From the earliest age we teach our children to say ‘please’ and ‘thank-you’. It’s perhaps the first routine we teach our kids. It’s the first set of manners we teach and use to prove that our kids are well behaved. It’s arbitrary in the beginning stages, and I felt silly and guilty making my daughter say ‘please’ for food that she needed and that I was happy to give her. Sitting across the table in her high chair, pointing at a glass of water and there I was repeating ‘say please!’ and hearing her baby attempt and then rewarding her with a sip of life-sustaining liquid. I felt it was a bit misleading, since I was her mother and didn’t want her to think there was a catch to asking for basic things from me. ‘If you don’t say please, you won’t be fed, clothed, passed an item, read a book, tucked in bed etc’. Not only did I wrestle with the idea that she needed to say a magic word for these necessities but I felt like after spending 18 months knowing consciously that my role was to provide without question, without a thank you, without acknowledgement of my giving – all in a bid to build her sense of security and lay the foundation for a strong and unyielding self-esteem – all of a sudden I was changing the rules of the game and demanding that she perform for all her givens. All in the name of manners.
I didn’t like it when her grandparents withheld something until she said ‘please’. I felt that we over used the word and that we diminished the sense of what family is, a tribe that gives and takes care of each other no matter what. I began to loosen up about the rule and would gasp! pass her the ketchup when she simply asked for it. I would get her a glass of milk when she simply asked. I would do her hair when she simply asked. That’s what family does.
And then something strange began to happen. I got a little busier, a little more tired with my second child, and she got a little older. When she simply asked for something now, it wasn’t as easy for me to do. I would do it, and then I would sit down just a little more tired, a little heavier with the burden of everything else I needed to do. With a new baby it’s his turn to have 18 months of unthanked work, and so my level of giving is at a new high. As my 6 year old simply asks for a glass of milk and I place it down on the table, I feel like she should recognize the effort I put into getting it. She should thank me. But she doesn’t and I go to bed and wonder why it’s sitting on my chest like a weight and think about what family means. I think about how her age is changing things and try to gain clarity about what my role is and how I want to influence her. I toss and turn trying to decide if my daughter has no manners, if she’s rude, if she’s mean, if she has no compassion. It’s hard to sleep with a weight on your chest.
There were many moments like this, many heavy sleeps, and then finally the issue became clear to me. I think. I feel like the more I know the more I don’t know. But perhaps, in the case of please and thank you, it comes down to gratitude, not manners. Okay. So how do we learn that? Is it something we are born with? When I look at my 1 year old I can tell you that it is certainly not. If we are lucky, the first couple of years of our life is void of gratitude. We are cared for and given all the things we need without question if we are born into such a circumstance. So it must be learned. It must be practiced, right? I think. I pick my daughter up from school everyday and I ask how her day was and too often she goes straight to the negative. I steer her into a different direction and tell her Start with 3 good things about today. Her natural state is a little darker, a little more skeptical. That’s how she was born. So we practice looking on the bright side. Maybe we have to practice gratitude with pleases and thank you’s.
How many kids do you see demanding things and tacking on a ‘please’ and then getting what they whined for? There is little substance in that kind of please. So I place the glass of milk on the table and she takes it without a thank you and I know that I have to teach gratitude, not manners. A thank you now would mean that she recognizes that it took time and energy for somebody to do something, and acknowledging that the words ‘thank you’ is a practice in gratitude. I am grateful that you are so busy and yet you still had the generosity to get me a glass of milk, even when I can do it myself. Thank you mom. While I wrestle with my child rearing skills and shake my head that my daughter is 6 and I have to re-teach the habit of pleases and thank you’s, I have a glimmer of hope that I’m on to something new and important – not just for her, but for my second child as well. With each please and thank you, I can teach them the deeper meaning, and avoid the words being an empty, learned manner. I think.