Thursday, August 04, 2011

In Praise Of Please And Thank You

The other day, I had the following conversation with one of the child care workers at the gym:

--"Sam is really stubborn, isn't he?"

Me bracing myself for the inevitable and thinking:  Tell me something I don't already know. "What did he do?"

--"I can't get him to say "please" and "thank you" for anything. I remind him every day, and every day, he forgets.

Me thinking: Oh, God. That child... What am I going to do with him? No "please" and "thank you" now, next it'll be juvie, followed by 20 to life in the pen... Young man, you and I are going to have words in the car on the way home.

Because, obviously, my child is the Neanderthal in the room. The bratty kid that can't get his act together. The one they think was raised by wolves, etc.

But then the conversation went in a direction I didn't expect.

--"I work with him on it because I know you care. And I've heard you reminding him to do it. John always says "please" and "thank you". And they're about the only kids who come to the gym who do."

And that stopped me in my tracks. They what???

How was that possible? In my world, "please" and "thank you" are just a non-negotiable part of speaking.  They are drilled into your head until they become automatic. I've been working with the boys since they were old enough to point at an object and grunt, because their politeness reflects on me as a parent.
But one day I observed a little boy at McDonalds, whose mother had their lunch on a tray. The boy was barely in his seat  before he was saying, "I want my fries! Where are my fries? Gimmee! Gimmee! Fries! Fries!" I waited for the mom to say something, because God knows, I would sooner dump those fries in the trash than give them to a child who didn't have better manners than that, but this kid's mom had no reaction whatsoever. She handed over the fries without a word. My brain nearly exploded--because I would die of mortification if either of my boys thought talking like that to me or anyone else was even remotely acceptable. I'm not saying that my boys don't talk like that on occasion--they do it thinking they're being cute, and because all kids like to test their limits--but I squelch that nonsense real fast. Because they know (and I'm saying this without a shadow of doubt) that it's rude.

There is a condition in small dogs known as Small Dog Syndrome. It occurs when a little dog does something completely ridiculous--like a chihuahua puppy trying to attack the mailman. The owners laugh and encourage Cujo-like behavior in the puppy, because it weighs two pounds, and at first, it's hilarious. It's so hilarious that they continue to encourage little two pound Fifi to act like Cujo, and before long little adult Fifi is Cujo, with no manners whatsoever, nipping, biting, and growling at whomever it pleases. Because the dog is small, it's allowed to engage in behavior that would never be tolerated in a larger dog. If a German Shepard puppy tried to attack the mailman, no one would laugh. It would be sent straight to obedience school because aggression in a big dog is a big problem.

Adults are also guilty of encouraging something like Small Dog Syndrome in children because, like a mailman-attacking-chihuahua, a toddler with an attitude is hysterically funny. It starts with ignoring "pleases" and "thank yous" and then it deteriorates into your three-year-old screaming at you like a banshee when she gets her milk in the wrong Princess sippy cup. I love watching the little divas ordering their parents around on Toddlers and Tiaras, because their behavior is so totally absurd. But then I ask myself, "It's funny when she's three, but what about when she's thirteen? Will it still be funny then?"


Over-indulged children, whose demands are insatiable, think they must only conceive of a want and it will materialize. They think adults were created to do their bidding, because their parents have never told them otherwise. If only their parents insisted on "please" and "thank you". Words are important, and not just because they make communication possible. They do so much more than that. They convey tone, and humor, mood and energy, feeling, affection, even intention. "Please" and "thank you" aren't just pretty sounds. The reason we use these words, the reason polite conversation demands them, is because they offer acknowledgement. If you have to think about what the listener wants to hear ("please"), you must also acknowledge that 1) the listener has something/can do something for you, 2) the giving of that something is optional, and 3) you are not the one in control. These words nip selfish impulsivity in the bud.

They are very good words.

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