How Children Learn Manners
By Naomi Aldort
Our son Yonatan came home last Christmas from the
theater and related an observation. On the way from the theater to the
lobby he noticed that parents were instructing the children to ask the
Santa Claus for candy with a "please", and after getting the
treat say "thank you". Yonatan went to the lobby and was
surprised and puzzled. He found that the children indeed said
"please" and "thank you", but that their parents
came along and took their own treats, saying nothing.
"The parents of these parents must have told
them to say 'please' and 'thank you', yet they didn't seem to learn
it." He said. "Do you think these children are also going to
stop saying "thank you" when they grow up?"
What do we expect a child to learn when we tell
him: "Say thank you to your friend"? Most parents believe that
the child will learn to be grateful, and to express her sense of
gratitude. But do children learn these things by being told to do them?
How did we feel as children when told to say "thank you"? When
did we really develop a sincere sense of gratitude? Did saying
"thank you" before we had the feeling to match the words make
us grateful? Or did we develop a sense of gratitude later on in no
regard to those instructions? Is it possible that some of us feel
resentful when needing to thank someone, share, or apologize, because as
children we hated doing these things?
Maybe we are dealing with our inability to trust.
Is it possible that gratitude is not likely to be felt by a child or at
least not in the way adults feel and express it? Could it be that when
childhood needs are fully satisfied, gratitude will naturally develop?
Perhaps we need to allow children to observe gratitude, generosity and
kindness, rather then teach these behaviors to them.
What do they learn by being told
If telling a child to say "thank you"
(and other manner words and actions) does not teach her/him to
authentically feel and express gratitude - what does it teach?
A few possible things:
- The child learns that telling others what to
say or do is "good manners". The content of the
"talk" is practically lost, as the child is mostly aware
of the fact that someone is telling her what to do.
- A less obvious message is the one: "I
cannot trust myself to know what to say or do; I should rely on
adults (authority) and obey instruction" (dependency, being a
- Linked to the previous one is "I cannot
know on my own what to say or do, therefore I am not good
enough" (low self-esteem and feeling inadequate and incapable).
- A similar feeling of inadequacy can spring out
of self-doubt: "Why don't I feel like saying 'thank you'?
Something must be wrong with me".
- A child learns to be phony and even simply to
lie: "I don't really feel like saying anything, (sharing,
helping...), I guess I am supposed to lie, pretend, or put on a show
that does not reflect my real inner experience".
- The child learns to hate sharing or saying
"please" and "thank you", as his formative
memory of doing so is that of resentment, being controlled, and
being unreal. In doing something while not wanting to do it, he is
learning to hate the expression of being grateful (sharing etc.) and
the natural authentic development of his manners can be delayed.
One aspect of manners that we hurry to teach is
responding to an adult's (disrespectful) inquiry about name and age:
"Tell the woman how old you are, Johnny" is an instruction we
give when we feel embarrassed for our child's lack of responsiveness.
One of my three children never responded to the probing of adults until
well after he was 7. In every such interaction I was on his side,
defending his need. I would say to the inquirer: "He doesn't seem
to want to talk to you" and smile, adding: "I can talk to you
if you wish". In later years I found out by asking, that Lennon
became interested in sharing information about himself, but wanted me to
speak for him. I then started to handle those circumstances differently.
I would turn to Lennon and ask: "Do you wish that I would tell Earl
about you?" Sometimes he would want it, others times he wouldn't,
and I simply followed his request. Lennon now feels comfortable and
confident enough to respond to most people's questions, or - more rarely
now - to say that he doesn't want to. His choices are clearly related to
the person's authenticity. He is allergic to phony talk.
As a mother I have discovered that my child's
manners are not about me impressing anyone. My child deserves my full
respect to be at the stage of awareness, confidence, and of acquisition
of manners that he is. It is not easy to feel comfortable when our child
doesn't fit society's expectations - but knowing that these very
expectations don't fit the child, helps me remember whose well-being I
stand for. Maybe we are still dependent on the approval of others as we
were in our childhood, when we were told to say "thank you"
and did so just to please our parents. We need to build our own
self-esteem, so we are less dependent on approval of our children's ways
of being for enhancing our feelings of self-worth.
Making a good impression on friends, relatives, or
strangers, becomes clearly unimportant next to the welfare of my child.
Yet, I can still impress these friends and relatives. What I will
impress them with, is not my compliance to their standards of behavior
with children. Instead I will demonstrate to them my respect to my
child, and my strength in following my own heart and my child's needs.
How then will they learn manners?
How then will a child learn social manners? Can we
trust the child to develop and mature in her own time, the way we
trusted her to learn to walk and to talk? Why are we in a rush to have
children behave like adults before they are adults?
When lovingly and respectfully treated, children
will learn manners on their own simply because they want to live happily
in this society. We can ensure this development by the following three
- To "teach" a child to be grateful,
express your gratitude for her contribution to your life: "It
is such a joy to spend the afternoon with you". It is how you
treat your child that teaches her how to be. Telling a child
what to say is not respectful. It is not the kind of manners you
want her to learn. Thanking her for her help and being kind and
generous toward her are really at the heart of your teaching tools.
- We can provide examples in our interactions
with others by expressing gratitude, sharing generously, and
treating others kindly. Our children will assimilate what they see,
hear and experience around them.
- For your child to learn manners with pleasure,
and enjoy behaving in pleasing ways, she needs to see you enjoying
yourself through these expressions. She needs to see you being real,
authentic, and fully present when you express gratitude and treat
- We can provide ample freedom and opportunity to
express painful feelings. Children, like adults, can best experience
kind and giving feelings when they are not preoccupied with
upsetting experiences. When a child tells me "I hate my
sister", I validate his feelings and accept his emotional
outburst - only then he can be free to love his sister. If hurtful
and angry feelings are numbed, the loving and kind ones fall asleep
with them. It's a package deal.
I find gratefulness to be a great tool for
positive awareness, and the heart of manners. We can demonstrate it all
through the day. I often say things like: I am so happy to have this
wonderful house. I love this community. We are so lucky to live here. I
am so grateful that Bach was born before me so I can enjoy his
incredible music. I am amazed and thankful to be alive....have eyes,
ears....and so on. Being grateful, sensitive and kind is not a lecture -
but a demonstration.
Children become what they absorb around them. Be
what you want them to become, and treat them the way you wish them to
learn to be with others.
Maybe what we need is to develop our own manners
of respect toward our children. It is not easy, but very simple:
Children develop adult manners by the time they are adults.
This article has been adapted from Naomi's
forthcoming book, Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves.