It’s remarkable how frequently a mother need remind her little ones to rephrase statements and questions, if said mother is committed to only responding to her children when they speak politely. In a typical day, phrases such as these emerge from my mouth dozens of times:
- How do you ask nicely?
- Please choose a different voice.
- Is there a different way you could say that?
- You mean, “Yes please Mom”?
- Please try that again in a polite way.
- What do you say?
- If you need help, then say: “Mom, could you please help me?”
There are moments (by dinner time, for example, after the 17th instance) when I wonder if there’s a better way… and when I grow weary and irked by the amount of reminding that my children require to speak courteously. It can seem a useless enterprise. Then there are the moments when I catch myself on the verge of prompting my husband to rephrase something to communicate more pleasantly (and I know I am short with him every bit as much as he with me)… Causing me to step back and remember what a work in progress we all truly are. Our (speaking) children are 2 and 4 years old, and when I look at the big picture I can see that both have absorbed a great deal of the courtesy training we provide. The two-year old, when she recently began experimenting with tantrums, would start them by saying “No thank you, Mommy” when resisting my instruction – surely the politest way to be defied by one’s child that I can think of!
The goal, of course, is not simply to train in social conventions but to cultivate in our children consideration and regard for others. It’s not all about us. This is the point of speaking politely to one another. Self-focused and demanding speech is rudeness, and love “is not rude.” Love and rudeness are, in fact, antithetical. Teaching our kids to say “please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me,” then, is about more than just those words. The words themselves are not magical – and if we focus just on the words, we unhelpfully end up in legalism. No thanks.
Instead the task is to humbly and continually point our children to selflessness and love… as many times as they need that gentle direction. (Challenge to me as mom is to continually be pleasant and courteous towards my kids when I ask them to rephrase something in a courteous way… paying them the same respect I’m asking of them. Often easier said than done.) This is part of training: re-orienting a child from the natural bent toward self to the unnatural, others-focused perspective. Even table manners, which I consider a lower training priority than courtesy in speech, matter only because we want to be mindful of others who share a table with us – what they have to look at and contend with for company as they dine.
Recently, as we’ve been working to curb a bit of a mean streak we’ve noticed in our son (more about which in a coming post), we’ve begun instructing him to open the door for his sister; to set up her kitchen step-stool out before he sets his own; to ask her which item she’d like whenever two items are presented. To consider her before himself at each of these junctures. At the start this seems like an impossible mindset to instill in him, but then I think to myself – is it really? Because it all falls under the same umbrella – it’s all part of the “manners,” broadly speaking. Respectful and others-focused interactions with the people around us. And if a boy can be trained through consistency and repetition to make requests using the words, “May I please have…”, then why can’t he be trained through consistency and repetition to consider his sister’s needs and preferences before his own?