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Raising a Polite Child

Every parent wants to have polite, respectful children with good manners. Fortunately, nature is on our side. Children learn by copying what we do and love to do everything "just like mommy and daddy do", as it makes them feel they are being "big".

I was having tea with Melissa and two-year-old André when André got the hiccups. He went, "hic - skies, hic - skies, hic - skies" ("scuse me" in Afrikaans). "How on earth did you manage to teach him to do that?" I asked her. "Well, actually I didn't teach him anything", she replied, "But if I cough or sneeze, I always say "skies", so he copies me. I'm not trying to "train" him to have good manners, but if I want something from him, I always say "please", and when he gives me something, I always say "thank you". When he is older, he will automatically do those things too."

Do as I say or do as I do?

Melissa had discovered something very important - that trying to "train" children to be polite can be counter-productive, especially if we begin when they are too young to do it naturally. Prompting children to say "please" and "thank you" or wave "bye-bye" can be very embarrassing to them and set up resistance, at an age when they may still have a natural shyness about talking to adults, especially strangers. But if we treat children with politeness and respect, and if they see us treating each other the same way, they will imitate us as they grow. They watch everything we say and do, and are learning, "Oh, so that's how people are supposed to do it!"

Real appreciation

Parents who know their own children will notice how each child shows their appreciation spontaneously in their own unique way. When we give them something, they may respond with anything from a shy smile to a big grin. At birthdays, they may show their excitement and delight by jumping up and down, by their shining eyes and the way they rip the paper off their presents in their excitement to find out what is inside - or they may shout with delight, "Look what I got!"

"What do we say?"

Adults who understand children know that they are saying thank you in the most genuine way they know how. If we intervene with "What do we say when someone gives us a present?" the child is likely to feel shamed and humiliated, especially if they have already shown acknowledgement in their own genuinely spontaneous way. They will feel we are telling them they did it wrong, and learn that instead of showing their true feelings they must repeat empty phrases that have no meaning to them.

Rather we should allow children to communicate their appreciation spontaneously. As they grow older and watch how we show appreciation to them and to other people, including words like "please" and "thank you", doing the same will come naturally. These words will then be added to their spontaneous responses, rather than repeating "polite" but empty words they have learned to say to please us.

Lend a helping hand

Though prompting children to be polite can be counter-productive, we can facilitate their learning by involving them when we are being polite or friendly to someone. "Lets go and wave goodbye to Granny", doesn't put the child on the spot like, "Say goodbye to Granny now". Instead we can wave and say goodbye, allow Granny to wave and say goodbye, and let the child participate as much as she wishes. If we make it fun, the child will probably enjoy participating. If it doesn't happen every time it's not a problem - toddlers have a very short span of concentration, and may have their attention diverted by something else. Over time they get the hang of it, especially if the adult is interacting warmly with them.

In many cultures, a junior person is not expected to initiate a conversation with someone more senior. The senior person speaks first and then the junior person responds, with a word or a gesture. Children know this and are not expected to address adults unless the adult addresses them. For example, a toddler is more likely to respond with a wave or smile if Granny speaks directly to her and says, "Bye Jenny, see you soon", than if we expect the child to initiate the greeting.

Thank-you letters

If thank-you letters are important to you, make them fun to do. Abraham tells how he encouraged his children to say thank you after a happy beach holiday with elderly relatives. Rather than formal words like "Thank you, we had a lovely time", he encouraged each child to share something they had done with the aunt or uncle at the beach house, and draw a picture of it to show appreciation of something that was shared and enjoyed. One child chose to draw a picture of her aunt building sand castles with her, another wanted to talk about, "This is you helping me learn to ride my scooter". With small children, the child draws the picture and the adult explains in writing what it is, and what the child is saying they enjoyed. "I had fun when you played with me at the beach", creates a shared history together, he says, and is about expressing the value we have for each other.

Meeting children in public

Recently while waiting at the counter in a drug store, I noticed a pretty little girl of about three standing next to me - her father was standing on the other side of her. Spontaneously she and I looked at each other and I gave her a smile - she gave a shy smile back. She really was enchanting and was communicating her appreciation of me beautifully. So I said "Hello!" and she beamed at me. Her father prompted gently, "What do we say when people greet us?" The little girl hung her head in shame. She had responded spontaneously to me, and now she was being told she hadn't done it right.

I felt dreadful and wished I hadn't said anything. This wasn't an appropriate time to explain to the father that parents who prompt their children to say things they consider polite, are really feeling anxious. They see their children as an extension of themselves and want their children to act as they would, in case another adult assumes they are not raising them with good manners. Thinking fast, I looked at the dad, smiled at him, and said, "Don't worry. Big people find it easy to speak to little people, but little people find it hard to speak to big people". He looked visibly relieved that I didn't see him as a bad father.

The little girl glanced up at him to make sure everything was okay, and when he smiled back at her, she was reassured. Tentatively she looked back at me, so I gave her another smile, which she returned, looking much happier. She snuggled up to her dad and he put his arm around her. The last I saw of them was them leaving the shopping center, with the little girl sitting on her dad's shoulders, both looking happy. But it drove home to me how easy it is to shame children and leave them feeling confused about their natural responses of appreciation - which had been what she was giving me before she was prompted to do something that would be unnatural for such a small child to do.

Take the test

Teaching children good manners begins with showing them respect. As author Pam Leo wrote, "Some of the disrespectful ways adults treat children have been said and done to children for so long, we are often unaware they are disrespectful."1

When you were a child did any adult ever:

Now go through the list again and see how many of those things you have said to your own children. We may repeat what our parents did to us, and our children will do the same to their children if we don't break the "chain of disrespect", but the good news is we can! It boils down to respecting people's feelings, no matter how old they are, and there's a golden rule... if it's something that would be disrespectful to say to your best friend, don't say it to your child. If it's something you could comfortably say to a visitor in your home or an adult you love, then it is fine to say it to your child, and you will be teaching her respect and good manners, without even trying.

People of all ages need to be treated respectfully, and they feel hurt when they aren't. Although children are younger than us and in need of guidance, they are more sensitive and more easily hurt than adults. They are also learning from us how to behave, by watching everything we say and do.

1 "Connection Parenting: Parenting through Connection instead of Coercion, through Love instead of Fear", by Pam Leo (Oregon: Wyatt-McKenzie Publishing, 2007)

© 2012 Pat Törngren