Say Goodbye to Prompts – a guest post by Sarah MacLaughlin

Excerpted and adapted from the award-winning Amazon bestselling book, What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children.

Letting go of prompts is a serious commitment. Offering children cues is a verbal habit that is hard to break. But overuse of prompting usurps kids’ personal power. And it becomes exhausting for the adult too!

Here are three classic prompts that you can avoid with a little practice. I’ve also included Reading Tips because reading books with children that promote courteous behavior and respect for others is an effective way to send these messages without nagging.

What’s the magic word?

Most adults want children to have good manners. We certainly don’t remind and nag at a baby to start crawling, and it isn’t productive for learning other behaviors like manners. Ironically, asking repeatedly for please or thank you can cause a child to overlook these graces. Why should she remember to say the magic words if you always jog her memory?

I have effectively taught children to use polite phrases by simply always using them myself. In social situations where you would feel rude if a child didn’t say the right thing, speak for your child (he will hear you) without sarcasm or a mocking tone: “Thanks, Aunt Trudy. Frankie will love playing with this truck.”

Reading Tip:

Rude Giants by Audrey Wood. Ages two and up. These unruly giants get some etiquette help.

You have to share.

During their first five years, kids struggle with sharing sometimes. (If not most times!) Children near age two have particular difficulty with sharing. (Have you read The Toddlers Creed?) This is normal and to be expected.

You might have heard a child scream “No! Mine!” at the top of her lungs if another child makes even a slight move toward a toy or cookie she is holding. Experts claim that at the peak of the “mine” stage, a toddler’s perception of a toy she possesses is that it is an actual part of her. When someone takes away that toy, she feels the same as if an arm or leg has been taken. This certainly explains all that wailing, doesn’t it?

Reading Tips:

The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog! by Mo Willems. Ages six months and up. A pigeon wants to eat the hot dog himself but decides to share in the end.

Sheila Rae’s Peppermint Stick by Kevin Henkes. Ages one and up. Sheila Rae doesn’t want to share at first, but then something happens that changes her mind.

Go say you’re sorry.

Forcing a child to apologize is usually frustrating for someone—the child who has been given no choice in the matter, or the adult if the child refuses (Most likely, both.) I’ve seen moms and dads have major “say you’re sorry” showdowns with children who have just begun to speak: “We will stand right here until you say you are sorry for hitting your friend!” It is upsetting to watch one child hurt another, but trying to save face in this situation is a trap.

Children under five are still developing empathy and don’t benefit from a forced apology. The best response is to describe what occurred. It helps the child understand the connection between cause and effect—you did this, and it caused that. A great example for toddlers is for an adult to handle the wrongdoing and apologize to the affronted child or grown-up: “I’m sorry Helen pushed you and took that toy. Are you okay?” At a later stage in development (around age three-and-a-half), ask the child to check in with the friend she has offended or injured. This works like a scaffold to help the apology be included, which it usually will if it has been demonstrated often enough.

Reading Tips:

I’m Sorry by Sam McBratney. Ages one and up. Two young friends want to play together, but first they must mend hurt feelings.

How to Lose All Your Friends by Nancy Carlson. Ages two and up. This “how to” tells you exactly what not to do if you want friends.

A realization that might help you give up prompting entirely is that kids are wise and capable and they will figure it out. Sometimes it takes a few reminders to trust our children, to remember that they are inherently good and smart. We are all capable of both “good” and bad” behavior—read here about the internal battle we all have involving two wolves. In my line of work it is often said that you grow what you measure. Let’s assume the best and measure the good stuff.

Special Giveaway!

Please comment on this post about prompts you notice. Your comment enters you in the eBook Giveaway — to win an ebook copy of What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children, in the format of your choice: PDF, epub, or Kindle format. Sarah will be giving away one copy at each blog stop and will announce it on the comments of this post tomorrow. Be sure to leave your email so we can contact you in case you’re the winner!

Other stops and opportunities to win during this Blog Tour are listed on Sarah’s blog.

Also, you can enter at Sarah’s site for the Grand Prize Giveaway: a Kindle Touch. Winner will be announced at the end of the tour after July 15th. Click here to enter.

About The Author

Sarah MacLaughlin has worked with children and families for over twenty years. With a background in early childhood education, she has previously been both a preschool teacher and nanny. Sarah is currently a licensed social worker at The Opportunity Alliance in South Portland, Maine, and works as the resource coordinator in therapeutic foster care. She serves on the board of Birth Roots, and writes the “Parenting Toolbox” column for a local parenting newspaper, Parent & Family. Sarah teaches classes and workshops locally, and consults with families everywhere. She considers it her life’s work to to promote happy, well-adjusted people in the future by increasing awareness of how children are spoken to today. She is mom to a young son who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice about What Not to Say. More information about Sarah and her work can be found at her site and her blog.

11 Responses to Say Goodbye to Prompts – a guest post by Sarah MacLaughlin

  1. Kim says:

    I teach good manners right from the start by using them myself. I always say please and thank you, and bless you when someone sneezes. I hate when you see other parents berating their little ones for not having manners when they have none themselves! I love hearing my 20mth old DD say ‘bess you mummy’ when I sneeze. Or just recently my almost 3.5yr old says sorry to her sister for doing something which has upset her. The 3.5 yr old also knows what it means to share (especially with food). She’ll break whatever she has in 2 and give half to her sister. They have learnt all this by watching what us parents do – we have to lead by example. Why should we expect them to do something if we’re not willing to do it ourselves.

  2. Yes! Teaching by example is always the best way. But easy to forget. Berating is obciosly no help at all in this area.

  3. Catherine says:

    Good reminders. I need to work on the thank you one. For sorry, I try to ask my child what she can do to fix this. She usually comes up with the apology on her own.

    Thanks for the giveaway. catherinewalker_2000 at yahoo dot com

  4. kpapoi1972 says:

    Using manners myself has helped my daughter (3.5) to use them too…started at day 1 and my 2 year old always said please and thank you unprompted. I’ve fallen off this as she’s gotten older so this is a great reminder…so hard to implement during whiney phases though! Checking in with friends is good for “I’m sorry!”

  5. marytuda says:

    One of those reassuring pieces, like many of yours Jo! which make me feel better about what comes naturally. Being bullied into “manners” by my father (who had otherwise very little time for me) is an abiding unpleasant childhood memory of mine I was determined to avoid reproducing for own child. As a result – yes I have often neglected, in the eyes of other parents I imagine – to insist on sorry’s and thank you’s, especially when he was very young, but generally model them myself as suggested . . . Now nearly 5 my son is not perfect by any means but when he does say the right thing, unprompted, it is done with feeling. He is also known at school and with neighbours for his considerate, gentle behaviour esp with smaller children. It’s out of a developing consideration for others, I think, that the best manners emerge.

    • Thank you for sharing your story! I have to say that I might have cried a little when my son first said “Thank you Mommy,” because it was 100% unprompted and it was just the most sweet sound. He really meant it.

  6. Megan says:

    “Nice to meet you” is something I find people impressed by when my 4 yr old says it. He learned it by hearing us say it enough, now it is an automatic response he gives.

  7. Jo-Anne says:

    Thanks for this post, I had these ideas is some neblous form but your explinaton helped flesh them out! I have really been wrestling with “im sorry” I want my son to say it but I don’t want to force it because of course then it isn’t sincere.
    Don’t know if your giveaway is done but if not:

  8. Andrea says:

    I think when we just make them say them, the polite phrases lose their meaning – they just becomes automatic and something that is expected. I want my child to mean it when she says thank you and please.

  9. Jo says:

    Thanks for all your comments. The winner of the ebook giveaway is marytuda!

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