Why I don’t make my child say, “please” and “thank you.” My thoughts on manners.

I want to begin by stating that I am not making a case against saying, “please,” or “thank you,” at all. As a matter of fact, I say these words myself, but not because anyone is making me. I say them because I want to. It feels good within me to say it when I choose to.

I deeply believe that the best way we can teach things like politeness, empathy, and gratitude to our children is by modeling it. You cannot force the feelings of appreciation or kindness. They have to feel it from within and they feel it from within by being given the space to feel it, not by being told to repeat  phrases because someone is suggesting they do so. Quicky demanding thank you’s and I’m sorry’s from our children robs them of having the experience of the feelings behind the words. Forcing them to say it simply teaches social conditioning and docility.

I also want to address the idea of politeness. Why is it that to be polite, we have to inject certain words other than, “Can I have…” or “I want?” What is wrong with, “I want an apple?” When our children ask for something (assuming it is with a neutral tone), and we counter with, “What do you say?,” it implies that asking for what you want is somehow not ok. That for it to be ok we have to use “magic words.”

My friend Peter Jude Gustafson put it perfectly:

“I want…” is the most authentic thing anyone can say. The emphasis on “polite” speech, and the need to say “please” and any real time correction to that regard teaches the child that asking for what you want is not acceptable. It is my belief that this type of grooming results in adults who are unable to directly express what they want. These adults learn to instead use manipulation in attempts to meet their needs.”

In my opinion, so much of language is less about the words and more about intent. If a three-year-old is given a toy and happily and excitedly runs off to play with it, I can feel his appreciation. He is grateful. In his experience, he is feeling thankful. To expect a condition created by society that is not natural for a three-year-old, like saying ‘thank you’, is having too high of expectations. To say, ‘thank you’ is social grooming, which, like I said, I don’t have a problem with those words, but let’s stop and reflect on why we need to hear them if we can feel the feeling without the words.

Now if my child yells at me, “get me a sandwich, now!” then I will address that based on how I feel hearing it. Odds are that if I am spoken to in this way, I won’t want to do the thing being asked of me, for my child or anyone. Notice it still isn’t about the words, but the intent. I might then say something like, “It doesn’t feel good to me when you yell at me to do something. It makes me not want to help you, and I like feeling good about helping you. Could you use a kinder tone?” You might even suggest a “please” in your adjustment, but the emphasis isn’t on the word itself.

Many people argue that this type of training is simply teaching “good manners,” but I ask you to question what that even means, and why is internal goodness linked to arbitrary words? I am all for modeling respect and appreciation for children to see and live by. But what is happening when we imply that the way our child asked for something wasn’t good enough? As in, you wanting an apple does not suffice. I need to hear “magic words.” What message does that send?

Have you ever seen a child be forced to say, “I’m sorry,” and then they begrudgingly do so with a dissatisfied look on their face? I have. In this instance, the only thing that seemed to matter were the words, but nothing was learned or felt (except maybe resentment and/or embarrassment). Only that in certain situations you have to repeat, ‘I’m sorry,’ even if you don’t want to. Even if you don’t mean it.

So that is why I will never force arbitrary words onto my children. Instead, I will do my best to focus on feelings and intentions. It is easy to get caught up in the words themselves and think we are doing a good job and accuse others of not teaching manners. Not only accusing of not teaching manners, but blaming lack of manners for the problems of “kids today.” I think the problem is more that we lack feeling grateful and less that we are not saying the words, “thank you.”  I trust that the words will come naturally when they are old enough and see it modeled, because it is true that we use language to express feelings. But if stressing manners is simply teaching your child to always say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, then manners are not important to me. My 2.5 year old is a living example of what is possible. He has never once been prompted by his father or myself to say please, thank you or I’m sorry, and he says these things all the time. He learned through modeling. He learned by seeing us say it to him and to others. We didn’t need to make him say it. We trusted he would catch on when it was developmentally time, and he definitely has.

What are your thoughts?