|"What Do You Say?"
|by Jan Hunt
son is so polite," a friend once said when Jason was five.
beamed. It felt like I was the one being praised, but I had never
specifically taught him such skills. Through John Holt's books, I
learned that all I needed to do was set an example of kindness
(especially kindness towards Jason himself) that he could emulate.
an example of social skills is all that is needed. Demanding kind
behavior through threats or punishment is itself unkind - all it
can do is confuse and frustrate the child. Yet many parents have
not learned this. Children are so commonly mistrusted,
misunderstood and mistreated in our culture that rudeness towards
them has come to seem normal. Adults rarely treat each other the
way they often treat children. What would happen if an adult were
treated the way many children are? How would an adult feel if
asked "What do you say?" after receiving a gift? Yet
many children are put on the spot in just this way.
I was five, one of my aunts, the matriarch of our family, gave me
a beautifully wrapped birthday present. I eagerly opened it, only
to find a plain, dark brown bathrobe. I don't remember if I said
anything. I'm sure that I didn't feel like thanking my aunt, and I
must not have, because she was dismayed, and my mother took me to
my room for a scolding. Now I had two problems: I was disappointed
with the gift and angry with my mother for not understanding my
feelings. I never wore the bathrobe. And I was miserable every
time we visited my aunt.
life's rules are clearly given and easy to understand, such
as those involving safety ("Always look both ways when
crossing a street") but many
are unwritten and can be complicated ("Say 'thank you'
with enthusiasm if someone gives you a gift, even if you don't
social rules, like thanking someone for a gift, are not inborn.
Rules have to be learned, and like any other kind of learning, the
use of force, punishment, or embarrassment only distracts from the
intended lesson. To complicate things further, unwritten rules can
be very different in different cultures. In Japan, gifts are given
on many occasions, and there are strict rules. For example, the
recipient of a gift is expected to open it later in private; this
avoids awkwardness if the gift is not well-liked. If only my aunt
had been Japanese!
did I learn from this experience? I learned that my mother would
have preferred me to lie to my aunt than to be honest about my
feelings. I learned that happy occasions can turn unhappy in a
moment, and sometimes there is no one there to help. It was a
painful way to learn about manners.
my mother taught me beforehand to say something honest yet helpful
("Thank you for remembering my birthday!"), the
situation could have been avoided, and perhaps I could have gotten
to know my aunt better. I might have grown to understand how
important social graces were to those of her generation.
Way to Teach a Child Manners
everything else that children learn about relationships, manners
are best and most easily taught by example, because children
naturally watch and copy
the adults around them. Ideally, parents will show by their
own behavior how to treat others with kindness and genuine
gratitude. After all, the whole reason for social manners is
kindness. Sadly, many parents teach manners through coercion, just
as they were taught in their own childhood. And parents care about
how their children's behavior will be perceived, because it
reflects on them. Yet isn't it confusing to the child to be taught
kindness through unkindness? If a child forgets to thank someone
for a gift, the parent could simply say, "Thank you so much
for thinking of him! How nice that you remembered!" This will
model to the child how to express gratitude in an appropriate way.
children don't know what to say when given a gift, especially if
they don't like it, and in their confusion say nothing, or express
their disappointment in a negative way. Ideally, the parent can
prevent such awkward moments by explaining gently beforehand what
the social customs are, and why they are important. Perhaps the
most helpful lesson for the child is that "thank you"
does not always mean "I love your gift," it can simply
mean "I'm happy that you thought of me". Role-playing an
anticipated gift-giving scene (perhaps with the fun of
switching roles) before a party or a meeting with a
relative can help to give a child more self-confidence.
best way to teach a child manners, or any other social skill, is
by our own modeling, especially by the way we treat our own child.
If a child is thanked for the small gifts and heartfelt kindnesses
he gives to us and others, he will naturally give thanks when he
is ready, on his own timetable. A "thank you" means
little if it has been coerced - it only has meaning when spoken
from the heart.
Originally written for Unerzogen
Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers phone counseling
worldwide, with a focus on parenting and unschooling.
She is the Director of The Natural
Child Project and author of The Natural Child:
Parenting from the Heart and A
Gift for Baby.
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