustration at not being able to find a book on manners for children that instructs through stories rather than by rules and dos and don'ts.”
There are some old favorites here — Mother Goose, Anne of Green Gables and Black Beauty, among many others — along with proverbs and tidbits from such sources as Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac.
Santorum is evangelical, one could say, when it comes to getting across that manners matter. And maybe they should matter to Catholics more than most. After all, you can't very well build a civilization of love on a society of boors. So let there be politeness on earth, and let it begin with me. She didn't write those exact words, but she could have.
“Ironically, when many people think of manners,” she writes in the introduction, “they imagine blue-bloods dressed in fine linen and lace at a polo club, sipping rare imported tea with pinkies extended. … [G]ood manners are really quite simple. In our everyday activities we can be abusive, selfish and contentious, or we can be kind, considerate, generous and cooperative. This choice applies to all, both rich and poor, in every culture. The concept of politeness has been present in all human societies and has enabled civilizations to thrive.”
Santorum told me: “For me, this isn't just about a book. This is about a mission to increase civility in our culture. I think we have reached a saturation point of rudeness.” When you look at road rage, school violence and “teachers who are not able to teach effectively, parents who cannot control their kids, “you realize that we need to start thinking about it and doing something about it. I think if we start teaching children good manners, that will make a big difference.”
Please and Thank You
As Santorum sees it, the Everyday Graces mission is in some ways a belated recovery project. Half a century ago, she notes, most colleges and universities offered classes on manners. By the time the children of baby boomers began going to college, such things had long since been dismissed by the ’60s generation as “bourgeois trappings.” By now they're nothing more than a quaint artifact in university archives, not that anyone spends much time digging through those.
“We are feeling the effects of that today” in myriad ways, Santorum says.
Santorum's book is aimed at children ages 5 through 10. But she's quick to point out that some “older” folks have found it appealing as well. The day we met, her parents had told her that their 70-year-old friend had been reading it — and praising it.
Karen Garver Santorum, a native of Pittsburgh (and one of 12 siblings), is the mother of seven children. She writes in her book: “There is no greater joy in life than to be a mother. It is the most important job I will ever have.”
A graduate of Duquesne University and the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, she is also a nurse and an attorney. “We have wonderful kids,” she says. “But we're working on things. And they do know — my little ones know, my bigger ones are working on bigger things — if they don't say ‘please’ they don't get anything.”
Everyday Graces can help parents trying to teach politeness because “children learn best through emulating good behavior and by recalling their favorite heroes from stories. I really wanted to do a book that teaches good manners through literature because kids are in so many different situations and I love when they will recall their favorite hero and how that hero got through whatever they were going through and to emulate the good behavior.”
Asked to pick an item from the book that sums up the importance of manners, Karen says: “I love the story ‘You Are Special’ by Max Lucado. It sort of goes through the main theme of the book: God makes us all, he makes us all uniquely and we ought to love and respect one another for our differences.”
‘If they don't say please, they don't get anything.’
“You Are Special” tells the story of the Wemmicks, small wooden people carved by a woodworker named Eli. The Wemmicks spent their days judging their fellow wooden people, handing out gold stickers to the attractive and talented Wemmicks and dots to those who are rough or clumsy. One day Punchinello, one of the well-dotted Wemmicks, goes to Eli's workshop. There Punchinello apologizes to his maker for his dots.
“Oh, you don't have to defend yourself to me, child,” Eli says. “I don't care what the other Wemmicks think.”
“You don't?” Punchinello says.
“No, and you shouldn't, either,” Eli answers. “Who are they to give stars or dots? They're Wemmicks just like you. What they think doesn't matter, Punchinello. All that matters is what I think. And I think you are pretty special.”
Karen Santorum has squeezed me in between Montel Williams and Sean Hannity — though you'd never know she's on a full schedule or that she hasn't eaten yet (thanks to her exemplary manners, we “talk book” first).
As our interview wound down, Sen. Santorum joined us, fresh out of a lunch meeting and ready to join his wife on Hannity's syndicated radio show. What's it like being the man behind the woman in the spotlight? I asked. “Relaxing,” he answered, adding that he's proud of how “user-friendly” Karen had made Everyday Graces.
“I really believe in the message,” he said. “It's a tool parents can use to help civilize our culture.”
Too soon, the Santorums wished me well and went off to their appointed rounds — leaving me to contemplate one of the writings in Everyday Graces. “Grace finds beauty in everything. Grace finds goodness in everything.”
Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor of National Review Online.