When parents ask me if they should enforce the use of polite niceties “please” and “thank you” for their children under the age of 5, they usually express mixed feelings when I press them gently about their underlying concern.
On the one hand, they want their children to conform to standards of civil society. On the other hand, they’re aware that their young offspring do not understand the true meaning of the phrases they’ve been trained to utter. At best, their children may recognize that using these so-called “magic words” pleases their parents and yields better results from otherwise impatient demands. Understandably, parents get caught between these opposing ideas, leaving them uncertain about how to proceed.
At this point, I like to ask what’s important to them about politeness – what family values are at stake here? When I frame the conversation in this way, parents tend to articulate fairly decisively the importance of fostering qualities like gratitude, appreciation, and empathy in their children. Considering what values we want our children to internalize shifts the conversation to a deeper level than the mere transactional use of etiquette.
Viewed in this light, the question of whether or not to enforce niceties becomes somewhat irrelevant; teaching values is a long-term goal, built up moment by moment over time. It’s not about a single behavior, but rather about creating a family culture that embodies the values and morals that give us purpose and meaning. So how do we do this?
Identify Your Values
Take some time to consider the following important questions and discuss them with your spouse or co-parent(s):
- What are your long-term goals in raising your children?
- What values do you want to instill in them?
- What behaviors–on your part and on the part of your children–would demonstrate these values?
We can get so lost in the weeds of the day-to-day of family life that we can forget to take a step back and consider the bigger picture of why we are doing this in the first place.
Articulating your values and what you stand for as a family can help you gain clarity in your role as a parent, and can also clarify how to proceed in everyday interactions with purpose and dignity.
Model Your Values
In my post on Minding Manners, I discuss the importance of demonstrating and modeling the polite behaviors we want our children to adopt. If gratitude is important to you, practice being grateful and showing gratitude in your interactions with your child, however small. For example:
- Your child hands you a toy? “Wow, thanks for giving me this!”
- You want your child to pick up the spoon they dropped? “Hey, can you please pick that up?” (Note: If it’s not really a choice, don’t frame it as one. You can also say, “Please pick that up.”)
- Your child did something you appreciated? “I appreciate how fast you got into your pajamas – now we have time to read an extra book!”
Remember that your children are also watching you all the time, beyond your direct interactions with them! How do you treat others in your life – your spouse, servers, cashiers, people who cut you off in traffic, housekeepers, neighbors, etc? Do you model gratitude, courtesy, and politeness with them as well? Consider how you speak about others who are not present. Even when you find fault with someone’s behavior, are you empathic? Or do you shame, blame, and call people names?
Know that as you work to cultivate an attitude of gratitude, you are not only offering the powerful social proof of the values you want your child to embody (the most compelling form of learning children know), but also, you are training your brain and the brains around you to fend off depression and anxiety. There’s ample research showing that actively practicing gratitude is a powerful tool for cultivating personal, familial, and communal well-being.
A former supervisor once referred to this approach as the “head-scratching parent” or the “Columbo” technique.
When a child asks for something (or, let’s face it, demands something) in an impolite, whiny, impatient way:
- Don’t take it personally! If you turn this moment into a power struggle, you reduce your chances of imparting your values to about zero.
- Acknowledge the child’s desire: “Oh, you want X, is that right?”
- Ask in a neutral, curious tone of voice, “Hm. Is there a really nice/polite way you can ask for that?” For bonus points, actually tilt your head and scratch it, or stroke your chin thoughtfully.
- When they ask the second time, in a more polite way, respond with gratitude and appreciation. “Thanks for asking that way, I’d be happy to help you.”
- If they are having a hard time asking nicely, don’t get bent out of shape about it. You can simply reflect kindly upon the situation. “You really want X and you’re having a tough time asking in a nice/polite way. It’s hard to be polite sometimes. I’m still happy to help you out.”
This progression gives your young one a little slack for having limited self-control and also gives them (and you) an opportunity for a “do-over.”
Let’s face it, this business of raising children is a big responsibility, one that, if done well, will force us to reckon with what we value most. As Maya Angelou famously said,
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”Maya Angelou
If our children feel appreciated, they will come to be appreciative. If they sense that we are grateful, they will cultivate gratitude. If we can teach these values with our embodied actions, and with no small amount of kindness and humor, we are nurturing the seeds of humility, empathy, and relatedness.
Thank you so much for reading this. I really appreciate it.
For additional reading:
- Minding Manners
- “Who’s a pretty bird?” How Cookie the Penguin makes me a better parent
- Tiny humans are on acid
Rebekka Helford is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Los Angeles, California. With over a decade of experience working with parents and young children, Rebekka specializes in short-term intensive parenting consultation, using a variety of tools including home, office, and school visits to help families navigate developmental hiccups and get back on track.
Click here to schedule an appointment or contact Rebekka with a question – who knows, she might even answer it in her next post!