Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Please Don't Make Me Explain the Importance of Thank You

Welcome to the last week of the Parenting Blog Carnival: Around the World in Six Weeks, in which we ask: What can we learn from parents around the world and how they raise their children?

I'm joining Jessica, Sarah, Stephanie and Lauren in writing about our reactions to Christine Gross-Loh's new book, Parenting Without Borders.

Since July 1, we've addressed co-sleepingfoodself-esteemacademic pressure and hover-parenting. This week we discuss: How do we raise children with good character? 



Last summer I encountered a friend who didn't make her three-year-old son say 'please' or 'thank you' because she didn't want to force him to say something he didn't feel.

Wait... what? Of course a three-year-old doesn't understand precisely what saying 'thank you' means, I thought to myself. But manners are an important part of co-existing in society. How else would her son learn to say 'please' and 'thank you' if no one taught him? I laughed it off, convinced she was an anomaly. I even told the story to a few other incredulous moms.

I was sadly disabused of my innocence, however, after reading the fourth and final part of Parenting Without Borders, "The Character of Children." In the chapter entitled "Raising Kindness: Cultural Notions About Raising Kids Who Care," I learned there is a whole swath of parents who believe that "insisting children have good manners feels antithetical to raising a spirited and independent child with a mind of his own."


Just so we're clear (if it wasn't already from this post's title), my personal philosophy can be summed up in an update to Facebook on May 11, 2013 following a battle of wills with my little man:


Here are my three basic thoughts on this phenomenon, expanded upon in the balance of the post. I have many, many more thoughts and opinions, so you're welcome for my only including three. (See what I did there?)
  • Modeling good manners is necessary but not sufficient. How else can children practice empathy if you, as the parent, don't insist?
  • By saying please and thank you -- and seeing the positive effect it has on others around them -- children begin to learn compassion and kindness for others, not the other way around.
  • "By ignoring manners and prioritizing individuality over community awareness, we risk failing to teach our children to be kind at all."

A Game of Telephone Gone Horribly, Horribly Awry

Whence came this idea that teaching children to say 'please' was "obnoxious" and "disrespectful"? That it was "shaming" your child to insist he say 'thank you' and -- God forbid -- 'I'm sorry'? It seems so bizarre, so backwards: isn't it actually obnoxious and disrespectful when people don't say 'please' and 'thank you'?

I spent two hours looking for the original source, but I could only find a couple anecdotal blog posts and a few interviews with Mayim Bialik, attachment parenter extraordinaire. Was it an AP thing? Dr. Sears does emphasize the value of positive modeling and respecting your child. But in his book, The Successful Child, he also clearly advocates for teaching children good manners, regardless of whether they understand exactly what they are saying:
Even two-year-olds can learn to say "peas" and "tank oou." Though they don't yet understand the exact meaning of the words, toddlers soon conclude that "please" is how you ask for things and "thank you" is how you end an interaction. The more a child hears a word or phrase repeated, the greater the importance he attaches to it and the sooner he learns it.... Toddlers parrot those terms and understand their usefulness long before they understand their meaning. (excerpt from page 238; emphasis is mine)
So, yes, it is important to "model" good manners (i.e., saying 'please' and 'thank you' yourself). I fear, however, that parents have taken Dr. Sears' words too literally, over-interpreting and changing them over time (like a game of telephone gone awry) to mean that positive modeling is the only good, sensitive, child-centered way to teach manners.

"Research," Gross-Loh writes, "shows that kids are motivated to be kind when we combine high expectations and explanations with modeling and lots of practice." Modeling, then, is necessary but not sufficient. How else can children practice empathy if you, as the parent, don't insist?

Mangiando Viene La Fame

In Italian, the oft-used phrase "mangiando viene la fame" can be translated as "hunger comes with eating," i.e., sometimes you don't realize you are hungry until you start eating. More broadly, it means you often don't know you feel a certain way until you start acting on it.

Gross-Loh spoke with psychologist Shawn T. Smith about "the counterintuitive idea that actions can come before feelings." Smith says,
"It's natural to believe that feelings must come before actions. But it's just not true." It's true that children don't understand what's happening when they apologize, for example, and may not feel remorse at first. "But when they see and experience that things work out better when they use social skills, they will understand. We should not deny them that experience because it violates their 'authenticity' to require words like 'I'm sorry' when they don't truly feel remorse yet. They are still learning." (emphasis is mine)
Indeed, there is some compelling research that feelings follow actions. Scientists have demonstrated, for example, that while people smile when they are happy, smiling also makes you feel happy. (Even the children's book Mr. Happy subscribes to this view of the world.)

By saying 'please,' 'thank you' and 'sorry' -- and seeing the positive effect it has on others around them -- children begin to learn compassion and kindness for others, not the other way around.

Authenticity Is Overrated

Saying 'please' and 'thank you' is not only about being authentic. It is also about acknowledging that you are a human being in a community of others.

We return to Dr. Sears, whose words in an article in Parenting magazine are instructive:
One of the most valuable tools you can give your children is the ability to connect with others. Good manners, politeness, and eye contact are the foundation for successfully connecting, so you are wise to give these values top priority in your parenting. 
Gross-Loh calls manners part of the "social glue" that holds a society together. Some fifty years ago, American culture began to dispense with formalities and strict rules seen as suffocating and part of the hierarchical, patriarchal society we were attempting to throw off. But has the pendulum swung too far in the other direction?

Yes, societal rules can be stifling, but they can also be unexpectedly freeing. For example, greeting people in Italy and Bolivia (where I also lived and worked for a short period of time) gave me no anxiety whatsoever. In Italy, greetings consist of two kisses, one on each cheek. In Latin America, greetings involve one kiss on the right cheek. That's it.

In the U.S., there are few set rules. I never know whether to wave hello, shake hands (outside of a business environment it feels strange), hug, kiss on the cheek, etc. Should I just give a thumbs up? Am I the only one who finds this confusing and anxiety-producing?

Without any cultural rules, a community cannot exist. More to the point, Gross-Loh notes, "By ignoring manners and prioritizing individuality over community awareness, we risk failing to teach our children to be kind at all."

Conclusion: Raising Narcissism

"In 1970," Gross-Loh writes, "the primary goal stated by most college freshman was to develop a meaningful life philosophy; in 2005 it was to become comfortably rich."

I am sad to say I was not surprised by this finding. Narcissism is the signature attribute of recent generations, including my own. And it's no wonder. As Gross-Loh puts it, "We are teaching [children] to feel self-important and entitled instead of compassionate and kind."

Case in point: In a cross-cultural study of 'sense of fairness' among three- and five-year-olds in seven different cultures -- China, Peru, Fiji, the U.S. and three "distinct urban sites" in Brazil -- researchers found:
Two groups of children displayed the highest and most similar degree of self-interest: impoverished, unschooled, unsupervised Brazilian street children and the middle-class suburban American children. 
Is this the price we are willing to pay for "spirited and independent" children? 

Although research shows that human babies are born with basic kindness and an innate sense of fairness, a social scientist Gross-Loh spoke with explained the importance of parents reinforcing these tendencies:
[H]aving those expectations and being able to act on them are two different things. Behaving in a way that reflects what you know is fair is a much more complex and difficult achievement for a child.
In other words, it is far easier to "know" that giving the extra cookie to your friend is the right thing to do, even if you really, really (and in my case, a third "really") want that cookie. Children are still learning about impulse control and how to be good citizens. It is unfair of us, as adults, to expect them to learn it all on their own.

Teaching our children to be thoughtful, independent thinkers should not come at the expense of kindness, empathy and good manners. Gross-Loh comments, in praise of American free-thinking, "The independent thinker is the one who can stand up against group solidarity, peer pressure, or adult coercion at moments that range from merely uncomfortable to absolutely immoral."

True. But insisting your toddler say 'thank you' for a gift is not such a moment.

Children are not little adults; they are still learning and practicing, looking to the adults they trust for guideposts on how to act. A parent's role is to prepare his or her child for successfully navigating and interacting with the world. When we fail to impart this knowledge, we are not doing them -- or us -- any favors.

Post Script: I am happy to report that, after a few more battles, my son now says "please" after every "more" (both via sign language). In doing so, he seems pretty pleased with himself, too.


Image courtesy of Felixco, Inc. / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Be sure to check out the other Carnival posts on the topic of character:

Jessica @ School of SmockCarry Your Own Bag: Raising Kids Who Aren't Helpless

Sarah @ Left Brain BuddhaCharacter, Compassion, and Confucius: On the Yin and Yang of Parenting

Stephanie @ Mommy, For Real:
Shaping Our Children's Character: How Much Molding is Too Much?

Lauren @ OmnimomMy Biggest Parenting Critic Right Now? My Eight Year Old


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The Brilliant Book Club is for parents who want to read the latest books about parenting -- from research-based books on parenting practice to books that reflect on the emotional and personal aspects of childrearing.

Our first book is Hilary Levey Friedman's Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. Join us on our blogs on Monday, September 30 for the first post.


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