Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Policing politeness

Welcome to the June 2013 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Parenting in Theory vs. in Reality

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama. This month our participants are sharing how their ideas and methods of parenting have changed.

Policing politeness == Hobo MamaHere's the danger of blogging: You find yourself doing something that you know you wrote against at some point before…

As Mikko's gotten older — he just turned six — I've found my laissez-faire attitude about his (lack of) manners shifting into appointing myself instead his own private Courtesy Cop. And I had this nagging suspicion — more than a suspicion — that at some point I had written a blog post all about how I don't coach my kids to say "please" and "thank you," that I just model it. Yet here I have been, whispering to him, or saying outright, "Remember to say 'thank you'!" or "That's not a very nice way to ask; what would be a better way?"

I didn't really want to write about this subject for the carnival, because — well, gee, how embarrassing! But let's delve in, shall we?

The past

Dropping the "say 'please'" script

Various excerpts from the post in the past:

We'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?)

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!)

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!

I remembered that Amber Strocel had disagreed with me in the comments, based on her slightly older child. Wouldn't you know — her daughter at the time is about the same age as Mikko now!

Here's her comment:
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.

And my response:
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. :)

The present

So. Yeah. Anyway, I do this all the time now. And I haven't been feeling particularly bad about it, either. (Gasp.)

What happened to me seems to be what happened with Amber. My sweet little three-year-old whom adults could barely understand in any case, and for whom they made tons of allowances because he was so wee (well, relatively…), turned into a six-year-old who loves to take charge when we're out (and we're out a lot): at restaurants, in stores, at museums. He wants to be the one who orders the hot dog at the Costco counter (he'll shoo me away if I get too close); he wants to be the one to ask for a takeout box for our leftovers; he wants to pay for the stamps at the post office; he begs random shopkeepers for balloons and brochures.

Now, the upside for him is that he lives in a cuteness bubble.

So people are willing to kowtow to him a lot. They nod along as he talks up Club Penguin (his favorite online game). They offer him stickers (UPS is great for this, for instance). They add freebies onto his meal or into his shopping bag. As an example, we went to Krispy Kreme (I know! So healthy! So what!) for National Doughnut Day, because — free donuts! — and the woman behind the counter noticed him carrying his birthday balloons and asked about recent birthdays. She ended up giving both boys a free ice cream with Oreos on top, along with their free donuts. (Can we say sugar shock!) This sort of thing happens to Mikko all the time. That photo at the top? That's my suave dude being all casual about how everyone throws stuff at his feet.

And so…I want him to be polite about it. I want him to say "please" and ask nicely when he requests something reasonable or un-. I want him to say "thank you" and smile and act appropriately grateful when strangers strew him with their largesse.

I want him to because it's right, because it would hurt their feelings (I believe) if they go out of their way for him and he seems indifferent or, worse, irritable (this does happen, as when they give him the wrong color balloon, or not enough stickers). And since he sometimes asks nicely, and he sometimes says his thanks, but he sometimes does not, I as the parent mediator feel the deep-seated need to jump into the breach. When Mikko was younger, I felt OK speaking for him. As he gets older and sometimes doesn't just say nothing but says the wrong thing, I feel more of a desire for the right phrases to be coming out of his mouth as well as mine.

The future

Rereading my older article and thinking through this whole topic has brought me back around to my rather meandering response to Amber: that I agree and don't agree — with myself, both past and present.

I think, as Amber was saying, that there does come a point when children might need some coaching on how to get along more smoothly in situations — such as I desired for table manners. I think a little practicing and some playacting wouldn't come amiss. Maybe Mikko and I can have that formal tea party. I do find myself offering him scripts if he's going to approach a counter or employee on his own, making the manners just part of the overall message: "All right, wait until she's not busy and then say, 'Excuse me, I'd like a straw, please,' and then say 'thank you' when she hands it to you."

However, I've also been reconsidering how often I prompt for specific phrases, and how I'm going about it. Jennifer at True Confessions of a Real Mommy told me her family uses sign language — easy for the kids to understand, less obtrusive to others. I could also use German. I like the reminder I gave myself (ha) to whisper to the kids to make it less of a performance. Sometimes I feel like I'm saying, "Remember to say 'thank you'!" really obviously for the sole benefit of the other adult — so that person can hear what a proper grown-up I am, and what a good parent. That strikes me as pretty stupid. If the interaction is truly between my son and these other people, then I need to back out of it and let them have their connection. Or, if it's involving me, too, then I need to own it and just say my own thank-yous and leave Mikko to manage his own.

I have a sense I'm not done with thinking this through, so I'd love your perspectives as well. Do you prompt your children to be polite? Do you teach manners intentionally or let it develop — or not — organically?

P.S. Golly, I used to get a lot of discussion on posts! I miss those days. Although, to be fair, half the comments on that older post were from me. So I guess I can still do that: ramble on in my own comments. Have conversations just like this one with myself…

P.P.S. Mikko at three is a cutie.

P.P.P.S. In the same post, I write about how he helps willingly around the house and volunteers for chores. Um…yeah. Subject for a future take-back post?? The good news is, I also wrote that he was freely affectionate even though we never cajoled him to hug or kiss us — all of that is still true. Phew!

Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

  • My little gastronomes — "I'll never cook a separate meal for my children," Maud at Awfully Chipper vowed before she had children; but things didn't turn out quite as she'd imagined.
  • Know Better, Do Better. Except When I Don't. — Jennifer from True Confessions of a Real Mommy was able to settle in her parenting choices before her children arrived, but that doesn't mean she always lives up to them.
  • Judgments Made Before Motherhood — Jennifer at Hybrid Rasta Mama looks back on her views of parents she came in contact with before she became a mother and how much her worldview of parenting has changed!
  • A Bend in The Road — Lyndsay at ourfeministplayschool writes about how her visions of homeschooling her son during the elementary school years have changed drastically in the last year - because HE wants to go to school.
  • I Wish Children Came with Instruction Manuals — While Dionna at Code Name: Mama loves reading about parenting, she's not found any one book that counts as an instruction manual. Every child is different, every family is different, every dynamic is different. No single parenting method or style is the be-all end-all. Still, wouldn't it be nice if parenting were like troubleshooting?
  • The Mistakes I've Made — Kate at Here Now Brown Cow laments the choices she made with her first child and explains how ditching her preconceived ideas on parenting is helping her to grow a happy family.
  • I Only Expected to Love... — Kellie at Our Mindful Life went into parenting expecting to not have all the answers. It turns out, she was right!
  • They See Me Wearin', They Hatin' — Erin Yuki at And Now, for Something Completely Different contemplates putting her babywearing aspirations into practice, and discussed how she deals with "babywearing haters."
  • Parenting Human BeingsErika Gebhardt lists her parenting "mistakes," and the one concept that has revolutionized her parenting.
  • Doing it right: what I knew before I had kids... — Lucy at Dreaming Aloud, guest posting at Natural Parents Network realises that the number one game in town, when it comes to parenting, is judgement about doing it right. But "doing it right" looks different to everybody.
  • A synopsis of our reality as first time parents — Amanda at My Life in a Nut Shell summarizes the struggles she went through to get pregnant, and how her daughter's high needs paved the way for her and her husband to become natural parents.
  • Theory to Reality? — Jorje compares her original pre-kid ideas (some from her own childhood) to her personal parenting realities on MommaJorje.com.
  • The Princess Paradigm — Laura at Pug in the Kitchen had planned to raise her daughter in a sparkly, princess-free home, but in turn has found herself embracing the glitz.
  • Healthy Eating With Kids: Ideal vs. Real — Christy at Eco Journey In The Burbs had definite ideas about what healthy eating was going to look like in her family before she had kids. Little did she realize that her kids would have something to say about it.


Olivia said...

Excellent post. My take is that modeling the behavior is extremely important, but not enough. My daughter is four now, and she's fairly good about being polite at home (she often says thank you for things like washing her clothes, and says sorry after she's argued with me about something I said no to without prompting), but when we are out in public she is inconsistent. Either she feels a bit shy, or she's excited about something and forgets. So, I prompt her as a reminder and I prompt her because I don't want her to be thought of as a brat. Which is for my benefit, but also hers. If she became known as the rude kid who never says thank you and just demands things I imagine her play dates would start to dwindle.

Also, I think it is very good to coach kids on what to say in certain situations. A couple days ago a neighbor girl, about 6 yrs old, walked up to my screen door and then just...stood there. I said hi and is there anything I can do for you, and she didn't say a word. She very shyly held out a flyer and when I took it she still didn't say anything. She ran back to her mother who was standing at the end of the driveway. It was so weird and uncomfortable.

I get being shy. I was a very shy child, but her mother should have told her what to say if the girl wanted to help. And if she couldn't handle knocking on doors and talking to adults then her mother should have done it herself.

Mandy said...

I understand the idea that sometimes kids can get caught up in the excitement of what is going on. For me, I've found that a simple comment from me, such as, "Wow. That is a pretty cool gift so and so just gave you," is enough to remind my children that there are other people to consider, without me telling them what I think they should say. I will also just thank people myself, especially for my youngest who doesn't really like to talk to other people yet. Once one person says "thank you," it generally ends up in a chorus of thank yous. For example, at dinner, once the first person thanks someone for making the dinner, everyone jumps in to share their thanks.

Unknown said...

We try to model polite behavior (and in trying to model, I realize how much my husband and I take each other for granted with very few please/thank yous between us) for our 2 year old. I do expect him to say please/thank you when he wants something but I don't like to have him "parrot" the words. We typically ask him "What do you say [when you receive something]" We are working on saying "no thank you" when he doesn't want something and "yes please" when he does want something.

Unknown said...

I really love your perspective on manners. In fact, I was just thinking of one of your posts this morning. Walter doesn't prefer to use silverware and sometimes it makes me nuts. Like when maple syrup was dripping off his elbow as he ate his pancakes with syrup rolled up like a burrito, with his bare hands this morning. I've explained to him that some people would find this rude. The hard part for me is that *I* find this rude!!! But, we both have to live here, so striking a balance is a large key, I think.

One way that I try to compromise on the please and thank you with strangers is to ask, rather than prompt (when I remember). For example, I will ask Sofi if she wants to say thank you to Grandma for her gift. And I also make sure that when I say it, I say it in a way that doesn't make it sound like she is doing something wrong. This gives her the option to say thank you herself, or I can offer thanks for her if she choses not to.

Dionna @ Code Name: Mama said...

HA! I could have written this post! I do find that I have to remind Kieran sometimes. Like Jennifer, we use sign language, so he gets my verbal reminder instead of me singing "what do you say?!" I don't think it's because he's forgotten how to use manners, but I think at this developmental stage, he's often too busy to say thanks ;) (Maybe I'll eat those words later!)

Inder-ific said...

Love it!! I find this especially interesting because for whatever reason, this is where I diverge from the "unconditional" parenting philosophy - I have always tried to gently coach my now-four-year-old to say things like "sorry," "please," and "thank you." I totally get why some people think this is a bad idea (and as it happens, Joe is extremely resistant to any kind of forced social interaction, so it's hard to get him to say goodbye to people, let alone sorry).

But as a lawyer and a Libra, I think I put a higher value on harmonious social interaction than I do on "sincerity." Eeeps! I'm going to lose my "natural parenting" cred!! But I really believe that we ALL have to say things we don't really mean in the interests of getting along. How to reconcile this with the desire that my child sincerely express himself? I don't know!

Carolyn said...

I was actually having this conversation with my husband very recently, only I seem to have made a reverse journey. Once upon a time, I was very diligent in manners instruction. Now-a-days, I try to lead by example and let my boys manage their own interactions, sometimes delightfully and sometimes not.

But my husband said that he feels it is important to teach social graces, even if he doesn't enforce them. So, for example, when one of the boys receives a compliment, he will whisper to them, "It's polite to say 'thank you'". He doesn't make a scene about it if they don't say it but wants to give them the tip.

And having talked with him about it, I was reminded of a simple conversation with my own mother that I really appreciated. This happened only a few months ago. My mom was present when a neighbor asked me a question and I gave a rather snippy response. My mom pointed out later that my neighbor probably worried that she had offended me because I had been rude to her. My mom was right and I needed her to point it out to me so I could make it right. I was grateful for her instruction because she helped me salvage a friendship. I also felt that she wasn't bemoaning my lack of social graces but giving me the benefit of the doubt, trusting that I wouldn't have wanted to be rude and would want to make it right.

If I can be as graceful as my mom, perhaps some light politeness policing would be ok.

Anonymous said...

Well, both yes and no. In my culture, it is very important to recognize the other person's status in the community (older, woman or man, relation to you, etc) and address to them accordingly in manners. Growing up in America with many American friends, I experienced a whole other side of table or conversation greetings. For example, we never have hugged in our family on the regular basis but my friends and their super nice family always hugged as a greeting or sentiment.

Today, I just pick and choose my battles with manners. When around Laotians, I "tell" my son to do the traditional Lao greeting and also to say "Hello" back to someone, who acknowledges him which he enjoys to do anyway. But when it comes to saying "thank you" he doesn't 'know' how to say it but I still model it. We have started using the sign language for it for now though. :)

Jessica said...

I love how you dialogue with yourself! It is wonderful to see on any topic but particularly great on this one of manners. I also had a super sweet son who is not as forthcoming now with the niceties at age 7. Kids go through a lot of phases, I know, and they are also very different. His sister throws things -- THROWS them -- when she wants nothing to do with them, and her favorite words are No, Mine, and I Do it By Myself, things my older son *never* said as a toddler.

I try to be more suggestive these days with both, as in, "You could say, 'Thank you, Mommy,'" or to model and then reinforce, "It's nice to let people know when things make us happy! Thank you, Miss Wood!." And lately, I'm bugging my husband to be more vocal with the thank yous (as if I hadn't been doing that in some fashion for the past ten years! Our story is now becoming our children's...)

So interesting! Thank you so much for sharing and for doing all that work to dredge and reflect!

Deb Chitwood said...

Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Lauren! I think you can still teach manners and practice natural parenting. Lessons in grace and courtesy are such a natural part of Montessori education that I never thought that much about whether they should be taught as lessons. But I always saw great results by thoroughly preparing children for social situations in advance.

I've written a number of blog posts about it, and I have an eBook (Montessori Education at Home or School: How to Teach Grace and Courtesy) coming out once the indexing and formatting ever gets thoroughly checked and fixed. ;) Deb @ LivingMontessoriNow.com

Unknown said...

I remember a post - from the Authentic Blogging Carnival- said something like - well, I don't prompt them (her kids) to say sorry, because maybe - they are not sorry.

I think her point was that the prompting feeds the parents fear of being thought of negatively. Nobody wants "that kid" - you know - the impolite one.

I totally get it, but her post stuck with me. We want polite and compassionate children.

The best way to teach is through example.

I think our society has doomed us. Everything is fast...faster...fastest. We have the ipad, ipod, tablet, whatever. WE can't even leave the house to get away from the phone. Everything has the fastest speed.

We have been programed not to wait.

With kids, we have to wait and be patient. Things don't happen at lightening speed, you know?

So what if my kid doesn't say thank you once. I kindly thank them and then go on with my life, because eventually, it will click. They see it and it will happen.

Thanks for sharing your story!

Anonymous said...

Just goes to show that nothing in parenting is black and white, there's always a grey area. ALWAYS! I am totally loving your honesty and humility. Being flexible enough to go back and change our ideas is such a valuable tool. I blogged here, http://herenowbrowncow.com/2013/04/22/fine-line/ about my dilemmas with a child who came across as rude, but maybe was just shy and lacking in confidence. (She's almost 6!). Either way, it's hard not to worry about what everyone else thinks when it comes to manners. Some lessons need to be taught too!

Anonymous said...

I don't have much to say other than I pretty much 100% agree with you, and also with Amber's comment. I do want my kid to be liked and to nail social interactions. I certainly don't want anyone to dislike him just because I didn't give him the tools to interact politely. That seems as unfair to him as forcing him to say please and thank you would be. BUT, I will be paying closer attention to make sure I am not insisting he say those things simply to make ME look good as a parent. That shouldn't be what it's about, but I feel like occasionally that's my motivation. In those cases, I can just say thank you, coming from ME, and that will be enough.

Great post - Not always easy going back on what you posted previously! I've been there as well.

Anonymous said...

I don't have much to say other than I pretty much 100% agree with you, and also with Amber's comment. I do want my kid to be liked and to nail social interactions. I certainly don't want anyone to dislike him just because I didn't give him the tools to interact politely. That seems as unfair to him as forcing him to say please and thank you would be. BUT, I will be paying closer attention to make sure I am not insisting he say those things simply to make ME look good as a parent. That shouldn't be what it's about, but I feel like occasionally that's my motivation. In those cases, I can just say thank you, coming from ME, and that will be enough.

Great post - Not always easy going back on what you posted previously! I've been there as well.

Unknown said...

I enjoyed reading this very much, Lauren. You are absolutely entitled to change your mind on topics you wrote about in the past, especially when you let your readers know exactly why :)
I, in fact, still remember and agree with your first post, on not pushing politeness... but my son is only 2, and is very polite and cute in himself, I may, like you, change my mind in future ;)

Tat said...

I mostly model it and mostly it works. My two older children are quite introverted and if I had pushed to be polite earlier that they were ready, it would have just had the opposite effect. Then at some point they started saying 'please' and 'thank you" without being prompted.

But I do also find myself in situations where I need to remind them. One of these situations is reminding my daughter to say 'goodbye' to her pre-school teachers. I actually get the feeling from her that she likes to be reminded... she genuinely likes her teachers and wants to say goodbye, but she is also feeling a bit shy about it, so my reminder makes her just a little bit braver. I can almost see her breathing a sigh of relief, "Great, I won't have to do it all on my own". At first I'd go up to the teacher, now I stay at the door and wait for her, then I'm sure one day she won't need me to tell her what to do.

As for words being sincere, I believe in the power of words. You say "Thank you" when you feel grateful, but also the opposite is true, the more you say "Thank you", the more grateful you feel.

Erin Violet Taylor said...

Oh my goodness, Miss Lauren. I so feel you.
Before I learned about natural childcare, I was SO the "Please Police". BIG time. It's been a little tough to break myself of this habit. I've always gone for the hardcore modeling way of teaching it, however, I suppose I didn't realize previously that that was enough. Now, I'm trying to stop prompting, but it's tough, because it was so ingrained.
I LOVE modeling and have huge success with it, but sometimes kids forget and could use a subtle reminder, you know? Like, I'm not a big fan of legit saying, in a tone audible enough for the person to whom you wish for your child to speak, "Say thank you/please/I'm sorry", especially because I've seen situations in which the child was about to say the aforementioned phrase, and the parent actually INTERRUPTED them to ask them to say it. However, my Mom always did the sign language sign for it, which was super helpful if I forgot, and using Japanese is great with Adora, much like you using German with Mikko! When it comes to modeling, I'm huge on "please/thank you/I'm sorry", and I also am working on saying "would you like" rather than "do you want"-weird, but I think it's kinder. Maybe I'm picky, haha. I am personal a fan it's okay to guide kindly, rather than ordering the politeness-for instance, pointing out "Wow, that was really generous or so and so", and it that doesn't catch on, thank them yourself and let it go, or say, "Is there a way you could show her you're thankful?" However, I think letting it go sometimes is no big deal. Also, if something was demanded or asked for rudely, I might say, "Is there a nicer way you could rephrase that?" I love modeling, but for older kids, it seems weird, for instance, if they say to the person, "Give me a hotdog", and then you say, "She would like a hot dog, please"-like the kid's words aren't enough, and that's not the message I would like to be giving off, so in that case, I think I would go for the rephrasing comment. If the request is given to me, I sometimes make a goofy face and say, in a goofy voice, "Excuse me?" Then, the child usually laughs and rephrases more politely. I don't really know which is better, but hey, whatever works.
I like what you said about coaching Mikko before he goes up, then letting him go through the interaction. One thing I'm working on is guiding and explaining-explaining beforehand what's going on so the child understands what is expected of them, or what's going to happen.
All your ideas are great. Keep up the good work, Mama! Mikko and Alrik are great kids. You're doing it right, no worries. The thing about working with kids is that you have to reform your actions if need be. Keep it up!

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