Monday, July 12, 2010

Dropping the "say 'please'" script

smiling toddler boyWe've gotten several compliments lately about how pleasant and agreeable our three-year-old is. He politely thanks people for giving him things. He always wants to help with whatever we're doing (whether it's helpful or not!). He gives affection freely and spontaneously, leaning over with an unexpected hug and "I love you, too, too, fweetie Mama" since I responded to his earlier "I love you"s with "I love you, too, sweetie." (The cute makes your teeth ache, doesn't it?)

I am not at all taking credit for his pleasantness. And I am not at all blaming parents who have children who are more questioning and less cuddly. So much is personality and age and a host of other factors.

I just wanted to comment on one thing we try not to do, and how I think it's had an effect.

We try not to (sometimes I slip up!) tell Mikko what to say to be socially acceptable. I never appreciated as a kid having something withheld until I remembered to "use the magic word" or being prompted with a whispered "Tell Grandma you love her!" It felt false to me, like a breach of manners rather than true sociability.

My theory — and it's not just my theory — is that humans are innately social creatures. They want to fit into their social group (their tribe). To specify this with children, children are always looking for ways they can cooperate within the social structure and model the behavior they see in older children and adults. This doesn't mean that every action they make is in line with what we want from them at all times. For one thing, we often don't want our babies acting like adults (trying to operate the lighter or turn on the stove). For another thing, they often miscalculate what is expected of them (not picking up on social cues and signals) or their own abilities to follow through (like being able to pour from a heavy pitcher). What it does mean is that, overall, barring anything that keeps them from taking part in the social group, children will act like little social scientists in finding their proper behavior within the group. They will observe what their elders are doing and try things out for themselves. They will self-correct if something they try goes badly. Of course, all of this takes time and repetition and is limited by their current developmental abilities, so they don't get it correct right away or every time. (And sometimes they simply choose their own unique paths!)

Minding Ps & Qs

When it comes to manners, I don't teach Mikko how to be polite. I model it. (I hope!) I say "please" and "thank you," "excuse me" and "I'm sorry," to him, and to others in his presence. Despite not being "taught" manners, he has them, and he knows how to use them!

Bear hugs all around

When it comes to displays of affection, I have always loved to hug and kiss him, and I speak words of love to him as we cuddle and certainly whenever we leave each other and again when we come back together again. He has learned these rules, without any prompting, and he has chosen for himself that he must hug and kiss us every time we part, and frequently throughout the day, just because. He has taken it upon himself to extend this affection to friends he feels close to. Yes, sometimes to prevent hurt feelings, I have allowed him to be cajoled into giving a hug to a relative, but I try to keep this to a minimum and am considering simply not allowing it in future, with a calm explanation that he takes awhile to warm up to people, but he will, given enough time. (I want him to trust his own comfort levels about physical interaction, even when it might offend someone else.)

Taking responsibility

boy watering plants with watering canWhen it comes to chores, we don't require Mikko to help us with anything we choose to do. We figure it's our choice to clean up or cook or garden, and he can pitch in as he wishes. As long as it looks like fun, he usually wishes. Sometimes keeping a calm, matter-of-fact manner wins the day, as when I exclaim, "Time to clean up the bath toys!" and simply start doing so myself; he'll then come alongside me and start tossing toys in the bag along with me. Sometimes a game or song to accompany us helps. Sometimes it's a more overt invitation, such as offering to let him push the pedal while I sew or count out the cups of ingredients while I cook or spray the hose when I garden. He doesn't usually resist, and if he does, I figure that's his right, just as it is mine to decide whether or not to do one activity or another.

To be crystal clear:
  • I do not have a perfect child.
  • I am not a perfect parent.
Good thing, too! I don't mean to imply Mikko always agrees with us; frequently he doesn't. Or that he always remembers a "please" and "thank you" and speaks in well-modulated tones: Um, no. But he's still learning, and he has the right to crankiness as well. I also want to point out that children can act in ways that don't align with our own beliefs of what is socially acceptable — and that that's all right; not just because they're children, but because they have that choice to make as individuals.

On the parenting side, I do not always follow my own rules, but I can only allow myself the space to grow as well. And I don't mean to suggest that our ways of doing things are the only or even main reasons my toddler's so cooperative and helpful — but I think it surely can't hurt!

I find that getting a spontaneous sloppy kiss or a genuine "thank you" for something you've done is so much more appreciated than a rote output, don't you agree?

To end with another example from today, Mikko leaned over me in bed this morning and patted my chest. And then he said with a smile, "Thank you for nummies, Mama." Be still my heart.

How do your children surprise you with agreeableness? How were you taught manners as a child, and how has it affected you as an adult?

P.S. Did I notice I didn't do a Sunday Surf this week yet? Yes. I did. 
And I have a ton of links, too. But the Carnival of Natural Parenting 
is tomorrow, so either I'll get to it later this week on an inaptly named 
day or I'll have to wait till next Sunday and then cram 'em all in. Sorry!


TopHat said...

Margaret says "excuse me" when she passes by us in a tight space. The only issue is that "excuse me" sounds like "Me Me." I know she's being polite, but no one else does- in fact they think she's not. Then I get self-conscious about her interactions with people, but I don't want to because I don't want her to think she's doing anything wrong when she's not. But I'm afraid she can pick up on my nervousness.

Dionna @ Code Name: Mama said...

Yep. Have you read Aldort? She would agree with you. Someone else too, but my brain is mush.
We do the same things with Kieran, and he is a model of social manners. I can't tell you how many times I've had people remark at his "please's" "thank you's" "excuse me's" etc.
I can count on one (ok, maybe two) hand(s) the times I've said "say thank you!", and it's always when there is someone older around who is cranky about manners ;)

Lauren Wayne said...

That's a good point, too! One reason I'm so giddy about Mikko as a 3-year-old is that we went through such a looong period where his interactions with others were very stone-faced and even his dealings with us were much less demonstrative. So I think it just takes time, but it's hard when it's something you feel bad about yourself. Like, Mikko liked to say things were "dirty" when he didn't like them. Well, how does it look when someone offers him something to eat and he proclaims it "dirty"? Ah, well! I just try to smooth things over when needed.

One tip I like about saying "excuse me" or "thank you" or similar, for example, is that you can say it for your child, to the person expecting it (or repeat it with enunciation, in your case). That way, the person gets the expected phrase, you feel relieved to have navigated the social waters, and your child doesn't feel coerced or prodded.

Lauren Wayne said...

That comment above from me was for TopHat. :)

Dionna: Same here! I do feel the pressure around, for instance, my mom to do the prompting she did to me and that she now expects. Sigh.

Lindsay said...

My son loves to share his food, and when he's teething, he wants to share his wet wash cloth with mama too (he actually shoves it in my mouth so I can chew it, lol.)
I always try to remember to say thanks when he gives me something, and I make Hubby say thanks too anytime Baby hands him a piece of trash or cracker crumb or whatever. I like your philosophy of modeling the behavior rather than forcing it.

Marilyn (A Lot of Loves) said...

My daughter's first word was "Thank you". She also says "Please" quite a lot when she wants something. It's all mimicry of what she hears from us. It's pretty cool.

Momma Jorje said...

I hope I can remember not to prompt my child. I love the idea of simply leading by example!

As for affection, I don't have a problem with reminding or asking my children to hug their grandparents or relatives, but I will not be part of any forced affection. I've had relatives try to force their children to hug me when they obviously don't feel comfortable doing so. I insist they do not have to do so. This one really bothers me! I want to encourage my child to trust her instincts. Hesitance to hug could be shyness or just needing time... but it could be something else.

@Maman A Droit - I find it amusing that you make your husband say thanks. :-) I am inspired, though, by your remember to be thankful when your child shares things that you may not really care to share.

Jen said...

We are still working on 'please' (think WE don't say it enough, so trying to lead more by example), but he has said thank you w/out prompting for a long time...though occasionally I prompt and then kick myself afterward. Today I sneezed, and Little Guy looked at me and said, "Bless you!" and I just about was just so sweet and heartfelt...true and loving, not forced...

Betsy B. Honest said...

I think you are on to something there. One thing I've noticed is I give my kids a lot of positive feedback and they send it back my way, calling me a "good mommmy" and such.

Sarah at Bella Luna Toys said...

I am a Waldorf early childhood teacher, and the way I would teach manners in my classroom is exactly as you describe-through modeling. My assistant and I would be conscious of modeling thoughtful manners with each other: "Miss Terri, would you like some more tea?" "Yes please, Miss Sarah, thank you!"

Part of the Waldorf philosophy is that young children learn out of imitation, so we as adults want to become models "worthy of imitation." Children want to be like the older people who surround them and will mimic our every behavior--good and bad--so we try to be conscious of modeling the behaviors we WANT them to imitate!

At the snack table I might offer a child more tea. "Would you like some more tea, Courtney?" The child might answer "Yeah." Rather than ask them "What's the magic word?" I would simply model the words, "Yes, please," while I poured her tea. Soon, "Yes, please" becomes second nature to her.

Visitors to our classroom were always impressed with the children's manners, which were never artificially enforced.

Anonymous said...

I don't require politeness with me, or with family members. And often, my kids come out with it and it's all sweetness and love and all that. But for my 5 1/2-year-old, in public, I sometimes ask her to say 'please' or 'thank you'. For example, if we take advantage of the free cookies at the store I ask her to say thank you to the person who gives it to her. Is it sincere? I don't know. But also, I'm not sure I particularly care.

She is beginning to reach an age where she's having her own social interactions with others, and I explain to her that saying certain things smooths the way. I don't withhold or make a big deal out of it. If she's feeling shy I'll say it for her. But she needs to understand how to operate, and sometimes that means that I explain it to her.

I wouldn't do the same thing with my 2-year-old, and I didn't do it with my daughter until she was old enough to feel comfortable talking to other adults in public. But I think it's all right to occasionally remind your kid what the polite thing to do would be - it makes others feel good, and it helps them to navigate the world. I don't think that every 'please', 'thank you' or 'sorry' I give is sincere, and so I'm OK with teaching some level of manners without complete heartfelt sincerity behind them.

Melodie said...

I wish I could just let things go with my oldest but she has always had trouble picking up on social cues and graces to the point of being rude, and since I want her to be accepted by people I do teach her good manners. She is slowly getting it. Today at lunch she said "I really like my lunch today mommy....Was that a polite thing to say?" She enjoys when I praise her for her good manners, and while I generally agree with not praising too much, I find it's hard to get around with my daughter. With my youngest it is much easier.

Unknown said...

I had to chuckle, because I model good manners...for the world! I have always felt it was a type of pay it forward, if I am polite to someone, hopefully they will be polite to someone else. My husband and I often thank each other for basic housework things (folding laundry, dishes, etc.) Necessary? Probably not, but 1. it makes me feel good when someone thanks me for doing a million loads of laundry and 2. I think it will have the added benefit of modeling good manners to Ella.

And if that doesn't work I'll use my mom's method...tell her that we are preparing to have tea with the queen!

Sarah @ Baby Bilingual said...

Great discussion, which prompts me to share two anecdotes, one from me as a six-year-old, one from my own two-year-old:

1. My mother taught us to always find something to praise when we have a meal at someone else's house. One night we had a very adult meal of lamb and soggy vegetables with a great-aunt, and apparently I was having trouble finding anything I liked about it. But there were lemon wedges on the table for the tea, and I nibbled on one of those. After the meal, I said, to my mother's amusement and my aunt's confusion, "Aunt Dorothy, those were the best lemons I've ever had!"

2. While on vacation recently in a borrowed car, my toddler realized that the driver's seat was close enough that he could kick it from his car seat. He kicked and kicked and kicked until my husband got angry and pulled the car off the road so he could talk to him face to face. As soon as he turned the car off, we heard this very sweet voice say, "Thanks for driving, Daddy!"

As you might imagine, that completely diffused the tension (and made me fee good that he was picking up on behaviors I had been making a point to model)!

PS: We ended up putting his shoes in time-out on the seat beside him, and he was so happy to get them back that he didn't kick any more.

Lisa C said...

So why do you take no credit at all for his pleasantness? You're clearly modelling good behavior for him and nurturing him well. I strongly believe in those two aspects of parenting, and I believe they strongly affect our children. Yes, some children are more naturally polite, or cuddly, or generally pleasant to be around, but they have to get at least some of that from the environment that we provide for them. Some children are slower to pick up these social guidelines, and of course that isn't anyone's fault. But I do generally agree with you here. Modelling the desired behavior is the ideal way to do it, but I think it's fine to give gentle cues to those are aren't picking up on things as quickly (I just wouldn't do it every time, and never enforce it if they don't want to).

I think my parents just expected us to pick up on manners, but we didn't do so well. I remember her teaching specific things, like how to eat our food politely. But I also remember one time not inviting my grandfather in when he came to the door, and he thought that was very rude of me and complained to my parents, who then got mad that I didn't have any manners. So, setting an example only goes so far.

Anyway, Phillip started the "say please" thing with Michael, which I didn't really care for, but I let him do his thing and just asked him not to push it or withhold anything from him. I must admit that it's nice to hear Michael say "please" when he previously didn't. He loves giving hugs, so we just go ahead and tell him to give grandma a hug when we leave her house. He loves doing it. Maybe when he's older he'll think to do it on his own? So many of my nieces and nephews don't do it and I think it's because they just don't think to give a hug goodbye and no one is recommending it to them. (By the way, that's how I see these prompts--as "recommendations" not requirements.)

Lauren Wayne said...

Ok, I've been able to think some more AND listen to myself over the past few days. ;)

Some more thoughts/responses:

Maman A Droit: I LOVE the sharing of grody things. I tend to always respond gratefully, though sometimes now we'll decline something or other we really don't want, because I figure that needs to be modeled, too, right?

Marilyn: What a great first word!

Momma Jorje: I think your point of reminding to hug is well taken. I'll often give a cue that we're leaving the house or going to bed by saying, "Go give daddy a hug and kiss!" It's not a command, and he's free to say no and does sometimes (rarely) — yesterday he seriously said, "No, thank you, daddy" to a hug offer, which cracked me up at how politely he was refusing. :) I guess what worries me is that a parent's "suggestion" can be read as a command, given the right set of circumstances, so I just want to be careful to let him know he never has to hug someone if he feels uncomfortable, and that I should take any blame on myself.

Jen: I love those unprompted moments! That's so sweet. I totally found myself prompting Mikko to say thank you yesterday and could have bitten my tongue off. :)

Betsy: That's kind of hilarious. They're behaviorally reinforcing you right on back. ;)

Sarah: I love your examples, and also that you're having tea parties in your classroom! Saying what you want them to say works well as a bilingual technique, too. For instance, the child says the sentence in English (or whatever the majority language is), and you repeat it in German (or the minority language) before responding. No berating, just modeling.

Amber: I agree, and I don't. Here's where I totally agree: I don't need every interaction to be from the heart. Plenty of times I say "thanks" when I'm handed a bill. Am I really thankful in such moments? Ha. I also agree that we need to help our kids navigate the world and the social scene around them. All I'm coming from is that as a child there was a lot of prompting that made me feel small and ashamed (even if unintended). Now that I'm a parent, I can see my parents just didn't want to be left hanging themselves and be thought impolite or that they were bad parents. But as a kid, I just thought, Oh, I screwed up again and forgot to say thanks to the cookie lady. OR, I was GOING to say thanks, and my mom beat me to the punch. You know? Whereas, if you as the mother just said, "Thanks so much!" to the cookie lady, smiling at her and your daughter in turn, that might be all the prompting she needs to remember her own thank you.

But, I can see where outright teaching would come in handy, too. When I was in junior high, I visited a family that ate much more formally than ours did. I could have used a crash course right there in proper table manners! As it was, I did my best to observe and mimic, but I'm thinking maybe it wouldn't be amiss to do a little manners clinic with slightly older children. Like, your 5-year-old might enjoy a fancy-schmancy dress-up party with her friends, where you all practice saying, "Please pass the tea, Mrs. Crumplebottom."

Maybe another thought for a child who needs some help in social situations would be to lean down and whisper in her ear, "I bet Grandma would like it if you said 'please' first" or "It looks like Grandpa needs a hug if you have one for him." Then no one else is hearing the teaching, which limits the shaming effect.

So there I sit, not being dogmatic about it but leaning more toward modeling vs. suggesting/prompting, even though I do it myself when I forget. :)

Lauren Wayne said...

Part 2!

Melodie: I think that's so funny that she asks if that was polite. That's super cute. I think each child is different, for sure. Your older daughter was the one who was being screened for Autism Spectrum Disorder, right? Because anytime there's a person, whether clinically autistic or no, who really can't read social cues, I would think you'd have to be more intentional about teaching them. Thanks for that reminder. I hope, too, that there's more acceptance by adults that not all children pick up on social cues the way adults do, that some need more time, and that some will never be fully aware. Obviously, that's not something you can finagle yourself, but I hope you do give yourself grace as you sense your daughter being "rude" in public and feel cringey about it. It's not your fault or hers, and probably others aren't judging as harshly as you feel in moments like that. And if they are, boo to them. :)

Andrea!!!: Good for you! I think that's super nice to model saying thank you for chores. And your idea of having tea with the queen reminded me of an idea I saw on another blog to go to the opera or ballet with your (age-appropriate) kid and use that as a funny, play-acting way to dress all fancy and use the Most Proper Manners Ever — a teaching experience within play.

Sarah: 1. Ha ha ha! My mom's family growing up had the same rule, and my uncle once told a hostess she had excellent butter.
2. Way to work the cuteness, kid! I'm impressed. :)

Lisa: I do and I don't take credit. When Mikko was a high-needs baby, crying constantly, I felt bad when I heard AP parents saying, "Well, I breastfeed & babywear & cosleep, so my baby never cries!" And I'm thinking, Hello! Maybe you just got a laid-back child. Because I do believe those AP techniques make a difference (Mikko would have been more agitated without them), but they're not the only reason a child's one way or another. So, in terms of his sweet disposition, I am comfortable that we're doing something right, and I'm happy about that. But I don't want to push it too far, because then our second child will be a rabble-rouser and I'll have to eat my words. ;) I guess that's part of it, too, though — that I know plenty of kids who are still totally great (and have great parents) who are not quiet and pleasant and eager to please, so I know a lot is personality.

Your grandfather story reminded me of when my grandpa criticized my parents, in our hearing, for our poor manners and called me a "goose." I was so hurt, because I considered myself a good child (I know! I'm too sensitive! Trust me, this came up a lot!). Later on, when I visited him as an adult one last time before he passed away, I was astonished at how pleasant he was. Turns out, he just really didn't like kids! I think it's sad that elders forget that kids need time to become adults and learn manners gradually. Couldn't your grandfather have said to you, jokingly, "Wouldn't you like to invite me in?" You know? As a parent, I can't protect my child from all the curmudgeons of the world (and not saying your grandfather was one, just in general), but I guess I want to take more of the burden onto myself. Like, be the one to help answer the door and invite someone in, or apologize myself if my child is called out for being rude and remind the speaker, if Mikko is within earshot, that he's still learning the rules but will get there in time.

Also, agreed on prompts as recommendations, but see my first novel-length comment above, to Momma Jorje. ;)

Lisa C said...

I started to write another essay, but I think I may just need to write a post about this sometime. I totally agree with you, even more now that I've thought about it. I just think that we, as mindful parents, KNOW that we have an affect on our kids (or else why would we do all that we do???), but so many refuse to take credit for it. I'm not saying take credit for the child being who they are, but rather for giving them what they need. I try to take credit for what I do and everyone thinks I'm taking credit for my child being so wonderful. Oh, well. Maybe someone out there knows what I am talking about.

Lauren Wayne said...

I really would love to hear your thoughts and will look forward to reading your post. I think taking credit for your own actions is a great thing, because if we can't see our own successes and growth, how do we motivate ourselves to continue? I wonder if part of my reluctance to take credit is a feminist thing, too, a nice-women-don't-brag sort of mentality that's been ingrained in me. Anyway, plenty of food for thought. Thank you, Lisa!

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