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The "Magic Words" Must be Spoken from the Heart

In a letter to the editor of a local paper, the writer expressed a common com­plaint: several children had neglected to say "thank you" for the Halloween treats she had given them. She further suggested that the words themselves are the most important consideration, and that parents should resort to force, if necessary, to extract them.

It is natural to feel hurt when it seems that our kindness is being taken for granted. But maybe we should look a little deeper, especially when it comes to children.

As I see it, there are two entirely different reasons a child would say "thank you". One child may thank us because she is genuinely appreciative of our kindness, and has heard many expressions of gratitude within her own family (especially gratitude expressed to her).

Another child may say "thank you", but be merely mouthing empty words out of fear of punishment. Behavior based on fear, with little understanding of the meaning behind the ritual, means little. Such behavior is not only meaningless, it is futile, as it fails to accomplish what we are seeking. It may also create an unfortunate connection between the giving of thanks and feelings of embarrassment and pressure.

With threats of punishment, we may force a child to say "thank you", but we can't force the genuine courtesy that we really want. True kindness grows within a child when she is treated kindly. It cannot be forced into her heart by forcing words into her mouth. Besides, where is the joy in hearing "the magic words" spoken submissively by a frightened child? All words lose their magic if they aren't spoken from the heart.

The educator John Holt once described a "real" thank you which he had received spontaneously from a young friend as a "lovely little present in words, full of pleasure, affection, and gratitude." He goes on to say that: "As far as I can remember, this was the first time she had ever said 'thank you' to me ... This little person has never been told to say 'thank you'. So why did she say it to me, if no one has told her to? How did she learn it? Because we adults always say 'thank you' to her, and because she hears us saying it to one another. By keen observation she has picked it up that when people do something nice for each other, it is a little gift of love, and the one receiving the gift gives a little gift back. Since she wants to do what we do, she did the same thing. In time, it will become as natural as breathing."

Holt continued, "How different from another kind of scene, which I have witnessed more times than I care to remember: A child gazes on his gift, lost in pleasure, excitement and curiosity, when an adult voice says, often in a scolding or angry tone, 'What do you say?' The child is snatched out of his world of awe and pleasure and is suddenly made to feel guilty and ashamed. He hears what he under­stands very well as a threat - if he doesn't say 'thank you', something bad will happen to him. So, all pleasure gone, possibly even hating the present that has put him in this painful situation, he grudgingly and sullenly says 'thank you'."

At Halloween, children go to some effort too, carefully selecting their new identity, getting dressed up, and walking for an hour or more. How many of us bother to say, "Thank you for showing me your costume"? This is more than a question of fairness, but also of helpfulness, because genuine courtesy comes most of all through imitation. Children learn to treat others with kindness by observing the adults around them doing kind things, and by having explanations, respectfully given, of the reasons for the behaviors we prefer.

Instead of complaining about rudeness in children, we should remember that children behave as well as they are treated, and as well as they see us treating each other.

"How can anything outwardly command us that has not first inwardly claimed us?" - Author unknown

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Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers 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