You hear it wherever you go with small children: playgrounds, supermarkets, nurseries, playgroups – you name it. And it always follows the same structure. A child wants something – a certain food, a toy or even just the permission to go on a swing. You can actually often see and feel the vibrant excitement in that child awaiting the parent’s/adult’s response or approval. And then, the child is just bursting for impatience, the parent bends down, raises an eyebrow and shoots that one arrow straight into a child’s heart: ‘What DO YOU say?’ or even sometimes in decrypted adult language and with a cunning smile: ‘What’s the MAGIC word?’ Watch that child again. The excitement has gone. The bubble of curiosity has burst. One question can destroy so much.
Instead of looking forward to a nice food/drink, a toy or an activity, the child is caught in a guilt trap. Observe that child again. You see them thinking hard. One, two, three…. Damn, what is it Mum wants? What is the magic word again? Sometimes the child is near a crying breakdown or just emotionally blocked to say anything. Some adults then say ‘SAY Thank you’ or ‘SAY Please’ as a ‘reminder’.
Forget it. The adult knows the answer already, but he/she won’t give in until he/she gets her f***ing ‘PLEASE’ or ‘THANK YOU’. And you know what, they call it ‘teaching manners’ or ‘being polite’. I call it bribery, blackmailing, emotional manipulation or short: rubbish.
We don’t teach children anything by enforcing so-called manners or made-up rules by society. Yes, I want my children to be kind and polite people and I tell you what, they’re lovely, kind and caring boys. That’s without any pressure or blackmailing.
The secret (not sure if it is a secret, actually) lies in the way we role model. Children (especially the younger ones) WANT to copy us. The way we live, talk, respond is our children’s ‘classroom’. They watch us and will integrate our words and habits into their daily play and interactions. So, you want polite and well-mannered kids? Well, set the example yourself. Be friendly, don’t shout, be polite, say ‘Please’, say ‘Thank you’, don’t f***ing swear (never!). Easy, isn’t it?!
Recently I talked to a very experienced speech- and language therapist. She and various brain development researches confirm, that kids at the age of two or three (but I have actually seen parents who tried to train even their 18-months-old toddler) are not ready at all to understand or to follow our codex of manners. What they really want in that moment is that apple, toy or attention. ‘Teaching’ them by enforcing ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ can have an damaging impact onto their self- esteem and confidence (and speech development).
Children won’t learn gratitude and respect that way either. A ‘Please’ or ‘Thank you’ should come from their and our hearts, not in order to get praised or to please anyone. That’s why it is so important for parents and other key adults to be positive, friendly and polite. Let’s create that warm, nurturing environment and atmosphere for our kids. No bribery, no punishments, but unconditional love.
So, my wife and I never asked or forced our kids to say ‘Please’ or ‘Thank you’. But, in our home we are friendly and polite to each other. When we have dinner and I ask my wife or my kids for the butter, then I use ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’. Again, I role model. Maybe not all the time, but most. Guess what, it works! My eldest, now six, says very often the not so magic words. Because he’s seen it many, many times and has now understood, that it’s actually quite nice to be nice to each other. Awesome, isn’t it?! Sometimes, he forgets, but I’m not worried (and certainly won’t remind him), I trust that he does what feels right to him in our family (and outside) culture.