As a culture, we are obsessed with manners. In our product-oriented society where parents and care providers feel judged by the actions of children, we feel that we are doing a good job when our children are polite.
Why do we care so much? Why is it necessary for our children to use manners in the first place? Why do we care if our children say “please” and “thank you?” The impulse to be polite is rooted in our respect for community and our awareness that true community comes from thinking about the feelings of other people. Using manners is a way of building connection and showing care for another person.
It’s time to abandon this self-centered notion of the “magic word” whereby I get what I want if I wave a little linguistic magic wand. It’s time to shift the conversation from thinking about politeness in a bubble, separate from community. I want to think about gratitude and graciousness as elements of respectful living, where the members of a community are aware of each others needs.
The best way to teach is to model. Children learn the most from watching the way we interact with other people. First and foremost, we use manners with children.
From infancy on, we nurture generosity and gratitude: Thank you for letting me change your diaper. Would you please put your arms down so I can put on your bib? Thank you so much for helping me bring your boots to the closet. That helps keep our house clean. Would you please ask your sister if she wants to wear her blue pants or her red pants? I don’t care for any mashed potatoes, thank you.
We must also prepare children for predictably complicated social situations before they happen. After all, it’s unfair to expect a child to say “thank you” for a gift she doesn’t want if we haven’t prepared her for that possibility. We are raising children to be truthful. Saying “thank you” when you aren’t grateful appears to defy the idea of integrity and truthfulness.
Unwanted Gifts: Pretend it’s my birthday, and Dee gives me a gift that I really don’t want. It would be unkind to tell her that I don’t like it because that might hurt her feelings. Also, she took her time and spent her money to buy me a gift, and even if I don’t like the present, I’m still grateful that she gave her time to think of me. I can be grateful for her generosity, even if I’m not grateful for the present. I tell her “thank you” so she knows I’m grateful.
Unwanted Food: Pretend you’re at a birthday party and Stephen offers you something you don’t like. If you say, “Yuck! I don’t like that!” it might hurt his feelings, or it might hurt the feelings of the other people at the table who do like it. Whenever you don’t want to eat what is offered to you, saying, “I don’t care for that. Thank you.” is a way you can communicate what you want and not hurt the cook’s feelings.
When children make mistakes…
As children grow, they are learning the fine skill of showing gratitude and graciousness. Inevitably, they will make mistakes. Below are some of the common ways I handle those. I think it’s important for children to see the connection between what they say and the feelings of other people.
Child: “Emily, I want a snack.”
Me: “I would be happy to get you a snack. When you say, ‘Can you please get me a snack?’ then I feel appreciated.”
Child: “Help me put my shoes on.”
Me: “I would be happy to. When you say, ‘Can you please help me put my shoes on?’ then I feel appreciated.
The cashier gives a sticker to a child while in line at the grocery store. The child does not say thank you. Instead of, “What do you say???” (after all, this is embarrassing to kids!) simply model what the child might say. “Ooo. That was generous of the cashier. Thank you for the sticker.” Sometimes the child will follow up with a thank you, and sometimes not.
When a child does not say please when asking for something, instead of saying, “What’s the magic word???” simply model what the child might say. “Can I please have some chocolate milk? Thank you.”
In the end, children need practice and modeling. The notion of magic words completely misses the point. Magic words are self-serving and disconnected from the roots of generosity that we are seeking to nurture.
This Thanksgiving, will you accept the challenge and give up “magic words?”
More on manners:
“They’ll Grow Into It: Trusting Children to Develop Manners, Toilet Skills, Emotional Regulation, and More.” Janet Lansbury has put together a wonderfully rich resource through this article. Only one section of this article deals with manners, but it places all sorts of childhood behaviors under the umbrella of trust.
“Bad Words, Polite Words, and Lies.” This article from Amanda Morgan of Not Just Cute features a fantastic video interview with Heather Shumaker about helping children develop manners. (Amanda invited me to join this interview, and I had audio problems during the interview, so please skip ahead 3-4 minutes to the point *after* we solved the audio problem!)