You know the drill. A well-intended adult dangling a desired object just out of your child's grasp, and with a flash of a smile and saccharin-sweet voice, "Now what's the magic word?"
If the magic is word is offered up quickly, situations like these are relatively painless, but they also leave the impression of a dog begging for a treat if only he can ace the requested trick. Is it a big deal? No, maybe not, but that said, there is also some room for a better understanding of what can kindly be expected from children at different ages and individual stages of development, and from my personal experience, there is room for even more joy and connection. That connection keeps the exchange positive for ourselves and for the children whom we care about and are looking to model politeness and genuine gratitude to.
I don't force my three-year-old to say "please" and "thank you." And I don't welcome others else trying to force him either. Does this mean that I don't care about politeness and courtesy? That I don't care about the feelings and expectations of those around us? Well, I do very much care about politeness and courtesy. I appreciate it when it is offered to me and I try to always extend it to others too, both to my family and to those we meet in our daily life. And while I trust and expect the adults around us to be responsible for their own feelings and expectations, I also very tenderly consider those around us and want to treat them well. Politeness and courtesy is part of all that and of most people's social expectations.
Before becoming a mother, I realize that I knew very little about child development with regards to social graces and what is appropriate or even kind to expect from young children. I was raised in a tribe of "What's the magic word?" and my expectation of politeness was in line with what was expected of me as a child. I can also remember the sting of this lesson being handled poorly by certain adults in my life, however well meaning and loving they were. I know of children who are never left to accept a gift without an adult interrupting them and demanding a please, putting that word above all else, even respect of the child and the child's naturally arising gratitude.
Having been a long-time neighborhood babysitter and well-loved auntie early on, I cherished my relationships with the children in my life. Because of this, I felt like I had a good general handle on kids, even nannying in my 20s to help pay for college, but thank goodness I didn't start my family back then, before I had the good example of truly in-touch and kind educators and parents in my life. And along with that, before I grew enough in my own skin to guide my child through these important social lessons and not feel totally swayed by the expectations of well-meaning family and friends, peripherals and even strangers.
Politeness matters and is universally appreciated, but it can be tricky too, because what matters to some doesn't to others; and each of us has their own expectations of situations and people. My husband I talk with our son about how the "magic" words help you to get more of what you want in the world. That it's a key to an important door. I think being direct in this way is important because it helps a child learn about different types of valuable social currency, just like honesty and respect. It is rounding out the Golden Rule and making it real for ourselves and our children.
We tell him that saying please and thank you is a direct and easy way to show another person that you care and appreciate them and what is being shared. We tell him that some adults expect him to say these things, while others do not, but that we know from own experience that everyone appreciates being acknowledged in this way. We tell him that we appreciate it too, which is why say those same things when we talk with him. At two years of age, talking it out in this way wasn't part of our parenting, but at three we see him connecting the dots of his life, his language is now strong and quick, and we want him to understand that using his voice is an important and direct way to show his gratitude. We see how it is growing and becoming a natural part of his accepting and giving---his face lights up and so does his heart.
So, if we want to relax and hold the space for our children to learn how to navigate their expanding world and commonly held expectations, then what are we looking for? Here is a list of what matters in my family and how I have navigated this issue as a mother. Honestly, I wouldn't trade these for all the pleases in the world.
Whether an item was asked for or offered, most little ones have a joyful anticipation for what is coming to them. They are engaged and tuned-in, eager and excited. This is valuable, authentic and appropriate. It is also something that the giver gets to share in and enjoy too. Stopping this flow for an obligatory "please" takes the child out of their joyful anticipation.
Allowed to just be in the flow of joyful anticipation and without any distraction, a child will naturally be present within themselves and therefore to the experience of accepting. This allows them to connect to the giver and the gift in way that is genuine and openhearted.
Joyful anticipation and presence makes the connection between the giver and the child. It allows for the giver to settle into the child's world and talk about the gift with them. Maybe showing them how it works or why it was chosen for the child. Connection is what let's the giver share the full extent of a gift---the item, the intention and all the sentiment too.
In my book, heartfelt gratitude holds a million times the value of a single thank-you. With little ones who are already integrating so much, such as learning the cues of politeness when accepting and giving, I think it's important to be generous with our expectation of what a child can juggle in any given moment, especially one of excitement and eagerness. Gratitude is expressed and felt in many ways, look for it outside of just the expected niceties and accept it is such, a real and heartfelt thank-you, perhaps just not in so many words. Look for the thank-you in the squeals of delight and the running off to play with the new toy. Look for the thank-you in the enjoyment of a well chosen gift.
Modeling and Encouraging
Now that my son is three, I see his pleases and thank-yous showing up genuinely and without prompting in most situations. But it takes practice and sometimes these niceties are still sidelines by his eagerness, curiosity and excitement, so I offer him time and space to settle in and enjoy the moment before prompting him. I also see opportunities to mother and guide him in it, after giving him the chance to enjoy the moment and stay connected to the giver. At three, it only takes gentle reminders like these, "This is your chance to tell grandma thank you for your wonderful gift" or "I can see how much you like Emma's gift to you. Can you tell her so and also offer her a thank-you?"
When my son was younger, and I could feel that some adults were unable to relax into the giving until a please or thank-you was offered up, so in situations like these, I was glad to thank them on behalf of my son, and when he was a bit older at 2-2.5 years, I would thank them until he was able to get back to himself. As his momma, I would acknowledge their gift and how much he was enjoying it, telling them thank-you to keep us all connected and enjoying the moment together.
And to encourage and nurture the wellspring of gratitude that is natural for children, when he hits the mark on his own, I tell him right then that I appreciate his please and that I noticed his thoughtfulness. Positivity and kind encouragement make a person, big or small, open to learning and better able integrate what is being learned. Just think to your own childhood and to your life now, encouragement and respect makes a lesson easier to make into a habit, while harshness or shame make it more challenging, or leaves a lingering sting of unpleasantness.
Remember to have fun with this important work of parenting. It's a gift.