What fascinating synchronicity.
Just this morning, this “letter to the expert” about manners was published on Boston.com Moms, a feature of the Boston Globe (which, to be fair, often gives really good advice).
Simultaneously, there was a conversation going on about manners on another facebook page, one that is focused on parenting with respect. The contrast could not be more striking. With this sort of dissonance, it seemed time to weigh in here.
Let’s start with what we agree with:
- Yes, preschoolers imitate what they see and hear, try on behaviors, test limits, and observe the consistency of our reactions.
- Yes, telling a 3 1/2 year old, especially in the moment, that it hurts people’s feelings, as well as giving lengthy explanations, is probably not going to get absorbed. Simple is best, though explanation is important as well, though not necessarily in the moment (oops, got off track there for a minute and veered into disagreement…sorry). The word “nice” means nothing to a three year old.
- And Yes, Yes, Yes, our own behavior is a powerful model. Saying please and thank you, and greeting people warmly, all on a consistent basis, is a terrific example. Keep it up.
Sadly, that’s where our agreement ends. To enumerate:
- “We” statements are notoriously dangerous with a three year old. “We don’t pull the dog’s tail.” “We have good manners.” “We don’t stand on the couch.” You want to hear what’s going on your three year old’s head when you say “We have good manners.” or “We don’t stand on the couch”? There’s a pretty darn good chance that what’s going in their head is “Well, I do.” Toddlers and preschoolers are masters of exempting themselves from the “we” standard. In short, it’s an invitation to continue testing at a time of life when testing of limits is at an all time high. So WE don’t stand on the couch, do WE? Watch me.
- It is not a great idea to withhold food to obtain a desired behavior. Food, especially for young children, is nutrition. Snacks are part of keeping their bodies, energy, and blood sugar in check (if it gets out of whack, you’ll have more of these problems than you already have). To get into a battle in which you withhold food until you get the “please” that you would like is not only an invitation to a battle of wills (which is not desirable with a three year old….hint: you’ll lose), but also a form of threatening/bribery (around important sustenance, no less), which is probably not a dynamic that you want to set in place for the long term. It may work in the short term, but in the long term, it is likely to backfire. And once again, children imitate what you do at this age…do you really want your child making “deals” with you around everything? “I’ll go to sleep when you read me one more story.” How is that so different from “I’ll give you your snack when you say please”? Careful what you teach inadvertently!
So what would we suggest? Here are a few ideas:
- Start out by viewing this behavior as an opportunity rather than a violation. We’ll say it again. View the behavior as an opportunity rather than a violation. An opportunity for what? An opportunity to learn more about your children. An opportunity to learn what they like and don’t like–because they are entitled to have their own likes and dislikes, they are their own people. An opportunity to notice if there is a pattern to these statements that can help us to avoid them; is it more likely to happen when your child is tired, needs some down time, spent too much time with other people, had too much stimulation, or wants to assert some independence or state an objection about a person, especially a person they may not know well, who they may feel is “violating” their space (like a doctor, for example). Notice that Concerned in Concord says it often happens “after a while of playing with friends.” That sentence stands out as if in neon. So perhaps this three and a a half year old, still young for the subtleties of language, is using “I don’t like you” to mean “I’m tired of playing/noise/stimulation, and need quiet (or a break, or to go home, or some snuggly time with just me and my mom). If we observe that sort of pattern, we can find out more what it is that they are really saying and try to notice and address it next time BEFORE they get to that point, thereby decreasing the incidence of “I don’t like yous”.
- Often, when three year olds say “I don’t like that”, they are actually saying something else. By responding empathically, we can try to find out more about what it is that they are actually trying to say, and by having those conversations, we can help to give them the words to better express themselves so that “I don’t like you” is their only fallback. With some open conversation and respectful communication, this mom might find out that the “I don’t like you” that comes at the end of a play session really means “I’m tired”. In that case, when the child says it (or when you observe that they might be winding down), the parent can be proactive and ask “Are you feeling tired and ready to stop playing soon?”. When the child feels understood and feels comforted that the play will be ending soon, they may no longer need to use the all purpose “I don’t like you.” When the child says “I don’t like you” at the doctor’s office, she may be saying that she is frightened, or that she has bad associations of the doctor (from getting shots, or being ill), or that she’s uncomfortable at the doctor’s office (as many adults are as well). When she says “I don’t like you” to the babysitter, she may be saying that she doesn’t want her parents to go out, and addressing that directly by reassuring her (NOT giving up going out) will, again, help to avoid the “I don’t like you.”
- We do not advise forcing children to shake hands, kiss a relative, or hug someone (especially when it is someone they do not know well or see regularly!) Again, this is both a respect and a long term results issue. You want your child to know that their body belongs to them, and that they get to choose who gets to touch them and when. That being said, many children are more than happy to shake hands, give hugs, or give a grandparent a kiss. There’s nothing wrong with asking them if they’d like to do it–many kids will respond positively. But if they respond in the negative, that is their choice. It’s in how you view it. See if you can change your perspective to one of “they’re being impolite” to “they’re asserting their independence and communicating their limits”.
- Think about what it is you want to teach your child, in the long term. Project into the future, think about the skills and traits that you would like them to have. Yes, surely, you would like her to have manners and to be kind and polite to others. We’d be willing to guess that when she is a teenager and a boy is getting more intimate than she would like, you would also like her to say “I don’t like that”, “stop it”, or “please don’t do that.”. If you want her to be able to do that as a teenager, you need to teach her and empower her, from the earliest ages (for that is when so much of this is laid down), that is it okay to tell people that you don’t like them being close to you, that you don’t want to play with them anymore, that you “don’t like that.” The last thing you want, in 11 years, when this child is 14 1/2, is a child who will focus primarily on pleasing other people or “going along”, ignoring her own feelings of discomfort.
- If you see , like this writer of this letter, that it makes others uncomfortable, you can handle that by reassuring them that she is “still learning”. Some people do expect perfect manners out of young children, but perfection it is simply not a developmentally appropriate expectation for a three year old, and parents can, kindly and patiently (and hopefully with some humor), help defuse that, and educate our friends and relatives about what three years olds are really like. If you are visiting relatives, you might let them know before you visit that you will be coming and that she is struggling with learning manners, and that she is going to do her best, but she will make mistakes, and you hope they will forgive and hopefully not react to mistakes that she makes, as mistakes are a natural part of learning.
- Sometimes it is good, when you are out of the situation (and when the child is rested and well fed), to have a conversation about it, so the child is not put on the spot. At that time, you can say something like “Today, when I had to leave and you were going to be with the babysitter, you said you didn’t like her. Sometimes, when you say those words, it hurts people’s feelings. Let’s think about another way that you could say that you don’t feel like being with her. Maybe you could say “I want to play by myself” if you don’t want to be with her right away. Or maybe you could say “I don’t want to stay home with the babysitter.” Sometimes you DO have to stay home with the babysitter, and I know that can be hard. It’s okay to say how you feel. Let’s find words to use that don’t hurt.”
- If you really feel you must intervene about manners in the moment, there are better ways to do it than to stop, threaten, bribe, chide, or withhold. You can reflect back what you think they are saying. Instead of “reacting” to the “I don’t like you” (which is part of the reaction a testing preschooler is looking for), you can ask a question or make an observation, such as “Are you saying you’re ready to go?” or “Sometimes being at the doctor makes you nervous.”. In that way, you are not giving attention–positive or negative–to their words, but helping to give them a new set of words to use next time to better describe what they are feeling. When you are And remember, this is developmental. Three year olds cannot be expected to “remember their manners” all the time, and most, if not all, adults will forgive them if they forget a “please” or “thank you”. It’s a process.
Most of all…
Model manners, not only with others, but with your child directly. When they do something you have asked, don’t skip the “thank you”. When you ask them to put their dish in the sink, be sure to say “please”. Children who are treated with courtesy will, in time, respond with courtesy. When you hand her food, and she does not say thank you, you can say (not in a snarky or sarcastic way, but genuinely and warmly) “you’re welcome” (as if they had said thank you). Most children will catch on quickly, and many will say “thank you” after you say “you’re welcome”. That’s ok. They’re learning to associate the two things. The correct order will come in time.
And most MOST of all…
Trust your children. Trust in development. Trust that if you model good manners, they WILL learn them. They will not grow up to be poorly mannered oafs simply because you did not stop and correct them and tell them to say please or thank you, or because you didn’t stop what they were doing and made them shake hands. All parents of preschoolers worry about these things. We all worry that our children are never going to have good manners. But if they are surrounded by good manners, treated respectfully and with empathy, it will come. Manners are tricky. They’re not perfect, or even anything close to perfect, for many years to come. Trust. It works.