"What Do You Say?"
"Your son is so polite," a friend once said when Jason was five.
I 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.
Setting 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.
When 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.
Some of 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 like it.")
Unwritten 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!
What 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.
Had 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.
The Best Way to Teach a Child Manners
Like 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.
Many 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.
The 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.
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.
Originally written for Unerzogen Magazine.