Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Should toddlers say please?

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?


Sally Thomas said...

I think all kids do that "thank you" thing at about that stage. It's part of the process. They get that it has something to do with things changing hands, but it takes a while to sort out who says what when. (Or maybe they're just all cognitive Germans, who say "bitte" for both "please" and "you're welcome," and say "you're welcome" when they give you something, before you say, "danke").

I don't remember ever making a fight out of it -- not letting a kid get out of a high chair, that kind of thing -- but I started modeling "please" and "thank you" for my children maybe even before they could talk. I guess my idea was that with the language would come, eventually, understanding, and it's seemed to work out that way. I didn't make a huge deal out of squeezing the words out of them, but I always supplied them: "You want some apple please? Here you go! Say, thank you! Thank you!" Etc. Maybe they thought I was nuts, monologuing on like that, but they got the picture, and like all the rest of the language thing, it came to be natural.

I'd say that starting early with modeling, at least, polite exchanges (I became so superhumanly polite when my kids were toddlers it's not even funny) is a lot easier than trying to introduce them out of the blue to an older child who's already set in his patterns of behavior . . . And frankly I would much rather live with a child who at least is beginning to grasp that there's a way to ask and receive nicely, especially since I'm the one on the receiving end of the requests all day long, and I don't like being "demanded around," as my older son put it when he was 3 or 4 (it was his older sister who "demanded him around," but the phrase has passed into general use in our house).

I see it as all part of learning how to live charitably and graciously with the people around us, though of course that's a lifelong process. The forms -- ie the words themselves -- are less important, obviously, than the spirit in which something is asked or received, but on the other hand, it's easier to teach words to a toddler than to explain that spirit.

Sheila said...

I think modeling is everything when it comes to teaching language ... or, you know, pretty much everything else, now that I think about it. If you're always "demanding around" your kids, they'll do it to you. But if all they hear is politeness, it will be natural.

That isn't to say that I might not remind older kids -- say, five or six years old -- the nice way (or *a* nice way) to ask something. But with toddlers, I'm happy enough that I actually understood the request that I'm not too particular about the phrasing.

I do supply the answers I want for my son, because he really seems to like being told how to answer. But I don't wait around for him to parrot what I said if he doesn't do it ... because it's quite likely he doesn't know I want him to.

The Sojourner said...

I was just discussing this with my husband the other day. (Prompted by a recent article on Ask Moxie.) I basically think that "please" is a way for the kid to show that he's making an effort to ask nicely even if he can't necessarily moderate his tone. With my 5-year-old sister, if she asks in a whiny or demanding way I'll remind her, "Nicely" and she will usually then repeat her request with "Please" tacked on the end. If she asks in a decently polite tone to begin with I don't require her to repeat it with "Please."

(Random side note: I hate referring to "please" and "thank you" as "the magic words" as some people do. [I think this is from Barney?] First, it sounds silly, and second, they're not magic. You won't automatically get whatever you want just because you said please. You should say it anyway.)

(Yes, I'm that person. "I WANT A COOKIE!" "Nicely." "I want a cookie, please." "No, you may not have a cookie, but thank you for asking nicely." My husband thinks this is kind of mean. I'm not sure what I think.)

I'm not sure what I'd do with a 2-year-old. Modeling, as you said, is probably a good idea.

'Akaterina said...

I never *forced* Evie to say please (as in I didn't ever withhold things from her if she didn't), but rather I would say the response for her. EX:

Me:Would you like a banana?
Evie: Banana!
Me: I would like a banana, please. (and then I would give it)

As she got older I would pause

Me: Would you like a banana?
Evie: Like banana!
Me: I would like a banana ...
Evie: PLEASE!!!! (yes, usually said with extreme enthusiasm)

Now it is something more like this:

Me: Would you like a banana?
Evie: Like banana please!

Also, Andrew and I are careful to use appropriate manners around the kids. We stress the please and thank yous when we talk to each other so the kids pick up on that too. Because of this Evie has even gotten to the point of saying "You're welcome" if I tell her thank you for something, even though we never explicitly taught her that. She has just heard Andrew and I say it to each other.

I think you are right that kids pick up on your actions and desire to imitate them.

As to making Mark ask nicely for something and then denying it, I don't see a problem in that. I do it with Evie as well. One, she needs to be taught to ask nicely, even if she is not going to get something. And two, she can't always get what she wants - but that is no excuse for being a heathen. I generally say "No, you may not have cheerios (her current favorite thing) right now, but you can _____ (have a glass of water, go play in your room, read a book with mommy, etc)." I see this as a way to encourage focusing on something else instead of dwelling on what she cannot have. If she is persistent about it (not that toddlers are EVER persistent about ANYTHING!) then I just simply answer with a "No, ma'am. Not right now."

Dionna @ Code Name: Mama said...

What incredible, solid examples you've given of why it is so important to adjust our expectations with little ones. They don't think the same way we do!! Love this piece.

Sally Thomas said...

Yes to all this. The concise language which has only just occurred to me now with regard to all this is that politeness for toddlers is not an obedience issue, but a learning process.

Janine @ Alternative Housewife said...

Ha! My son says "thank you" when he gives me things too. It is fuh-reaking cute. We say please and thank you to him but I'm not sure that I'll ever expect him to do it. Even for teens and adults, I don't like forced niceties. Hopefully he will pick up on being polite but not feel like he always has to be.

Great post with many great points and examples.

Nathan Strandquist said...

It was not a waste of an hour, I got the dishes done and the kitchen cleaned up, while he was sitting in his high chair. Eventually, he said please, and, with prompting, he has always said please since then. Perhaps I did not make myself clear in the FB post. The battle was not over him remembering to say please on his own, but over him refusing to say please, when prompted, as we have been doing for quite some time. As to modeling, we are far from perfect, but we strive to use good manners to each other, and to have all of our children (ages 15, 8, 5and the toddler in question) use age-appropriate manners.

Sheila said...

Oh, dear, Nathan, I'm so sorry if I seemed to be calling you out personally. It may have been totally the right thing to do for Xavier at the time. It just started a train of thought for me about how I *don't* really emphasize saying please at this age, and how, for my child, I can easily see it's not something he gets.

Really sorry that this came out sounding personal. I meant it simply as an example. You know your son best, and if saying please is important to you, then it certainly is no skin off my nose if you choose to spend your time working on it with him. That just doesn't happen to be the choice I would make. I tried to make this post about MY situation rather than anyone else's, but I can see that using your story as an example was the wrong approach. My apologies.

S.g.o.t.s., I deleted your comment, as Nathan is a friend of mine and I've responded to him myself. Thanks for trying to stick up for me, but I think he's right ... I was in the wrong to use his story for this.

Nathan Strandquist said...

Thank you for the very gracious and humble apology. I hope I was not mean-spirited in my reply. I understand that there are many different approaches to child-rearing and that what works for one may not work for another. Thank you also for deleting the comment by SGOTS. My best to you, John, Marko, and the littlest one.

Cam said...

This post made me think! My wife and I have always tried to get our boys to say please and thankyou from a very early age - pretty much as soon as they could talk and hence thought it quite natural when they obliged that they actually knew what they were saying and why. perhaps they did but more than likely at that early stage it was probably just a learned response that got a smile from Mum or Dad! In saying that though, for the most part, they both now at age 4 and 7 have very nice manners and hardly ever not use please and thank-you. Hopefully over time, the response has changed from a learned one to a real gesture of appreciation and manners. So I guess that in the end, and in the case of my family, asking them to say please and thank-you from an early age has paid dividends. Remember it is not the final destination but the journey!

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