In an ice-cream shop recently, a mom and dad with their little boy were about to be served. The child looked about two, or two and a half, and his dad picked him up so he could see the flavors and talk to the man waiting to help him. In a very grown-up voice the child said, “I’d like an ice-cream cone please.” It was quite endearing, and the server was happy to help him. As I was leaving I told the mom that I liked the way her little boy said “please”. She smiled with pleasure and said, “We try”.
I was impressed with the natural way in which the little boy said “please”, without any prompting. I hear mothers working on “please and thank-you” all the time. Sometimes a request is not granted until the child says “please”. A favorite reminder is, “What’s the magic word?” At other times it is a somewhat critical, “You forgot something.” Children react in ways that indicate this is a familiar refrain – either with annoyance or slight embarrassment – as they make the needed correction.
Parents are often not only concerned about “please” and “thank you”, but shaking hands when introduced to someone, eating with the proper utensils, or even responding when asked a question. In general, many parents are focused on teaching children manners, and wonder when it is realistic to begin teaching and expecting certain behavior along these lines.
When children don’t have “good manners” – or when they do – mothers often feel that this reflects well or poorly on them. The mother in the ice-cream shop certainly accepted my praise of her son as praise for her. Her response, “We try”, says that her son’s behavior is a product of the parents’ teaching.
What are good manners and why are they important? Too often we forget to answer that question to ourselves. We lose the meaning of what we really want to teach, and end up simply trying to train our children in a kind of rote behavior. When that happens, children respond as if this is just one more annoying adult demand. They may comply or shake it off, but either way it has no significant meaning to them.
Manners are forms of behavior, some of which are more important to some people than to others. Manners may show consideration of others, or at times respect for others, or in some instances simply make human interaction go more smoothly. If you say “I’m sorry”, to someone you accidently bump into on the bus, you let them know you did not intentionally hurt them and regret the incident. “Please” can differentiate a request from a demand, while “Thank-you” expresses appreciation.
The other day it was pouring rain, the bus was crowded and people were dealing with wet umbrellas, needing to pass others as they got on and off. A little girl of about four or five was sitting next to her mom who was preoccupied with her phone. The girl had a balloon which she was pushing back and forth toward people standing in front of her, and rubbing it with her hand to make a most unpleasant noise. It seemed clear she wanted her mother’s attention but in the meantime was annoying everyone around her. Finally, the mom herself was annoyed and angrily told her daughter to stop, going right back to her phone messages.
One could say the child had “bad manners”, but the most striking thing was her indifference to, and lack of awareness of, the impact of her behavior on others. Here is a situation where the reprimand for her behavior addressed nothing else – not the impact of this behavior on others, or the inappropriate way of seeking attention. In this instance, mom’s behavior showed the same lack of awareness as her daughter’s. Her “manners” were also missing.
The point is that the surface behavior we call “manners” can have real meaning when it speaks to something important in human relationships. If we focus solely on teaching our children correct forms, and leave out the substance – the meaning and purpose of the behavior – then children have no real understanding of what they are supposed to learn. It is like learning the words of a story without knowing what the story is about.
As with so much else in our children’s development, they learn about manners from us. They imitate us and identify with us. We teach them through our own behavior towards each other – but also toward them. We don’t like it when they make demands, or interrupt us, or are inconsiderate. But without realizing it, we may be doing the same thing to them. It’s just possible that more “pleases” from us will bring “thank-you” more often from them.