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Naomi Aldort

How Children Learn Manners
by Naomi Aldort

Our son Yonatan came home last Christmas from the theater and related an observation. On the way from the theater to the lobby he noticed that parents were instructing the children to ask the Santa Claus for candy with a "please", and after getting the treat say "thank you". Yonatan went to the lobby and was surprised and puzzled. He found that the children indeed said "please" and "thank you", but that their parents came along and took their own treats, saying nothing.

"The parents of these parents must have told them to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, yet they didn’t seem to learn it." He said. "Do you think these children are also going to stop saying "thank you" when they grow up?"

What do we expect a child to learn when we tell him: "Say thank you to your friend"? Most parents believe that the child will learn to be grateful, and to express her sense of gratitude. 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 grateful? Or did we develop a sense of gratitude later on in no regard to those instructions? Is it possible that some of us feel resentful when needing to thank someone, share, or apologize, because as children we hated doing these things?

Maybe we are dealing with our inability to trust. Is it possible that gratitude is not likely to be felt by a child or at least not in the way adults feel and express it? Could it be that when childhood needs are fully satisfied, gratitude will naturally develop? Perhaps we need to allow children to observe gratitude, generosity and kindness, rather then teach these behaviors to them.

What do they learn by being told

If telling a child to say "thank you" (and other manner words and actions) does not teach her/him to authentically feel and express gratitude - what does it teach?

A few possible things:

1. The child learns 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 do.

2. A less obvious message is the one: "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 one is "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. A child learns 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".

6. The child learns to hate sharing or saying "please" and "thank you", as his formative memory of doing so is that of resentment, being controlled, and being unreal. In doing something while not wanting to do it, he is learning to hate the expression of being grateful (sharing etc.) and the natural authentic development of his manners can be delayed.

Our Expectations

One aspect of manners that we hurry to teach is responding to an adult’s (disrespectful) inquiry about name and age: "Tell the woman how old you are, Johnny" is an instruction we give when we feel embarrassed for our child’s lack of responsiveness. One of my three children never responded to the probing of adults until well after he was 7. In every such interaction I was on his side, defending his need. I would say to the inquirer: "He doesn’t seem to want to talk to you" and smile, adding: "I can talk to you if you wish". In later years I found out by asking, that Lennon became interested in sharing information about himself, but wanted me to speak for him. I then started to handle those circumstances differently. I would turn to Lennon and ask: "Do you wish that I would tell Earl about you?" Sometimes he would want it, others times he wouldn’t, and I simply followed his request. Lennon now feels comfortable and confident enough to respond to most people’s questions, or - more rarely now - to say that he doesn’t want to. His choices are clearly related to the person’s authenticity. He is allergic to phony talk.

As a mother I have 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 our 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 build our own self-esteem, so we are less dependent on approval of our children’s ways of being for enhancing our feelings of self-worth.

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

How then will they learn manners?

How then will a child learn social manners? Can we trust the child to develop and mature in her own time, the way we trusted her to learn to walk and to talk? Why are we in a rush to have children behave like adults before they are adults?

When lovingly and respectfully treated, children will learn manners on their own simply because they want to live happily in this society. We can ensure this development by the following three approaches:

1. To "teach" a child to be grateful, express your gratitude for her contribution to your life: "It is such a joy to spend the afternoon with you". It is how you treat your child that teaches her how to be. Telling a child what to say is not respectful. It is not the kind of manners you want her to learn. Thanking her for her help and being kind and generous toward her are really at the heart of your teaching tools.

2. We can provide examples in our interactions with others by expressing gratitude, sharing generously, and treating others kindly. Our children will assimilate what they see, hear and experience around them.

3. For your child to learn manners with pleasure, and enjoy behaving in pleasing ways, she needs to see you enjoying yourself through these expressions. She needs to see you being real, authentic, and fully present when you express gratitude and treat people kindly.

4. We can provide ample freedom and opportunity to express painful feelings. Children, like adults, can best experience kind and giving feelings when they are not preoccupied with upsetting experiences. When a child tells me "I hate my sister", I validate his feelings and accept his emotional outburst - only then he can be free to love his sister. If hurtful and angry feelings are numbed, the loving and kind ones fall asleep with them. It’s a package deal.

I find gratefulness to be a great tool for positive awareness, and the heart of manners. We can demonstrate it all through the day. I often say things like: I am so happy to have this wonderful house. I love this community. We are so lucky to live here. I am so grateful that Bach was born before me so I can enjoy his incredible music. I am amazed and thankful to be alive....have eyes, ears....and so on. Being grateful, sensitive and kind is not a lecture - but a demonstration.

Children become what they absorb around them. Be what you want them to become, and treat them the way you wish them to learn to be with others.

Maybe what we need is to develop our own manners of respect toward our children. It is not easy, but very simple: Children develop adult manners by the time they are adults.

©Copyright Naomi Aldort

This article has been adapted from Naomi's forthcoming book, Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves.

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