Naomi Aldort I Photography by Whitby B Photography.  

Children are often told to say “thank-you” or “sorry” or some other words that are founded in our
societies concept of manners. However, is it more important that they say the words or actually feel them?
Naomi Aldort discusses a more gentle way of teaching children manners.

“What do you say?” demanded a woman after handing a child his dropped glove. The child rushed over and hid behind his Mum. “You say ‘thank you,’” persisted the woman, to which the child responded, “My Mummy doesn’t tell me what to say.”

What do we expect a child to learn when we tell him: “Say thank you”? Most parents believe that the child will learn to be grateful. But do children learn these things by being told to do them? How did we feel as children when told to “say thank you”? When did we really develop a sincere sense of gratitude? Did saying “thank you” before we had the feeling to match the words make us truly appreciative? Or did we develop a sense of gratitude later on in no regard to those instructions?

Indeed, telling a child what to say is bad manners since it is disrespectful to tell anyone what to say. It is patronising and coercive treating one as lower than oneself. One way to know if you are being respectful or not is to ask yourself if you would treat an adult in the same manner. If not, it is bad manners. If telling a child to use manners does not teach them to feel kindness, remorse or gratitude, what does it teach them?

Well, it may teach them:

  1. That telling others what to say or do is ‘good manners.’ The content of the ‘talk’ is practically lost, as the child is mostly aware of the fact that someone is telling her what to say.

  2. (Although less obvious) “I cannot trust myself to know what to say or do; I should rely on adults (authority) and obey instruction” (dependency, being a follower).

  3. (Linked to the previous) “I cannot know on my own what to say or do, therefore I am not good enough” (low self-esteem and feeling inadequate and incapable).

  4. A similar feeling of inadequacy can spring out of self-doubt: “Why don’t I feel like saying ‘thank you’? Something must be wrong with me”.

  5. To be phony and even simply to lie: “I don’t really feel like saying anything, (sharing, helping…), I guess I am supposed to lie, pretend, or put on a show that does not reflect my real inner experience”.

‘When children are coerced into using adults’ manners, it often prevents them from developing the actual feelings from inside;’

MEASURING OUR PARENTING BY THE CHILD’S MANNERS GETS IN THE WAY

Sometimes we confuse what is best for the child with trying to make a good impression. (This is natural and nothing to feel guilty about due to the way most of us were raised.) We think if the child says “thank you”, we will be seen as good parents. This focus on ourselves gets in the way of doing what is best for the child.

As a mother I discovered that my child’s manners are not about me impressing anyone. My child deserves my full respect to be at the stage of awareness, confidence, and of acquisition of manners that he is. It is not easy to feel comfortable when a child doesn’t fit society’s expectations – but knowing that these very expectations don’t fit the child, helps me remember whose well-being I stand for. Maybe we are still dependent on the approval of others as we were in our childhood, when we were told to say “thank you” and did so just to please our parents. We need to recover and build our own self-esteem, so we are less dependent on approval.

Making a good impression on friends, relatives, or strangers, becomes clearly unimportant next to the development of my child. Yet, I can still impress these friends and relatives. What I will impress them with is not my compliance to their ideas of parenting. Instead I will demonstrate to them my respect of my child, and my strength in following my own heart and my child’s needs.

THE POWER AND FREEDOM OF NOT NEEDING RECOGNITION

A child is too self-centered to notice the efforts of others and to meet their need for recognition.

This is as it should be, so he can accomplish the colossal job of turning himself into a capable adult. In addition, he has not yet been corrupted by the concept of needing recognition (which is actually self-centered). He does everything for the joy of it and assumes you do too. Mothering taught me the joy of not needing recognition or expressed appreciation.

Children teach us the lesson of kindness by counting on our care. Their generous ability to receive is what transforms us from self-centered youths into mature and loving givers. Your giving is the return; a beautiful model for your child.

CHILDREN ALREADY EXPRESS GRATITUDE

“Daddy Daddy, look at me!” We can all recall the sight of a child riding a new tricycle; the spark in her eyes shines like a light and her joy almost stops your heart. The child’s total emotional presence makes the connection between parent and child deep and gratifying; a quality worth protecting and nurturing.

We are touched and inspired by the child precisely because she is being authentic rather than just polite. When free to be themselves, children’s ways of conveying satisfaction, regret or gratitude vary greatly from the ways of adults. In fact, we would benefit from less formality and more of the innocent aliveness we witness in our children. Our external manners are not as important as we hold them to be. It is time for revision that allows for more honesty and vulnerability; something the children are great role models for.

Manners often thwart real and honest connections. We have learned to say things we don’t mean. We learned ceremonial interactions that we use as a wall to protect us from being vulnerable and honest. We have a lot to learn from children about candid communication.

Our own growth and ability to become positive role models for our children will have a greater impact than training them to be like us. Maybe we should take ourselves and our manners less seriously and instead focus on authentic and open connections with one another.

PROTECTING THE CHILD’S AUTHENTIC FEELING OF REGRET

When one child hurts another, he feels regret without your help; when you mention it, he feels shame (and learns to shame others). A child who feels regret needs a hug and reassurance of our unconditional love. Rather than coerce and humiliate her by pointing to her failure and telling her what to say, we can notice that in her own way she already is aware of the impact of her actions. We can be the kindness we want her to learn.

Sometimes a child feels so bad that he (unconsciously) covers it up by pretending to enjoy the pain of another child. Such a child is afraid to show more tender emotions because, with best of intentions, we failed to provide such emotional safety. This is not a reason to feel guilty, only to learn and improve.

Every apology has a recipient; children don’t develop a need to receive an apology until we teach them to. Yet needing an apology is a painful learned experience. We become happier as we learn to forgive and move on without depending on another person’s words or actions. I would rather empower a child not to take things personally and to forgive, than ignite his desire for an apology and feelings of victimhood. Such feelings lead to anger and a desire for revenge. Children are born able to move on without harbouring anger – another lesson we can learn from them.

WHEN NOT TAUGHT – CHILDREN DEVELOP BETTER MANNERS

When letting children be children, they eventually incorporate our models of behavior on their own, when they can feel what they say. This occurs naturally when we treat children with the respect we want them to learn.

“My five-year-old uses manner words now on his own. I don’t see the harm. He really enjoys himself being like an adult.” This is the common innocent belief. However the little child who goes around behaving like a polite adult is usually enjoying the approval he receives and not the expression of gratitude or remorse. He is playing your game for you. He believes his worth and your love depend on being who you want him to be. Such dependency on approval is the root of deep insecurity.

There is nothing wrong with imparting behavioural and social values to our children. What matters is the way we do so. A child who is treated with good manners is often happy to learn and master some social rituals. When I notice a child who seems to be comfortable in her skin and rejoices in her own accomplishment of using manners, I cherish her joy.

My husband and I never told our children to use manners. They always behaved exemplary but didn’t use code words in the early years. I recall one day when my oldest was about ten we had guests, adult friends the children love. They brought with them relatives from Europe whom we had never met before. We all interacted for a few hours.

The children were busy playing in their room when our guests came over to say goodbye. To my astonishment, my oldest stood up from his play, came over to the European guests, offered his hand for a shake and said, “It was really nice meeting you. I hope to see you again sometime.” My sons are now young adults whose social grace is a delight.

Children want to be like adults. Their path grows from inside. They learn respect by being respected. Some take many years to adopt adults’ manners; others like to use our manners at a very young age. It is your job to respect the child’s pace of developing as you would her acquisition of language and other skills.

WHEN SHOULD THEY DEVELOP MANNERS?

There are no advantages to pushing things ahead of time, and there is no way to do so without using bad manners towards the child in the process.

When complying with our instructions for manners the child is not only learning bad manners but is also learning to obey rather than respect and trust himself. Self-respect is a prerequisite for respecting others and developing self-reliance, confidence and authenticity. Obedience is not a sign that the child respects you, but rather that he is afraid of you.

Sometimes it appears to us as though nothing else will get the child’s attention. When we feel this way, we have an opportunity to reevaluate our own intention to manipulate the child ahead of time. We are trying to ‘get her attention, ‘meaning to obey us, because on her own she is not ready yet. Again, there is no need to feel guilty for the mistakes we make, but it is our duty to keep learning and changing.

Instead of pushing manners ahead of time, respect your child and model good manners towards her.

Manners are here to give expression to real feelings. Children who experience generosity, kindness and connection will have easy time developing ways to express these feelings.

Naomi Aldort is the author of Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves and Struggle to Freedom, Power and Joy. Naomi is also an internationally renowned parenting advice columnist, author and public speaker. More information on Naomi is found at http://www.authenticparent.com