042: How to teach a child to use manners

Jen Lumanlan
Jul 2, 2017 · 32 min read

I actually hadn’t realized what a can of worms I was opening when I started the research for today’s episode, which is on the topic of manners and politeness. It began innocently enough — as an English person, for whom manners are pretty important, I started to wonder why my almost three-year-old doesn’t have better manners yet. It turns out that it was a much more difficult subject to research than I’d anticipated, in part because it draws on a variety of disciplines, from child development to linguistics.

And at the heart of it, I found myself torn between two different perspectives. The parenting philosophy that underlies the respectful relationship I have with my daughter, which is called Resources for Infant Educarers, or RIE, advocates for the use of modeling to transmit cultural information like manners — if you, the parent, are a polite person, then your child will learn about manners. On the flip side of that is the practice of saying “what do you say?” or something similar when you want your child to say “please” or “thank you,” something that I know a lot of parents do. My general approach has been to model good manners consistently but I do find it drives me bananas when my daughter says “I want a [whatever it is]” without saying “please,” and RIE also says parents should set a limit on behavior when they find it annoying. So I have been trying to walk a fine line between always modeling good manners and requiring a “please” before I acquiesce to a demand, and I wondered whether research could help me to come down on one side or the other of this line and just be sure about what I’m doing. So this episode is going to be about my explorations through the literature on this topic, which are winding and convoluted — actually both the literature and my explorations are winding and convoluted, and by the time we get to the end I hope to sort out how I’m going to instill a sense of politeness in my daughter, and how you might be able to do it for your child as well.

Other episodes referenced in this show

004: How to encourage creativity and artistic ability in children (and symbolic representation)

026: Is my child lying to me? (Hint: yes!)

005: How to “scaffold” children’s learning to help them succeed

034: How do I get my child to do chores?

007: Help! My toddler won’t eat vegetables

031: Parenting beyond pink and blue

006: Wait, is my toddler racist?

References

Becker, J.A. (1988). The success of parents’ indirect techniques for teaching their preschoolers pragmatic skills. First Language 8, 173–182.

Brown, P., & Levinson, S.C. (1987). Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

De Lucca Freitas, L.B., Pieta, M.A.M., & Tudge, J.R.H. (2011). Beyond Politeness: The expression of gratitude in children and adolescents. Psicologia: Reflexao e Critica 24(4), 757–764.

Durlack, J.A., Weissberg, R.P., Dymnicki, A.B., Taylor, R.D., & Schellinger, K.B. (2011). The impact of enhancing student’s social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development 82(1), 405–432.

Einzig, R. (2015). Model graciousness. Retrieved from: https://visiblechild.wordpress.com/2015/09/02/model-graciousness/ (Also see Robin’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/visiblechildinc/)

Ervin-Tripp, S., Guo, J., & Lampert, M. (1990). Politeness and persuasion in children’s control acts. Journal of Pragmatics 14, 307–331.

Grief, E.B., & Gleason, J.B. (1980). Hi, thanks, and goodbye: More routine information. Language in Society 9(2), 159–166.

Ely, R., & Gleason, J.B. (2006). I’m sorry I said that: Apologies in young children’s discourse. Journal of Child Language 33 (599–620).

Gleason, J.B., Perlmann, R.Y., Grief, E.B. (1984). What’s the magic word: Learning language through politeness routines. Discourse Processes 7(4), 493–502.

Kuykendall, J. (1993). “Please,” “Thank you,” “You’re welcome”: Teacher language can positively impact prosocial development. Day Care and Early Education 21(1), 30–32.

Lancy, D.F. (2015). The anthropology of childhood: Cherubs, chattel, changelings (2nd Ed.). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Lansbury, J. (2014, January 16). They’ll grow into it — Trusting children to develop manners, toilet skills, emotional regulation and more. Retrieved from: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2014/01/theyll-grow-into-it-trusting-children-to-develop-manners-toilet-skills-emotional-regulation-and-more/

Lo, A., & Howard, K.M. (2009). Mobilizing respect and politeness in classrooms. Linguistics and Education 20, 211–216.

Snow, C.E., & Gleason, J.B. (1990). Developmental perspectives on politeness: Sources of children’s knowledge. Journal of Pragmatics 14, 289–305.

Suzuku, M. (2015, October 23). Bowing in Japan: Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about how to bow, and how not to bow, in Japan. Retrieved from: https://www.tofugu.com/japan/bowing-in-japan/


Transcript

Hello, and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. I actually hadn’t realized what a can of worms I was opening when I started the research for today’s episode, which is on the topic of manners and politeness. It began innocently enough — as an English person (honestly, despite the strange accent) for whom manners are pretty important, I started to wonder why my almost three-year-old doesn’t have better manners yet. It turns out that it was a much more difficult subject to research than I’d anticipated, in part because it draws on a variety of disciplines, from child development to linguistics.

And at the heart of it, I found myself torn between two different perspectives. The parenting philosophy that underlies the respectful relationship I have with my daughter, which is called Resources for Infant Educarers, or RIE, advocates for the use of modeling to transmit cultural information like manners — if you, the parent, are a polite person, then your child will learn about manners. On the flip side of that is the practice of saying “what do you say?” or something similar when you want your child to say “please” or “thank you,” something that I know a lot of parents do. My general approach has been to model good manners consistently but I do find it drives me bananas when my daughter says “I want a [whatever it is]” without saying “please,” and RIE also says parents should set a limit on behavior when they find it annoying. So I have been trying to walk a fine line between always modeling good manners and requiring a “please” before I acquiesce to a demand, and I wondered whether research could help me to come down on one side or the other of this line and just be sure about what I’m doing. So this episode is going to be about my explorations through the literature on this topic, which are winding and convoluted — actually both the literature and my explorations are winding and convoluted, and by the time we get to the end I hope to sort out how I’m going to instill a sense of politeness in my daughter, and how you might be able to do it for your child as well.

So the first thing we should acknowledge as we set out on our journey, that both politeness and impoliteness are awfully difficult to define, they are contextually appropriate, and they are culturally appropriate as well. In fact, politeness and impoliteness seem to be difficult to define *because* they are contextually appropriate and culturally appropriate. So we might agree that it is rude to interrupt people when they are speaking, and yet I’m sure we can all imagine a time when we were excited to tell someone something and we interrupted them — perhaps repeatedly — so we could do it. We might even be able to find a culture where interrupting people isn’t that rude at all.

We might all agree that saying “please” and “thank you” form the basis of good manners and yet how many of us ALWAYS say these things at the appropriate times? I pride myself on my manners and yet I know I don’t ALWAYS use them (although I do make an extra special effort to use them when my daughter is around). And manners are, of course, highly culturally appropriate — you only need to think of how strange it seems to Americans to bow to someone else to show deference and respect, which is, of course, commonplace in Japan — there’s a helpful guide linked in the references to the exact number of degrees your bow should be in each of a variety of circumstances that require different levels of deference and respect in Japan. But there are some countries in southern Europe where the translation of “please” into the local language is apparently a term that connotes begging and is seen to be rude, so even something as simple as that is not universal by any stretch.

If we start to think about the purpose of manners, I like to look first to the ethnographic literature to see how things are done in other cultures, because I think this helps to ground our explorations with a view on whether us Westerners are doing things in a way that the rest of the world thinks is crazy or not. For this I turned to our old friend David Lancy, whose book The Anthropology of Childhood I’ve referenced many times on the show. I was surprised to find that manners are actually quite universal in nature — what precisely are the social graces that one needs to master varies by location, of course, but the concept of manners does seem to exist in an awful lot of cultures — and so does teaching children about those manners. In a majority of cases it seems as though the mother teaches the child manners so it appears more attractive to other potential caregivers, which reduces the burden of parenting on the mother. Kwara’ae mothers in the Solomon Island drill their children on terms to use for their relatives and polite ways of conversing with them, and these sessions contain not only information about family structure but also about values of delicacy and peacefulness. Four-year-old Fijian children are expected to bend over in an exaggerated bow to show respect to passing adults, and will be scolded or hit if they don’t show sufficient respect. Javanese mothers repeat terms of politeness over and over and correct their children’s mistakes, so one-year-olds can do a polite bow and say a polite form of “goodbye,” while an aristocratic five-year-old will have an extensive repertoire of graceful phrases and actions.

David Lancy notes that there is actually considerable evidence that children will learn appropriate prosocial behaviors in time — despite the importance of social instruction in many areas of the south pacific, Samoan children begin to pick up the distinctive features characterizing people of rank and authority without being explicitly instructed. Apparently there are many societies that value “proper” behavior a great deal and that don’t engage in any kind of enforced compliance or training since, after all, the success of the human species actually rests on our VOLUNTARY compliance with social norms. The English well-known ethologist Desmond Morris claimed in his 1967 book The Naked Ape that there may be an instinctive basis for greetings and other similar rituals, but it seems to me that children would pick them up a lot more quickly than they do if this were the case. Six years seems like an awfully long time to wait for a behavior to emerge that is so important in navigating social situations that the child encounters from much younger ages.

French children are well-regarded for their table manners with wrists being held on the edge of the table when the hands are not being used for eating, for example. The gulf between French and American children’s manners prompted the bestseller Bringing up Bebe, which teased us with descriptions of French parenting that alternated between these strict mealtime rules and a great deal of laissez-faire parenting that permits a great deal more parental relaxation than under the typical American model. David Lancy points out the supreme irony that Americans spend such a huge amount of time teaching their young children things — all kinds of things, in an effort to help them get ahead, much more time than we spend teaching them about things related to kin terminology, politeness, and etiquette (even though it might feel to you as if you spend quite a lot of time saying “what’s the magic word?”). He attributes this discrepancy to the importance of kin terminology, politeness, and etiquette in interdependent societies where the whole is valued more than the individuals within it. Western society, and particularly American society, values individuality to such a great extent that being able to recognize one’s feelings and expressing those feelings are far more important than what anyone else might think or feel.

I’ve been trying to think about what it is about these words “please” and “thank you” that are so meaningful for us as parents and that leave me, at least, so ticked off when they aren’t used. Particularly “please” which I find much more triggering when it’s omitted than “thank you.” Certainly it’s possible to be polite without using them — something like “would you kindly pass the salt?” is polite doesn’t use “please,” although perhaps the average three-year-old is less likely to come out with this variation that they probably don’t hear very often. Maybe it’s because we feel taken for granted much of the time and once we’ve asked our preschooler to say “please” a number of times we feel as though they ought to remember the routine, and that if they can remember how to say “I want some banana,” surely they can remember to say “I want some banana please” — although one study did find that a polite request by a child was less likely to be granted than a neutral “I want some banana” kind of request, perhaps because mothers in particular are conditioned to comply with distressed or angry requests. If the child is already distressed then we don’t want to escalate the situation by denying the request, but if the child says “please” and they’re asking for something we don’t want them to have they’re probably in a mood in which we can negotiate with them. It does seem as though we’re shooting ourselves in the foot a bit, though, by denying more requests when they are accompanied by a “please” than when the child stamps their foot and says they want the thing.

On the flip-side, though, I can imagine how frustrating it must be to be a child and not be able to reach the bananas, or the milk, or the scissors and glue, and to always have to ask for everything an adult thinks must be kept out of your reach. So we use these phrases to get people to do things for us, and to show our appreciation for doing things for us, because in our society these things have become routinized. As one researcher noted, routines are a way of guiding a person’s normal interaction in social situations, and if everyone shares the same “rules” about what those routines should be then the interaction goes more smoothly. For this reason, researchers have found that young children who have improved social and emotional skills do better in school, although I would argue that so much of “doing well in school” in the early years pretty much does consist of being able to sit still and keep quiet when the teacher says “be quiet” and not get into disagreements with other children so in a way it’s kind of a “well, duh” that children with better manners do better in school.

So what I really want to get to the root of is: how much do our toddlers and preschoolers understand about all this? Should we teach them the routines of politeness before they understand what the routines mean, or should we wait for the child to understand what it means to be polite and to feel grateful before we expect them to start saying “please” and “thank you”?

Professor Jean Berko Gleason did a fair bit of important work on manners, and we’re going to talk about several of her studies, although most of it was in the 1980s and I think we can assume social conditions have changed a bit since then. In one study she and her co-authors wanted to understand HOW children learn politeness rules which, she says, are even more difficult to understand than rules of grammar, which children obviously struggle as well because, like with manners, grammar has lots of rules but also lots of exceptions to those rules. The researchers use a definition of politeness which says that the amount of “work” that needs to be done when making a request is determined by three parameters — firstly, the degree of imposition of the request (so, “could you pass the salt?” and “could I borrow $1,000 from you?” require different levels of politeness, even if you’re asking both questions of the same person), secondly the social difference between the requester and the grantee, and thirdly the power differential between the requestor and the grantee. The researchers wondered how children learn the rules of politeness in all of its many and varied forms when no parent ever says to them “you can be rude to me but you’d better be polite to your teacher because there’s more social distance between you and her than between you and me.” But children do receive lots of information from two other sources — firstly parents teach by modeling, for example, by trying to minimize threats to their children’s social standing, or “face,” by making polite requests that help their children “save face” or using more polite forms of requests when asking for special favors from their children. Secondly, parents do directly teach children about what forms of politeness to use in certain situations, usually taking the form of “say please” or something similar. Unfortunately, the researchers didn’t make any attempt to analyze how effective were the different methods of teaching.

In another study, Professor Berko recruited eight families, four with girls and four with boys all aged between three and five. With the families’ permission, she left a tape recorder in an inconspicuous spot in the dining room and recorded the conversation that occurred during the evening meal. She points out that “it should be noted that the fathers had more occasion to say please or thanks since they were being served.” One might hope that in modern families at least some men are participating in some cooking, or at least helping to get their own food, although I have to say that that’s not the case in our house. Professor Gleason found no evidence of differential treatment of girls and boys, but each of the eight families did engage in some attempt to get the child to produce what she called “politeness forms” like “please” and “thank you.” She believes that by insisting on the use of the word “please,” that parents are indicating to the child that the class of utterances known as requests requires some kind of special treatment; that you can’t just make the request for the thing you want without adding this word, and in this way the parents help the child to “gain pragmatic awareness before syntactic competence,” by which she means that the child becomes able to use the appropriate convention to get what she wants before she really understands what the word means.

Other researchers have noticed that the majority of requests for politeness from children are not direct (as in “say please”) but are rather indirect (as in, “what do you say?”), and while indirect requests are actually a pretty effective method of getting children to say the required word, researchers haven’t fully understood why we parents don’t just say “say please” all the time. They hypothesize four reasons — that because people believe that children who lack manners have been raised poorly that the indirect request allows the parents to save face because they draw less attention to the child’s error (which I don’t think is really the case), that parents use indirectness as a way of venting frustration when their child is impolite (which I can say probably is the case for me a lot of the time); that parents are teaching their child how to be indirect, or that parents want the child to think of the correct thing to say by themselves, which sounds good until you realize just how routinized these interactions become with the average three-year-old and you see that they know *exactly* what is expected when they hear “what do you say?”.

In another study, Professor Gleason invited 22 children aged between two and five and their parents into a laboratory playroom for a session as part of another ongoing study, greeted the children, at the end of the session an assistant entered the room to give the child a gift for participating in the study, and then said “goodbye.” The goal was to see whether children would say “hi,” “thanks,” and “goodbye” at appropriate points in the course of the visit, which apparently only one three-year-old boy did on one of his two visits to the lab. Children responded with “hi” or “goodbye” about 25% of the time, but produced an unprompted “thank you” only about 7% of the time. When the child didn’t produce the three phrases spontaneously the accompanying parent almost always prompted the child to say it, with the most prompting occurring for the “thank you,” and the child actually saying “thank you” 86% of the time when they were prompted. The children usually repeated the parent’s words exactly, so if the parent said “say thank you for the gift” the child would say “thank you for the gift.” The children never added anything like “thank you for giving me the toy” or expressed any other indication that they really knew what the routine meant. When their child received the gift, 15 parents said “thank you” themselves, 11 of which were mothers and 4 were fathers, a difference that was statistically significant, with a similar result in with the “goodbyes.” Professor Gleason speculated that the upper middle class parents in her sample might not even try to elicit the appropriate terms as much as members of groups of lower socio-economic status, who may be less permissive with their children. She also noticed the potentially profound implications of mothers exhibiting more polite behavior than fathers, and wondered whether a two-year-old knows that she is a girl and that she is supposed to talk like her mother rather than her father? For those of you with boys, you might want to have a conversation with the adult male members of your family about the importance of manners as well, although I should point out that Professor Gleason was involved in another study using a much larger sample size that didn’t find any difference between maternal and paternal use of manners.

So if our children don’t fully understand the words they’re saying, how do they know which words to use? The phrase “may I be excused” is an example of what Professor Gleason calls an “unanalyzed chunk” — a set of words that the child aged three or four knows go together but isn’t really sure what the individual words mean and can’t use them in other settings for several more years. Other researchers have suggested that children use these chunks of language as an interim strategy until they fully understand what they mean and can recombine them into new forms. And they don’t even need to be completely fixed routines, but may have open slots that the speaker can fill in with word that are appropriate to the immediate situation. Much of a preschooler’s life is highly routinized, and Professor Gleason thinks that the words adults use — and tend to use over and over again, the same each day — are processed by children as chunks rather than as individual words that can be recombined into other sentences.

As an example of this, I have for years now asked my husband over dinner every night “So how was the office, dear?” in the tone that I imagine a 1950’s housewife might ask her weary husband, just after she puts his slippers in front of his feet and his tumbler of whisky on the rocks in his hand. It’s sort of poking fun at the fact that while I do have a full-time job, I’m lucky enough to work from home and so I have “been at home” all day while my husband has had to drive to his “real” work at the office. My daughter and I were eating dinner together one night when she turned to me and said “How was the office dear?” with obviously no understanding of what it meant, but she had heard it used at the dinner table for months and decided to replicate it. I almost fell out of my chair laughing but after I picked myself up I told her how my day at my “office” was, and since then she has asked the same question on almost a daily basis. She has been to her Dad’s office, but I know she doesn’t have a concept of what he does there every day or what it means to ask how the office was, but she knows it is a chunk of words that we use and understand and will respond to if she uses it. She only uses it at the dinner table, because it’s part of our dinner routine, so it’s relatively useless as a chunk of information. The form “Can I have more [of something]” is easier to understand and so might be one that a child experiments with — you may hear “please can I have more banana” or “please more banana” or “more banana please” as the child figures out what forms are acceptable ways of asking for banana and which will earn a reprimand.

Shifting gears a bit, apologies are also both linguistic and social tools, which Professor Gleason says can restore damaged relationships, mitigate loss of face, and preserve social standing. Linguists categorize apologies as both performatives, which means the apology is achieved when the words “I’m sorry” or their equivalent are spoken, and as expressives, which is the sincerity of the feelings of remorse being expressed. Unlike the use of “please” and “thank you,” which are highly routinized, the use of “I’m sorry” is much more situationally specific — these situatioons don’t occur nearly as often, and they require the child to understand that a violation of some kind of norm regarding social interactions has taken place and that this violation can be remedied. Professor Gleason studied nine children aged between 1 year 2 months and 6 years 1 month. The youngest child to say “sorry” said it at age 1 year 10 months after his mother said “Can you say you’re sorry?”. Children increasingly used the word “sorry” in the course of their play (things like “So sorry, tow truck!”) between age two and four. There was also a drop in direct parental prompts (where the parent says “say sorry!” and a rise in indirectly elicited prompts where a transgression is discussed but the apology isn’t specifically requested or required, over the same period. The study also describes three ways that parents teach implicitly teach children how to apologize. For example, when a child is working on a puzzle with her mother the child says “Oh, you forgot, Mommy,” and the mother says “Oh, I’m sorry I made a mistake” — so by explaining why she’s saying “sorry” the mother helps her child to understand when she, too, can use that language. The second of these is the sympathetic apology, when the child says he doesn’t feel well and the parent says “Oh, I’m sorry” — it’s more of a showing of sympathy than owning up to any sense of responsibility for the child’s not feeling well, and is apparently indicative of the extent to which parents go out of their way to help their children ‘save face.’ And finally, when a mother causes a cart to hit her son and she says “whoops, excuse me!,” her three year old son says “why you said “scuse me”? And the mother says “because I was afraid you were hurt,” again teaching the child about an appropriate use of the word.

Stepping back from the research a bit here, saying “sorry” is one area where we have definitely used modeling rather than telling our daughter to “say sorry,” probably partly because I feel that I have an alternate option that I’m comfortable with — if my daughter causes some kind of hurt to another child, I say very sincerely to the other child “I’m so sorry that happened.” My daughter’s preschool actually doesn’t tell the children to say sorry either — instead, when someone gets hurt, they encourage the other children to ask the hurt child if he’s OK, and to think of things they might be able to do to help him feel better. Initially I thought this sounded like a much better approach to me but then I realized that since two-year-olds don’t have much of a theory of mind, which is to say that they don’t understand that other people think things that are different from what they think themselves, asking if another person is OK is kind of just as meaningless as the forced apology. We’ve talked about theory of mind a couple of times, in our episode on symbolic representation in art and also in the one on lying, and you can actually test whether your child has theory of mind yet — you should take her to the kitchen and get the cookies out of the cookie jar and put them in the fridge. Then you ask her “when your Dad, or whoever he other parent is, comes in to the kitchen, where will he look for the cookies?”. If she says “in the fridge” then she doesn’t have theory of mind yet, because she doesn’t understand that her Dad couldn’t possibly think the cookies would be in the fridge. If she says “in the cookie jar” then she understands that it’s possible for her Dad to have a false belief about where the cookies are, and that she knows the truth about where they are. So until children have theory of mind, they can’t truly apologize or, I think, fully understand what it means to ask someone if they’re OK. But my daughter does produce this behavior without prompting when I bump myself or when I say “ouch” for some reason, and I suppose what’s happening is that we are scaffolding her ability to apologize by helping her to understand the kinds of situations that require apologies before she has the mental capacity to understand what it means to apologize. If you don’t recall in detail what the term “scaffolding” means then basically it’s the notion of providing support for a child as they learn about an idea and gradually withdrawing that support over time and we did a whole episode on that as well.

Professor Gleason concludes her article on apologies with an anecdote about a mother whose 3 year, 3-month old son says “you’re the biggest stinker in the whole world!” at which point she pretends to cry, and the child says “I’m sorry I said that.” By overplaying how much she was hurt the mother highlights the importance of atoning for breaches of social conventions, and her son offers a sincere apology that both offers a statement of remorse and acknowledges his wrongdoing, although it’s difficult to tell from the transcript whether the incident was more playful or manipulative. This apparently represents a pretty sophisticated grasp of the apology routine and so is something I’m watching out for in my daughter’s behavior — she does spontaneously produce “sorry”s but very sporadically, and almost always at home and not toward other children, and I haven’t yet heard her say what she’s sorry for.

So that’s some of what the research says about the development of manners. Honestly, I feel so personally torn on this issue. I had read an article by Robin Einzig, a parent educator who is very familiar with the RIE approach to parenting (but not 100% wedded to it), several months ago that’s called “model graciousness” — I’ll put a link to it in the references for this episode. The article is about what parents should do when their child refuses to do what the parent is asking, so not exactly about manners, but pretty close for our purposes since we often want our child to exhibit good manners just like we want them to do what we ask. So the point of the article is that if your child does something she’s not supposed to, like pour a glass on the floor, you explain that the milk needs to get cleaned up, and you get two cloths and give her one and you say “let’s clean it up together; would you like to wipe or hold the container while I wipe?” and she refuses or laughs or runs off, then what you’re supposed to do is not put the child in time out, or force her to clean it up, or leave the milk on the floor until she cleans it up, but to model graciousness. That means you clean up the milk yourself, and you trust that when she is ready (the next time the milk spills), she will help you. You’re supposed to “quiet the anxious voices in your head that say “If I clean it up, she’ll never learn responsibility” and quiet the resentful voices in your head that say “I’m sick of doing everything for her when she’s perfectly capable of doing it herself” and quiet the punitive voices in your head that say “she spilled it; she needs to clean it up.” The idea is that if you trust that she will help you to clean it up then one day she will, because she will, because she will have been watching you all that time and learning from you and she will know what it means to be helpful and generous and altruistic. And if you want her to be that person then you, the parent, have to be that person and help others and accept others’ emotional or developmental limitations, and model graciousness.

So if we apply this idea to the development of manners, which I think we can because I had an extended instant message chat with Robin where she told me we can, we are to model graciousness in the way we speak to others as well, and that when our child is ready, she will be gracious with others as well. It’s an approach that fits so well with so many aspects of RIE; for example, we trust that my daughter’s body will be ready to do what it needs to do in its own time, so we never “walked” her and always let her climb by herself if she wanted to — she could actually climb a play structure for 3–5 year-olds before she was even walking. The daycare she goes to has a kind of spinner on the playground that she’s been watching the older kids use for months, and we were hanging out there after school recently when she wanted me to put her on it. She had been trying to climb up facing forwards and couldn’t quite get her legs through. I told her “if you can’t do it by yourself, then I think that means your body isn’t ready yet.” She kept at it and in the end she realized that instead of climbing forward onto it she could actually back up into it and scooch up with her butt, and got up by herself — which she would never have realized if I’d just lifted her up. Now she can get up and down by herself and has been figuring out how to make it spin faster and slower, which she can’t do when the teachers are holding it for her and making it spin slowly in case she gets scared. She’s one of the more graceful three-year-olds I know; she certainly does fall down, but rarely seriously because she can look at a situation and know her limits and assess whether or not it’s safe for her, because we trust her body and so she trusts her body.

Robin Einzig trusts children absolutely to develop politeness skills in the same way — she believes that if *we* believe they can and will do it, then they will, when they are developmentally ready. The problem we run into, of course, is that society believes children should be ready to be polite usually a long time before children are developmentally ready to be polite. And the problem with that is that because so much of our own identity as people is wrapped up in our children once we become parents, that any criticism of our child’s manners becomes a criticism of our parenting, and, implicitly, of us. I mean, who hasn’t been in a real-world situation just like Professor Gleason’s lab setting where someone gives something to your child, your child takes it, and there’s a pregnant pause while everyone waits for the “thank you” that isn’t coming. It’s happened to me, many times, and I feel my own anxiety rising as I hope my daughter says it because don’t I trust her to say it when she’s ready? And what am I supposed to say — to her or to the person who gave her the thing — if she doesn’t?

Robin puts it this way: It’s a matter of framing. I do not see parenting as akin to a recipe — put this in, get this out — or as a project in which we set out to produce a product that does or behaves in a specific way. I see parenting as an exercise in faith and trust and risk and perhaps most of all, an exercise in growth for *ourselves.* I see it as an opportunity to share our lives with another fully actualized human being, whose path is their own. “

I know some parents will start drilling their child on how to say “please” and “thank you” starting around age 5 or 5 ½, perhaps because it seems as though by that age they really *should* be saying it by then, but Robin says that “if you have even an ounce of “how long must we wait” in you, then you have an expectation or a time clock or some sort of fear that it won’t happen,” and that she doesn’t operate that way. Magda Gerber, who founded the RIE approach to parenting, said that readiness is when they do it, whether that’s age four or age six or never at home but often when around others. She said her own daughter started saying please at around age two or three at home, but not really consistently, and she was never required to say it, and around age 9 or 10 she suddenly became so polite that people would compliment her manners to her parents. That’s not to say that every child will go through the same process because that’s not the case at all, of course, but if we require that our children produce certain behaviors then they are likely to do it when we’re around, but as soon as we turn our backs they’ll be rude to all and sundry. So much research on other topics supports this idea; if you force a child to eat vegetables to get another food then they end up liking vegetables less, and if you pay a child to do chores then they’ll do the chore as long as the reward is dangled but as soon as the reward goes away, they won’t do the chore any more.

But I do also recognize that manners and politeness is *not* the same as eating vegetables and doing chores; manners are something that are supposed to be a social lubricant, and *people notice* when they are absent. I should also acknowledge, though, that my own tolerance for what I view as a lack of manners is probably lower than most people’s. So Robin told me that if she was in a restaurant and the waiter asked what drinks the table would like and she said “I’d like a ginger ale” in a nice tone of voice and with a smile and eye contact rather than “could I please have a ginger ale,” that she didn’t think that would be rude at all, whereas I think “I’d like a ginger ale” would be just on the verge of acceptability and that in England, where I’m from, it would definitely be rude. And as a side note, this speaks to the difficulties that children from other countries and cultures and especially who speak other languages have in attempting to mesh their own understanding of politeness and respect with that of the culture they’re now in, especially when teachers specifically and the dominant culture in general tends to hold pretty negative views of children from the non-dominant culture. But I asked my husband what he thought and he said he didn’t think “I’d like a ginger ale” sounded rude at all. So I think partly it’s that I do have different expectations about manners than most people, and especially the average American, but it’s also partly that society has a double standard and lack of respect for children that some people call “childism.”

Childism is embodied in a lot of different ways — when she stubs her toe and cries and someone says “stop crying, you’re fine” instead of empathizing with her. It’s asking a parent if the child would like a banana when he can answer perfectly fine for himself. It’s grandma forcing the child to give her a hug or a kiss when the child clearly doesn’t want to. And it’s requiring that the child says “please” for something when the adults around him don’t say it to each other, or to the child, simply because it’s something society says we should do. Society assumes that the adult knows what manners are and may have forgotten or chosen not to use them in the particular moment, but assumes that the child does not know how to use manners unless they actually do it, so we ask them to prove it over and over again.

So I want to push back on that, because that’s kind of what we do on this show. Society says we should dress girls in pink and boys in blue and buy dolls for girls and trucks for boys and we know that science says that young boys and girls really aren’t that different and that the differences we see are mostly those that society has imposed on them. Society tells us “don’t talk about race” because it’s scary and we might say the wrong thing but we know that science says that *not* talking about race with your kids is one of the most effective ways to create racist kids. Society says to give your kids rewards for doing everything from pooping on the potty to doing chores, but we know that science says that extrinsic rewards are not a good way to motivate children in the long term. So when society says “children have to say “please” even when adults don’t have to,” perhaps we should push back on that. Robin reminded me that there are lots of ways to be polite that don’t involve saying “please;” one I use myself a lot — often in writing for work-related things — is “kindly,” so “would you kindly do this thing that I need you to do and I know you don’t really want to do?” But we can’t really expect a young child to come out with a statement like that that we don’t often use in conversation because we know from the research that they tend to use linguistic routines until they fully understand something.

So what *are* we supposed to do? Well, luckily for us, Robin Einzig has some suggestions for us. Firstly, she says that age three is really too young to reliably expect children to say “please” and that we shouldn’t require our three year olds to say it. We can model the language we want to see, so if the child says “I want a banana,” the parent can say “You’d like a banana, please? Sure, I’d be happy to get you one.” The parent doesn’t require that they say “please” to get the banana, but the child still hears the routine and is supported in understanding the social convention, even as we don’t judge the absence of a “please” from them. If we’re at a restaurant with a five-year-old who says to the waiter “I want a ginger ale” then we could put a gentle hand on his back and say to the waiter “he’d like a ginger ale, please.” And if we think our child maybe has a harder time than most at reading social cues and grandma is holding a banana out but won’t actually hand it over until the child says the “magic word,” the parent could lean over and whisper to the child in an encouraging way “I think it’s really important to Grandma that you say “please,” without actually requiring that the word be said.

I do want to be clear that there is no scientific research that I’ve found, at least, which has conclusively shown that if you model politeness and provide these kinds of supports where needed that your child will grow up to be genuinely gracious and not just polite when you’re giving them the stink eye, but as we’ve seen the research on the coercion of children in other areas of their lives, it rarely produces the result that we intend. The studies like Professor Gleason’s tend to lump all aspects of “prompting” together, no matter how coercive they are. We do also have pretty good evidence that children learn through modeling adults — both from social learning theorists like Albert Bandura but also when our own children copy the things we say and the exact tone in which we say it. I had noticed the discrepancy between my demands for my daughter to say “please” and the lack of coercion that I use in other aspects of her life, and I’ve been particularly struck by the fact that I don’t force her to say “thanks” or “sorry” but she more regularly uses those words than the “please” that I do require that she use. But I didn’t know what else to say instead. And now I do.

So I plan to make the switch to this kind of language pretty much right now. Because I can see that even if I’m no longer requiring that my daughter to say “please” to get a banana, if I do say “You’d like a banana, please?” then I am still teaching her about manners; I’m not just throwing her out to the wolves and leaving her to figure it out for herself. But I’m also aligning my approach to manners with my approach to most other aspects of my parenting, which is to say that I don’t make rewards contingent on good behavior, or pooping in the potty, or pretty much anything else. So I will no longer withhold food from her until she says “please” for it, even if it irks me that she won’t say it by herself, and even if it is more effort for me to model the sentence for her. And the other nice thing this approach does for me is to help me save face as a parent, when I’m with other parents or in a restaurant or another setting where “polite” behavior is required, and my daughter doesn’t produce the requisite “please” at the right time, I can still show people that good manners are important to me, and that I am helping my daughter understand when to use manners, even if she’s not quite ready to do it yet. To use more technical language, we accept the importance of the child’s competence in understanding what the words that they use mean, rather than require performance of linguistic routines before that competence occurs, because it is only through that competence — through understanding the true meaning of “please” and “thank you” and the offering of things and gratitude for being offered things, that children fully grasp the much larger ideas of helpfulness and generosity and altruism that we all hope they come to understand.

So I hope this has been a fun ride for you guys, because you have literally watched me shift my approach over the course of writing this episode. I’d also like to extend my thanks to both Professor Gleason and Robin Einzig, who took the time to explain their differing points of view on this issue.

We’ve referenced a lot of previous episodes in this show so if you want to go back and revisit those there’s a list of them, along with all the references for the research we’ve discussed today, at yourparentingmojo.com/manners.


Originally published at Your Parenting Mojo.

Jen Lumanlan

Written by

M.S. (Psychology: Child Development); M.Ed., host Your Parenting Mojo podcast (YourParentingMojo.com): turning scientific research into useful tools for parents