Why I’ll Never Teach My Son Manners

Life

“What’s the magic word?” said the shop assistant, waving his new purchase in front of him.

Are you serious? I thought to myself.

His expression turned from excitement to confusion. Moments earlier he confidently approached “the lady”, smiling and greeting her with a cheery “hello”. He placed his chosen dinosaur carefully on the counter and proudly paid for his new toy.

“We don’t do the magic word”, I interjected, “can you please just pass him the toy, thank you”

She seemed perplexed, but my instincts wouldn’t allow my almost-three-year-old son to be spoken to like that. As soon as I heard the words I had flashbacks to childhood, with my immediate gut reaction letting me know it was condescending and disrespectful – my son felt it too.

To a young child, adults are big and powerful and children go along with ridiculous questions like these not because they’re learning but because they’re fearful.

Since becoming a parent my eyes have been opened to a minority I was unaware of and it’s the cutest little minority there is. Children are often treated as second class citizens, as somehow less than adults. Adultism describes the bias for adults over children. It leads to a phenomenon of “little adults” where the belief is children are “adults-in-the-making” rather than who they really are, which is spontaneous, playful and fun-loving children.  This discrimination precipitates manipulation of children and fuels society’s expectation of a parenting approach centred on adult’s wants rather than children’s needs.

The saying “children should be seen and not heard” is rarely uttered today but it persists in churning the undercurrent of society’s attitude about the way children should behave. Stereotypical phrases we heard repeatedly as children permeate our subconscious minds and when our buttons are pushed we say them automatically with little understanding for how they affect our most vulnerable and impressionable little people.

When we communicate disrespectfully it hinders children’s ability to develop a healthy sense of self-worth and sabotages their naturally growing confidence and self-esteem. Sadly, it also breeds disrespect. Gandhi’s famous quote “Be the change you wish to see in the world” teaches us if we want our children to treat others with respect we must first model respectful behaviour towards all people, regardless of age.

“Be the change you wish to see in the world”, Mahatma Gandhi

It would never have entered the shop assistant’s mind to ask me what the magic word is. Ironically, if she’d paused she would have heard a resounding thank you from my son – freely offered of his own volition. Holding our children to higher standards than we would hold ourselves to is hypocritical and provides yet another avenue for adults to exert their control.

Working as a veterinarian I observed the same domineering mindset influencing the way people treat man’s best friend. It’s an unfortunate human tendency to bully those less powerful than ourselves, whether it’s done consciously or not. As a parent, I now see babies and children also need a voice.

Swimming against the tide of convention is arduous. We are a minority ourselves, parenting patiently by following our instincts, investing in rock-solid connections with our children through an extension of mutual respect and a recognition their needs are as valid as our own. Speaking for myself, I can’t be the parent at the park threatening my child by counting to three, prompting him to say please and thank you or demanding he offer affection to a relative.

I’ll fiercely defend my son’s emotional well-being as I appreciate how fragile and impressionable it is.

I recently read an enlightening book about the unique parenting practices in Denmark called The Danish Way. In it, the authors describe the concept they refer to as their “big lines” of parenting. Big lines are the values you feel are the most important – the values you will always strive to encourage and reinforce. One of our family’s sacred values is to maintain an atmosphere of respect. Committing to this big line makes it easier to be unaffected by what other’s may think, to let judgement fly by and to respond with a knowing smile to a raised eyebrow.

A wise friend once shared an anonymous quote with me which I find myself recalling often as a parent: “If You Don’t Stand for Something, You’ll Fall for Anything”. Family, friends and complete strangers may startle us with the way they treat our children sometimes. It can be tempting to overlook it, to just leave it be. After all, it’s only one comment and surely our kids won’t remember it, will they?

But, knowing what we stand for and, more importantly, what we won’t, and having the courage to respectfully defend our children sends a strong message. It lets our children know they’re safe in this big, wild world, that we have their backs and they needn’t be fearful. It gives them the courage to grow into their full potential and a freedom to take risks as they learn to navigate the choppy waters of society.

So, I’m never going to teach my son manners, at least not in the conventional sense because children learn more from what we do and who we are than what we say.  I’ll teach him manners by modelling kind and respectful behaviour and in doing so, I hope I’ll become a better person too. I believe our children are sent to us at a time in our lives when we need a gentle nudge and a reminder of the innocence and beauty of humanity. They prompt us to slow down and to be open and humble, showing us there is purpose in being young, wild and free and that we could all benefit from a little less control.

And, if I’m being honest, my son bursts with infinitely more compassion and kindness than I ever could and all I need to do as a parent is encourage it to take root and flourish.

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COMMENTS
  • June 03, 2016
    Rahul

    I am a regular reader of your blogs here. I really appreciate the ideas shared and guidance provided regarding being respectful to children and raising confident kids.

    With all respect I would like to mention that in this blog Gandhi is misspelt as Ghandi.

    • June 03, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Thanks so much Rahul – I sincerely appreciate you pointing that out. It seems no matter how many times I reread my posts I always miss a typo somewhere.

      And thanks for reading – I’m happy you are enjoying my posts. Have a great weekend.

  • June 04, 2016
    KP

    Right on. This has happened to me a million times at checkout lanes with my crew and ends with all of us uncomfortable.

    Any conversation about infants, children and respect always brings to mind Magda Gerber, Janet Lansbury and RIE. Love their messages about how to treat even the littlest among us with true respect.

    • October 27, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Thanks so much for your comment KP and for reading. You’re so right and I love Janet Lansbury’s messages as well. I must check out RIE as I’ve heard about it but not in great detail.

  • June 06, 2016
    Emily

    Great article! 🙂

    • June 06, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Thanks Emily – happy you enjoyed it.

  • June 07, 2016
    Linnea'

    I like that there is a different way of raising a child than what is “normal”. I want to lead by example when raising my son and I like the idea that I don’t have to force him to say thank you or hug people he might not feel comfortable with hugging, but instead treat him with respect and get better myself at saying thank you and please and showing love in everything I do instead of forcing him to do something I’m not very good at myself all the time.

    • June 07, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Thanks Linnea and me too – couldn’t agree more. I found it difficult in the beginning to be the odd one out but it is so lovely and reassuring to find such a community of like-minded parents through my blog. I’m so happy you enjoyed the post and thank you for reading it.

  • June 07, 2016
    Nancy

    Though I agree with much of what you say, including the truth that kids are not treated with the respect they deserve by many adults, I think it’s a mistake to assume they will learn manners on their own. I have a close friend who believed this and parented her daughter this way. Today, her 16-year-old chews with her mouth open, interrupts people when talking constantly, texts at the table during dinners out with friends, and often doesn’t practice basic hygiene like brushing and flossing her teeth because she has been allowed to do as she pleases on these issues. Some things need respectful parental guidance, or they never really “stick.” Just my two cents.

    • June 07, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Thanks Nancy and I think we’re on the same page. The title may be misleading – perhaps it should read Why I’ll Never Force My Son To Use Manners. I do believe parents have a very real responsibility to teach their children manners but I there are a few ways of doing it – to my mind the most respectful way is by being an example and allowing children to follow. Having said that, I’ve also had discussions with my son about why we use manners and how good it makes people feel when we do. He is only three but when we say good-bye to someone it literally goes on for five minutes. He LOVES saying good-bye, hello, thank you, please etc. I think it’s important though that we make a distinction between trying to teach and bullying – which is what I believe the girl in the store was trying to do. “What’s the magic word?” is condescending and rude – she’d have NEVER said it to me and my litmus test is if I wouldn’t speak that way to an adult, to a friend then I won’t speak that way to a child. We need to be smarter about how we teach our kids rather than fall into familiar traps. You might like my post from last week as well. Thanks so much and I hope your friend’s daughter finds her way in spite of her parents not teaching her what she clearly needs.

  • June 09, 2016

    I’m glad that you clarified you don’t want to FORCE your child to use manners. I am 34 years old and it blows my mind that people who are older than me want to FORCE me to be polite to them solely because they are older than me, especially when they are being rude to me.

    Then they say that we don’t have respect for senior citizens. Respect should be earned, now matter the age of the person.

    • June 15, 2016
      Emma

      I have to respectfully disagree. It is common to say that respect must be earnt but I believe this confuses respect with esteem. Working with young adults every day I feel it is important they understand that everyone in the world deserves your respect wherever and whenever you interact with them, as do you. However it is through the interactions with each other that they may earn your esteem and you can gain theirs in return.

  • June 10, 2016

    Spot on. Reminds me of the meme I saw recently: “Yelling at my kids to be patient is my way of teaching them irony.” Funny at first glance; painful at deeper examination, especially because I am sometimes guilty of this approach as well. Your words are inspiring to me.

    • June 10, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Thanks Laura – so true and couldn’t agree more. It’s hard to break old subconscious habits but the more we’re aware of it the easier it becomes. Thanks again for reading.

  • June 10, 2016
    Marsha

    Thank you, I needed this. It is always okay to defend our children’s needs. Especially when they are way too young to do so themselves. I think the people in the comments on FB don’t get what you’re saying. It’s not about raising your son to be rude, but for him to not be suppressed by grownups. Those who mean well but don’t have the same ideas on raising children, in fact YOUR children, as you do. He might have said thank you himself. Besides he paid for it, he did everything he should have done. He didn’t NEED to thank her for his own purchase. You’re doing a great job mom, taking care of your little one.

    • June 10, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Thanks so much Marsha and I’m so happy you enjoyed it. Thanks as well for mentioning some of the comments on social media – I agree, I think some people haven’t grasped the meaning of what I was saying. My son is the most polite little boy I know – he makes friends everywhere he goes with adults and other kids. He says please, thank you, see you later, hello and good-bye excessively at times and does it so authentically, because he WANTS to not because I force him. Thanks again – really appreciate you reading.

      • June 11, 2016
        M Christensen

        I would agree with many of the distinctions made above between manners and true respect. I live in France, which is a very “mannered” culture – and in which many people (at least Parisians!) have mastered the art of “mannered rudeness” : using the trappings and formulas of politeness while exhibiting rude, insulting and egotistical behavior and attitudes under this veneer. This behavior is of course not limited to Parisians, and I think that learning true respect, and its foundations, is key. I personally like the Dalai Lama’s (buddhist) challenge : each and every person is seeking to attain happiness and avoid suffering, and (the hard part) each one has the same right that I have to do so … trying to behave in society based on these two maxims is a real challenge!

        • June 14, 2016
          Tracy Gillett

          Thank you for such a wonderful insight into another culture. I lived in London for five years and we spent quite a bit of time in Paris and France. Such a brilliant country – very fond memories and we hope to bring our son there one day. But, I am sure you are right – mannered rudeness is such a clever way of putting it. I love the challenge you put forth from the Dalai Lama and you’re right – if we model respect and focus on respect, manners will flow as a result of that. If it’s the other way around, forcing manners and hoping for respect, we may see manners but they’ll be superficial and respect lacking. Thanks again for reading.

  • June 13, 2016
    Anna MG

    I totally agree with your adult litmus test; if you wouldn’t do it to an adult, don’t do it to a child!

    Great article, parenting becomes reduced to constant nagging and prodding children to say hello, say goodbye, say please. Modelling manners and talking to your child about manners is the way forward!

    And ‘the magic word’ is just so condescending!!

    • June 14, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Thanks so much Anna – happy you enjoyed it. And you’re so right – sometimes I observe other parents (as you can tell from my blog!) and really try to step back and listen and the constant nagging doesn’t sound like any fun for the child OR the parent. Thanks again for reading 🙂

  • June 14, 2016
    Arwen

    I totally agree with everything you have said on this blog here. I was raised completely the opposite. Coming from an ethnic background, my parents were extremely hard fisted and publicly condescending. To them, a four year old me running around throwing a tantrum was a sheer nightmare and as a result, I have been publicly shamed and smacked. I grew up to be extremely anxious, with mild ADHD, and full of nervousness. I have a 20 month old toddler who I am raising the opposite way to what I was treated. I don’t force anything on him. I do not force him to love relatives much to my mum’s dismay as she always wants to kiss him and smother him in cuddles. My son hates kisses and cuddles from anyone but me and even when I do it, I ask his permission, if its ok – can mummy give you a kiss? Or do you want to give mummy a kiss? if he doesn’t, he doesn’t. My mum over FaceTime gets extremely dominating with the tone when he does not give in to what she wants, but I just tell him to keep doing whatever he wants, if he does not want to talk to her, its ok. Go do what you want and he just goes running to the back yard. Everyone asks me to teach him to talk as he isn’t talking yet but understands everything. I just take the advice in but go with my instincts. He will learn when he is ready, same way he started walking at 12 months when he was ready, same way he crawled at 7 mths when he was ready.
    I am so glad some people do think like me as most including my parents just frown upon my practices (we co sleep, I still breast feed him, and we did baby led weaning with solids). Thank you so much for this article, I feel like my stand is justified. x

  • June 30, 2016

    Hello beautiful and THANK YOU. For putting into words, what is so hard to describe. I’m gonna ask, would you consider writing a post with examples of how we can respectfully defend our children when we see, especially with close relatives, that they are treating our children THE OPPOSITE way of natural parenting, and they are being very manipulative with our children? They have “good” intentions (i.e. controlling). I have tried many times to defend my children, but I find it so difficult to get through. Would love it if you could describe in your words how one could do this. Thank you so much, all the best xoxo

    • July 02, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Thank you Susanne – thrilled you enjoyed it and that you could relate. Thank you for the suggestion and yes for sure – it’s so great to get ideas from readers. I wrote a post a month ago about raising respectful children which may be helpful in the meantime. Thanks again and will let you know when I have the post out. xx

  • July 18, 2016
    Leanne

    I am a bit of a newbie to this style of parenting and keen to learn. I currently use the counting to 3 method but would love some ideas on other ways to get my toddler to leave the park as the ‘litmus test’ has really resonated with me that a change is needed. Can you point me in the direction of some other articles?

  • September 06, 2016
    Helen Willoughby

    Interesting..we all want others to see the child WE love just as we do,& by teaching our children to say Please & Thankyou I think we are making it easier for others to do that. When the shop assistant asked your child ‘What is the magic word’,you answered with a Please & a Thankyou yourself. Surely this reflects the fact that you know these basic manners work,that others respond well to these respectful acknowledgements,& that perhaps it will benefit your son if he does learn to use please & thankyou whenever you or I would,as you did. Helen.

    • November 01, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Hi Helen,

      Thank you for your comment. Yes, I agree manners are important but its the method of teaching I’m addressing in this post. I don’t force my son to use manners, I don’t prompt him. I use my manners and he copies. He has better manners than most kids his age – he says please and thank you all the time, he says excuse me and sorry. He is such a friendly, helpful and caring little boy. We mistake forcing kids to do something as teaching and in doing so kids don’t learn why to use manners, they don’t enjoy using manners, they do it because they’re told to. But by modelling behaviour kids learn it’s fun and intrinsically rewarding to do it themselves.

      Thanks
      Tracy

      • November 03, 2016
        Sarah

        Thank you for clarifying that you are addressing the method of teaching – and maybe the post title could be clarified too. As a new reader I’m enjoying exploring the thoughts and topics you have, but as the parent of a 6 year old who wants to be IN CONTROL of everything in his life, I find myself knowing that gentle methods don’t always work. So we do have to factor in the personality of the child as well. Just as some adults need more boundaries to thrive, some kids need more boundaries and direction to thrive. Reading the comments definitely helped me see the great ideas this post was getting at – with the way the clerk spoke. You still expect your child to be polite.
        Also curious, if you aren’t requiring a response to such a question, at what age do you think a child will just pick up on the behavior you’ve modeled and start acting that way himself? (again, I question as a parent of a child who is likely much different that yours.)

        • November 04, 2016
          Tracy Gillett

          Thanks for reading Sarah and for your comment! My son already uses manners and has picked up on them all through modeling. He gets such a thrill out of using them – if we have takeaway he has to open the door, say hello, say thank you and say goodbye. Whenever we go to a store he says hello, pays for his item and says thank you and goodbye. !3 says please and thank you but if he forgets I don’t prompt him or ask him to say it. I say it for him and he usually then repeats it. My end game is the same as any parent wanting their kids to use manners / just using a different approach, although I think most gentle parents follow this approach anyway. The irony of this day was we were the only ones in the small store, my son had been trying to make conversation with the store clerk and she was ignoring him. Then came time to pay and she suddenly tried the magic word on him. To be honest, is never expect him to respond with anything other than abracadabra to such a question! The point of the post is to say as adults we need to consciously consider how we speak to our children – they deserve the same respect as anyone else and if we wouldn’t speak that way to another adult we should question why we’d say it to a child. I hope you enjoy the site and love to hear from you again.

  • October 04, 2016

    Literally in tears! Why? because this is SUCH a great post/idea and I am working on doing this with my youngest son. I really hate how we are somewhat, social forced to do and accept things, because “that’s just how it is”. My kids are literally my WORLD. Right now, my youngest son just started Kindergarten and is having problems with bullies. both in school and at home. My son needs self confidence. I can’t even believe he thinks he is “ugly” and “stupid”. I broke into tears hearing him say that. He needs a lot of strength, patience and support everyday. His older brother has autism, so from the very beginning everything that was supposed to be “normal” for him, was extremely complex and opposite. I really want to not lie to my kids and keep them going with this whole santa buiesness, thinking that they get stuff once a year just because. Pressure from my family keeps me doing it though and im pretty sick of it. I want them to know I will always tell them the truth. That mommy doesnt make up stuff just to sugar coat it. I want to build them up and let them know the truth so when something they are told is going to happen, doesnt happen, they dont shatter.

    thank you for writing this. honestly. THANK YOU!

  • July 02, 2017
    Sophie

    Hi Tracy, I’ve come back to this post again after seeing it on Instgram and i’m always grateful of how your words are so refreshingly different in the culture that we live in. I have a question though for you, I hope you can help. My father-in-law is a wonderful ‘Pops’ to my 15 month old but I really struggle with him over praising him. He can say ‘good boy’ five or six times in a row and I really don’t think he’s aware he’s doing it. It makes me quite uncomfortable though as I know it’s not doing my son any good but I don’t know how to challenge him about it. If you have any advice on this I’d really appreciate it, thanks 🙂

  • July 03, 2017
    Kris f.

    great read! well said! I was looking for sharing options, can’t find any, need to copy the link instead to be able to share it.

    • July 06, 2017
      Tracy Gillett

      Thank you Kris – they’re just below the article 🙂

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