Please, thank-you, and sorry.

December 15, 2011

“Say please”, “Say thank-you”, and “Say sorry right now!” are words we hear adults saying to children all the time.

Getting our children to say these words is not just about teaching good manners; we really want them to be thoughtful, considerate, grateful, polite, and respectful.  In other words, we want them to mean it.  That’s the difficult bit.  It may be easy enough to get children to parrot certain words, but I’m sure we all get the feeling sometimes that they don’t really mean it, and the words become somewhat hollow if we’re having to prompt them every time.  And do we really want to teach them to say things they don’t mean?

Here’s my take on it:

  • Please

It does irritate me when my child makes me feel like a servant.  “I’m hungry”, or “I want….”  instead of “please can I have” is something I hear everyday. I try to remind him, respectfully, to say please, but I don’t do it every time – it’s irritating having to say it over and over, to me and probably to him too.  More importantly, I try to say please to him, and let him hear me say it to other people – this is how I believe he’ll really learn.  The good news is, he nearly always says please to other people, so something’s working!

  • Thank-you

I always feel slightly ashamed if someone gives my child something and he doesn’t say thank-you. My response is either to say thank-you myself, on his behalf, making sure he hears me, or sometimes I’ll whisper a reminder in his ear.  When I do this, I find he is always very eager to say thank-you, indicating to me that he really just forgot in the excitement of the moment, his focus having shifted quickly to whatever he has received.  I don’t want to make him feel bad about this, but just help him with a gentle reminder.

  • Sorry

This is a tough one. I used to make my child say sorry if he hurt or upset another child, especially when he was in his rather aggressive toddler phase.  I thought it made him take responsibility for his actions.  Then I decided that this wasn’t working. He said the word, but didn’t mean it.  Future behaviour was unchanged.  Worse, he seemed to think it magically cancelled out his previous actions.  He could do whatever he liked then say the magic word and everything would be OK.  Also, forcing him to say sorry when he was upset, having a bit of a meltdown, and clearly didn’t mean it not only felt punitive, but pointless – he wasn’t in any state to be learning anything from this.

Removing him from a situation, helping him to calm down, then talking about the effect of his behaviour on others, and showing him ways to make amends when he is ready, I have found much more effective.

Also, as with please and thank-you, modelling the behaviour you wish to see is always the most effective way of teaching a child. I am not afraid to say sorry to him when I have been snappy, have jumped to a conclusion, or have just made a mistake. I don’t think our children need to see us as perfect, just as human, and ready to admit when we’re wrong.

Now that my child is nearly five, I’m finding these methods are starting to pay off.  He frequently remembers to say please, thank-you or sorry without being prompted, and I can sense that when he says it he really means it.  This makes me feel so proud of him. One genuine unprompted thank-you makes up for fifty forgotten ones, a true expression of regret is a true achievement in terms of a child’s emotional development, and I’m confident there’ll be more and more as he grows, along with his growing sensitivity and ability to empathise with other people.