Making kids say stuff like¨ thank you¨ and ¨please¨ sucks

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My book of the moment is Unconditional Parenting (an affiliate link), by Alfie Kohn. Among so much good stuff, Kohn talks about the fact that to carry on with what he calls unconditional parenting, we are swimming against the tide.

One example of this that I can think of is how most parents make their children say ¨please¨, ¨thank you¨, ¨I`m sorry¨ and ¨good bye¨ and how this doesn´t help at all kids in feeling what´s behind those nice words.

There are actually effective ways to work with empathy with children, and you can find great advice about this on Aha Parenting, Good Job and Other Things and Essential Parenting blogs.

I used to feel embarrassed by not making my daughter say any of that. I never wanted to be a ventriloquist and I always wanted her to say those nice words as long as she feels them.

But it´s a fact that people around expect us to control our kids in ways that are not good for them (the children). Adults want us to make them behave very badly. This is a powerful societal force against mindful parenting, like Konn says:

¨It´s not permissiveness itself, but the fear of permissiveness that causes the most serious problems in our culture¨.

And I can relate to that statement as I acted differently around other adults, responding to their expectation rather than my child´s needs (especially because I´m also always fighting my own permissive pull). So I had my portion of demanding that my girl apologizes or thanks people.

But I quit the conventional wisdom around teaching kids good manners and I keep quiet if it feels the right thing to do. I thank things that are given to my child, for my own sake, I model behavior by doing what´s right and I ask her in her ear (not to embarrass her with out loud requests) if she would like to say something to this or that person, respecting her will.

But I´m actually guilty of trying to control her good manners too. Not only for a while I was saying the disrespectful ¨What do you say?¨, but even though I made myself stop that, I realized that sometimes I might want to model the good manners too much.

The other day when a friend gave my 4-year old a plate of food, I said  ¨thank you¨ in a way that was expecting Luísa to say it too,  like a reminder (and she did). As a reminder is not so bad.

But this left me wondering that if the motivation behind my thankfulness was more about giving Luísa a lesson, then a complete different lesson than I had on my agenda might have been what she got from it.

One could be exactly the one I want to avoid, that it doesn´t matter to feel what you say. And well, it´s also true that I want her to be polite out of pure reflex, but that can wait to happen.

Another lesson learned could be that I decide when she says those words.

I screw this up often. Sometimes I get pissed off at her at home when she doesn´t show me any appreciation for all the things I do for her, all the little favors. So I give her the old ¨I`m not your slave¨ shit that you might be familiar with and I resent her for not being nice to me (even though there are plenty of times that she is nice that I could focus on).

And with kids, what we say matters, but our intent matters way more than words. They can sense our intention, they can see through all our body language, tone of voice and gaze.

They can possibly somehow get our thoughts too. But if you don´t want to be very quantum about this subject, suffice is to say that as Kohn points out:

¨Even when parents don´t say outloud that the child must have acted as he did because he´s stupid or destructive or bad, it matters if they believe this is true. It´s not just the attributions we utter that matter, but the ones we make in our heads. Though we may never speak an unkind word about our children, assumptions about their motives invariably affect the way we treat them. The more negative those assumptions, the more inclined we´ll be to control them unnecessarily.¨

So, in assuming that our kids are not ready to be nice on their own, we feel like controlling them. And if you make your child say nice things to people, you are assuming that she wouldn´t do it otherwise, you are not giving her much chance.

I do this too, I assume bad motives behind my daughter´s acts or lack of kindness at times, and this is very destructive and it has to be stopped or at least diminished as much as possible.

I think we have a hard work to do. It´s about attributing the best motives for our kids not to say something, modeling sincerely how to behave and waiting for the best.

The waiting part is the most challenging, I know. It involves trusting that they´ll learn what they have to learn at their own pace.

This article was originally posted on Tripping Mom by Marilia Di Cesare on April 10, 2012. Republished with authorization. Click here for all other posts.

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