I read this article about making children say please and thank you the other day, and I think I mostly agree with it.
I mean, there's this huge fuss about teaching children to say "please" and "thank you" as early as possible ... but why? What exactly is the purpose of a child who can barely put two words together being able to follow norms of politeness that he doesn't even remotely understand? Is it just to impress the neighbors?
A week or two ago, I read a dad's status on Facebook saying he had been engaged in a battle of wills with his son (a month older than mine) that morning. The kid wanted to get down from his highchair, but the dad wouldn't take him out until he said please. The result was an hour of shrieking and wailing from the child before he "finally realized I meant what I said" and said please.
I found that so exasperating I didn't bother to comment. What a waste of an hour, was my main thought. Is it really that big a deal? (Answer: no, but the parent always feels the need to win every battle, and everything so easily becomes a battle, doesn't it?)
My second thought was, "How do you know the child understands what you are asking?" I'll explain. Two or three months ago, John was sitting and eating ice cream when Marko came up and started begging for some. John kept telling him "say please," but he just wouldn't do it. For reasons that weren't clear at the time, he just kept saying "some that, some that" but wouldn't say please. After several repeats of this performance on different nights, finally something clicked and Marko said please!
At least, we thought something had clicked. But I never could get him to say please about anything else. When I told him to say please, he would run toward the freezer and point. Yep, our kid thought "please" was ice cream!
Awhile after that, I noticed that instead of just naming the thing he wanted, Marko would say "want banana," or "want apple." I realized this was because, when he said banana, I would say "do you want a banana?" He'd repeat, "Want banana." So I modified what I said, and started saying "Do you want a banana, please?" He parroted, "Banana please," and that became his way of asking. He had realized please meant asking, so he started to do it. He still isn't exactly consistent -- probably because I'm not exactly consistent -- but he does sometimes say please, and you know, it's not a big deal to me that it's not 100% of the time.
Meanwhile, Marko has recently forgotten how to say "yes" and "no." He started trying to answer all questions in complete sentences, but because his pronunciation is so atrocious, we never know what he said. So John's been prompting him to "say yes" or "say no." So now can you guess what he says? "Would you like a banana?" "Marko say yes." "Do you want to go to bed?" "Say no." He still doesn't know what it means when we ask him to say something specific. So I can pretty much guarantee any effort to teach him to say please would fall just as flat now as it did a few months ago. The toddler brain is growing so fast that it seems they should be able to understand just about anything -- but it has the weirdest blind spots, so I no longer assume my son is able to understand anything unless I actually have proof of some kind.
Meanwhile this kid has "thank you" down. Unfortunately he doesn't know when to say it. See, when he hands me something, I say "thank you." So now when he wants to give me something, he runs up with it and says "thank you." I figure he'll work out this skill around the time he stops calling himself "you" and starts saying "me." (Which, as a matter of fact, he has done on several occasions this week! He's still really, really confused about pronouns, but he has occasionally gotten them right.)
I also am very good about always saying "excuse me" when Marko's in my way and I need him to move. Recently he figured out what I meant and actually started getting out of my way when I said it. And just today, he was balancing on the edge of my vegetable beds and I was in his way ... and he politely said "excuse me"!
I guess I'm just learning from experience that toddlers learn "etiquette words" the same way they learn all the rest of the words they know -- by hearing adults use them, both when talking to them and when talking to each other.
This explains why manners threw me for such a loop as a kid. I knew how to say "please," definitely. I knew that the appropriate way to ask for something was "Please may I have a sandwich?" and that the way to accept an offer was "Yes, please." This is what we had been taught, and when talking to my parents I used them reliably. (Though it was more like "Please m'ave a sandwich" ... since we didn't understand the words, we didn't tend to say them very distinctly.) But as I got older, I noticed that adults didn't talk like that. I didn't want to say the wrong thing, the wrong thing being whatever other people didn't say. We would all be at a party, and the hostess would ask, "Can I get you a Pepsi?" My dad would say, "Sure, thanks!" Then she'd turn to me and ask if I wanted a glass of milk ... and I was completely thrown! Should I say "yes, please" or "sure, thanks"? Maybe "yes please" was something only our family did! Maybe I would sound like a little kid if I said that, and like a grownup if I said "sure"! The result was that I hesitated a lot and felt really awkward before going with either one, or sometimes just said "no thank you" to things I wanted because I was afraid I'd be rude if I said yes.
Kids want to talk the way adults do. That's how they are wired to learn to talk. So if you always say please when asking a child to do something, or when asking someone else to do something in the child's presence, the child will grow up saying please naturally -- not because he is afraid of getting into trouble if he doesn't, but just because that is what you say when you ask for something. Seems kind of a waste of effort, then, to try to push kids to say please before they've grasped the mechanics of complete sentences, or to have battles with them over whether they said them or not. And ultimately, if you don't say please, I don't know if you can get the habit of saying it to stick.
Do you think kids should say please and thank you from a very young age? How do you teach your kids to do it?