Why Asking Kids for the ‘Magic’ Word Doesn’t Teach Manners (And What You Need To Do Instead)

Life Parenting

“What’s the magic word?” said the shop assistant to my then two-year-old son.

Are you serious? I thought to myself.

His expression turned from excitement to confusion. His smile vanished. His little brow furrowed. He looked to me for the answer to this question he’d never heard before.

“We don’t do the magic word”, I said, “please pass my son his dinosaur. Thank you”

She seemed surprised. She raised her eyebrows and tipped her head to the side as she slowly slid our purchase across the counter.

It wasn’t the response she expected.

Because for some reason, adults think that all adults are on the same team. Team adult vs. team kid.  

Complete strangers assume that I’ll take their ‘side’ over having my son’s back.

Of course, I never participate in this game and today was no different.

Because I see children for WHO they ARE, not WHAT they DO.

And when I see my son, I see an empathic, enthusiastic, excited little boy who is experiencing the world for the first time…every single day.

I see a little boy who is doing the best he can with the developmental abilities and skills he has.

I see a little boy who is absorbing culture and customs, while simultaneously mastering the art of verbal communication and all that comes with being a brand-new tiny human with so much left to learn.

His eagerness to learn inspires me.

Yet his open-heart scares me as I bear witness to the insensitivities and unrealistic expectations of adults.

Does this resonate with you? Do you remember feeling lesser-than as a child…simply because you were a child? I know I do.

As a parent, I now see how this kind of molding, conformity, and coercion changes children…and not for the better.

It makes our daughters into “good” little people pleasers.

It tempts our sons to trade the wholeness of their authenticity for the hollowness of fitting in.

It conditions our children to say the “right” thing, rather than accepting their right to express how it is they’re truly feeling (which is infinitely more meaningful, heartfelt and real than any script we could ever give them).

Is this what we want for our children? To grow up in a society of robots who use manners on autopilot rather than fostering a deep sense of gratitude, responsibility and empathy to guide our actions?

What is the purpose of manners?

Of course, I recognise that manners can serve a wonderful purpose.

They act as signposts in our social exchanges. They add predictability and reassurance that we can and should expect to be treated with respect.

But our blind obsession with the superficial, with what looks good and sounds right, dupes us into believing that manners are the goal.

Manners are not the goal.

Manners are the outcome.

Manners are the by-product.

Just as a healthy body is the byproduct of a healthy diet. Yet if we were to focus exclusively on the goal of weight loss we are more likely to choose short term strategies that may be detrimental to our health. The same applies for kids and manners.

There are no quick fixes here.

Instead, we need to focus on the journey rather than the destination and recognise that we are our children’s guides, not their puppet masters.

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But, was the shop assistant’s question really all that disrespectful?

Am I simply overreacting and coddling my son?

Am I too sensitive?

Isn’t that how we’ve always spoken to kids?

Let’s look at this through a second lens.

A couple of months ago, on the other side of the world, I heard the magic word question again.

My ears pricked up.

I felt like David Attenborough in a wildlife documentary observing and making sense of ingrained but highly unusual social customs.

The question wasn’t directed at my son this time but to a ten-year-old girl in front of me in the line at Starbucks.

It was a long line and I noticed she seemed excited, and maybe a little anxious to be alone as her parents waited on the sidelines.

When she finally got the front, I heard her say hello to the cashier. Her tone was friendly. She smiled. She ordered her drink.

But…she forgot the magic word.

As if the question was on the tip of her tongue, the cashier asked “What’s the magic word?”.

The girl’s shoulders dropped. Her tone flattened and she quietly muttered “please”. “That’s better”, said that cashier.

The young girl moved aside.

Two adults were still in front of me to order. I kept observing. Neither of the adults said hello to the cashier. Both were short in their exchanges. Neither smiled. Neither of them said please or thank you, yet no magic words were asked for.

Why? Why didn’t the cashier ask the adults for the magic word?

Because when we look at it through a second lens – when directed at an adult – we know it’s a rude question to ask. Disrespectful. Condescending. A bit…silly really.

Yet, I imagine that both of these adults had been asked countless times as children for the “magic word”.

And I imagine that they too had muttered, “please” many times.

Yet, clearly, they didn’t learn the “lesson”.

Why? Because humans don’t learn when they feel shame. Or bullied. Or disrespected.

And that’s exactly what this question teaches – it doesn’t teach manners, it’s teaches a top-down, adult-centric heirarchy.

We need to remember that to a young child; adults are big and powerful, and they go along with mindless questions like these not because they’re learning but because they’re fearful.

Because they have no choice.

But we, as parents, have a choice.

We have a choice about how we choose to teach, guide and lead our children.

We have a choice about what boundaries we set and what limits we impose on those who engage with our children (family, friends and strangers included).

“You can’t teach children to behave better by making them feel worse. When children feel better, they behave better.” Pam Leo

So, how do we respectfully guide our children to use manners?

My son is now five years old and he is one of the most kind-hearted little boys I know. (Of course, I know I am biased!)

Does he use manners? Like all of us…most of the time.

But, what lights me up when he uses manners is that he does so enthusiastically. There’s no muttering. There are no half-hearted apologies or limp thankyou’s.

As the postman leaves our doorstep my son yells a genuine “thank you, thank you, thank you” for the whole neighbourhood to hear.

When I give him a leaf or a uniquely shaped stick or a dinosaur fossil I found on a walk, he hugs me and says, “thank you SO much Mum!” as if it’s Christmas morning.

When he accidentally hurts me roughhousing a little too intensely he stops and says, “I’m so sorry Mum, are you ok?” as he runs to the freezer to grab me an ice pack.

For me, the deep gratitude and empathy that my son expresses through his actions mean so much more than the words he chooses to use. So, how did we get here? Because not once have I asked my son the magic word, nor have I forced him to say sorry or thank you.

So, here are a handful of lessons that have helped me on this journey.

1. Model Manners

Mahatma Gandhi says it best: Be the change you wish to see in the world.

Our kids learn far more from what we do, than what we say. We can tell them over and over again to “use their manners” or “find their words” but if we fail to use ours, we can’t expect them to use theirs.

So rather than reminding your child to use manners, remind yourself to use yours, especially with your child. Make your child feel apprecieated and helpful and respected.

Be enthusiastic. Have fun. Emphasise your words. Enjoy showing gratitude to others.

Instead of a standard, “thank you”, try personalising it. “Thank you SO much, that was the best coffee I’ve had in weeks.” “Thank you SO much, I can see how much care you took making our sandwiches, they look delicious.”

When I started focusing on this a few years ago, I was amazed at the reactions, smiles and conversation it started with strangers when I was authentic and unreserved about showing my appreciation for the effort they made.

2. Realign your expectations

This is one of the truest parenting truths, right? When false expectations clash with reality it leads to conflict. Big time!

This is where the rubber meets the road and if we’re to keep our sanity and preserve our relationships with our kids we need to realign our perspective and accept that the expectations most people have for young children are completely unrealistic.

So, don’t expect a toddler to use manners.

Don’t expect a young child (or anybody for that matter) to use manners…every single time.

Be patient and expect that it will take years and years for your child to learn and consistently use manners.

Do not take this as a reflection on your parenting! Your child is not your measuring stick. Let this wash over you. Don’t allow this to become a trigger.

So many unhelpful parenting choices are made because we worry about what other people think.

Let’s be honest, sometimes we want our children to use manners so that we look like good parents. Right?! 

STOP.

Do not sacrifice your relationship with your child to gain the superficial approval of others.

Dr Shefali Tsabury says it best,

“My child isn’t my easel to paint on
Nor my diamond to polish
My child isn’t my trophy to share with the world
Nor my badge of honor
My child isn’t an idea, an expectation, or a fantasy
Nor my reflection or legacy
My child isn’t my puppet or a project
Nor my striving or desire
My child is here to fumble, stumble, try, and cry
Learn and mess up
Fail and try again
Listen to the beat of a drum faint to our adult ears
And dance to a song that revels in freedom
My task is to step aside
Stay in infinite possibility
Heal my own wounds
Fill my own bucket
And let my child fly”
Shefali Tsabary, PhD

3. When your child doesn’t use manners…

Simple…when your child is still learning to use manners and forgets to say please or thank you, say it for them.

The person feels appreciated and noticed.

You’ve modeled using manners.

Done.

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4. Practice, practice, practice

Use role play to practice situations in advance to show your child how using manners makes other people feel good.

Role play going to a café or to grandma’s house. Practice what may happen when you get there. Explain that when we say to grandma “can I have a drink please?” it makes Grandma feel like she’s not taken for granted. And that when we say “thank you” it makes her feel appreciated.

Talk about the amazing power your child has within them to make other people smile just by choosing certain words and expressing how we feel.

5. Set clear boundaries…for adults

What are the values you hold sacred as a family?

What are 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 boundary makes it easier to be unaffected by what others may think, to let go of judgement and to respond with a knowing smile to a raised eyebrow. To stick to MY values and not deviate to fulfil someone else’s agenda.

“If you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything” Peter Marshall

Family, friends and complete strangers may disappoint you with the way they treat your children sometimes. It can be tempting to overlook it, to just leave it be. After all, it’s only one comment and surely your child won’t remember it, will they?

I believe that having the courage to respectfully advocate for your child sends a strong message. It lets your child know they’re safe in this big, wide world, that you have their backs and they can feel safe to grow into who it is THEY are. And in the process you will become more of who YOU are. Stand up for your child – don’t let other people become your puppetmaster.

6. Develop thick skin, an open mind and a sense of humour

It is going to take time for your child to use manners consistenly.

In that time you will need to patiently guide your child as well as advocate for their needs with those who may be less aware of how normal child development unfolds. These three skills can help you navigate this time:

  • Thick skin: time to make a choice. What’s more important? What an adult may think or how your child feels? Choose your child, develop thick skin and move on.
  • Open mind: if you open the discussion, without being defensive about respectful parenting, you may just plant a seed that affects change.
  • Sense of humour: My son knows the magic word for the next person that asks…abracadabra. Learn a few magic mantras of your own.

Oh, and smile – always smile.

7. Prioritise your long term goals

Alfie Kohn, author of Unconditional Parenting, talks about the mismatch that often exists between the long-term goals we have for our kids and the short-term strategies we tend to implement.

If we want our kids to grow into adults who are independent, happy and confident leaders (not followers) then we can’t treat them like puppets when they’re young.

We have to trust that our kids are already amazing people and we are simply here to guide them. To nourish them. To tend to the soil and create the conditions for them to thrive.

When we communicate disrespectfully it hinders their ability to develop a healthy sense of self-worth and sabotages their naturally growing confidence and self-esteem. So, be on your child’s team and trust the process.

8. Become a strong leader

There is a vast difference between being in control of our kids and being in charge (a post for another day!). Strong leaders are in charge, which means we are responsible for setting the conditions for our children to make good choices, but we are never, nor should we aim to be, in control of them.

We become strong leaders by knowing our values. By defining our long-term goals so we stay the course and don’t allow ourselves to be derailed by other agendas. We make tough choices. We set conscious boundaries and maintain respectful limits.

Swimming against the tide of the mainstream is hard work

Treating children with respect is a radical act in an adult-centric culture.

It isn’t easy to swim upstream. I get it.

But, 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. That’s the easy way out. That’s the shortcut that backfires in the teenage years (or earlier). That’s the strategy that pegs me against my child…and that’s not why I became a parent.

I’ll fiercely defend my son’s emotional well-being as I appreciate how precious and impressionable it is. So, I’m never going to teach my son manners, at least not in the conventional sense because children learn more from 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.

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. 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.

COMMENTS
  • Avatar
    September 23, 2019
    Jessica Powers

    I notice that we talk a lot in our house about how to ask for things kindly, politely, nicely, respectfully, with manners. There are a lot of ways to phrase that idea! As a woman with a daughter I am not shy to explain to her the expectations of her, and whether or not we need to believe them or engage with them. The explicit with the implicit might be more work, but it’s interesting and of such importance to our whole family unit. When I’ve noticed interactions adults have with her that I’m not near enough to clearly hear or manage (hello grocery store bench for child eating her treat while I finish check out), I ask her how it went afterwards and how she felt and if that was okay with her and tell how it looked from my perspective. The same I would if I saw a friend having an interaction I wasn’t sure about.

  • Avatar
    September 24, 2019
    Hayley

    My husband and I read some parenting books with a remain calm 1,2,3 counting strategy followed by a consequence like a timeout or losing a toy or privilege. I’d love to read another strategy as you mention in above article you don’t want to be the 1,23 counting mother at the park. Could you direct me to an article or book that you most agree with?

    • Avatar
      September 24, 2019
      Tracy Gillett

      Thanks for your comment and for reading Hayley! Have you read any of my other articles or just this one? I talk about avoiding time outs and about consequences. I’d start with those first. Here’s one on time out and another. And here’s one on brain development and realistic expectations. And another on consequences. And another on punishments.

  • Avatar
    September 25, 2019
    Maxine Kilgour

    I have to post to say a BIG BIG thank you for this post. As you know, from my previous comments, I don’t post comments or read many blogs. But I will consistently read this blog.
    This post on the “magic word” opened a conversation with my 8 year old. I asked her how she feels when asked to have manners, and if she feels respected and heard. She said she does and that sometimes adults just don’t see things like kids do. Exactly as you had highlighted!
    She also really liked that I had asked. I told her the story of the kid being asked for the magic word, but not the adult. She found this very contradictory.
    I loved that it opened this conversation and helped me too on going easy on her at times when she is being pretty darn fantastic. Thank you for the constant reminders when I may not be feeling I am doing my best x

  • Avatar
    September 26, 2019
    Sarah

    This article was a big eye opener and really resonated with me. Thank you for sharing it.

    I have been telling my 20 month old son that “we say please when we ask for something and thank you when someone gives us something or does something for us” and then would prompt him with “What do you say?” when he would ask me for something. He nods and says “please” and I comply. I though this was a kind way to teach manners without shaming him, but I’m wondering if really the best approach is to not prompt him at all and simply wait for him to use these manners on his own by imitating me and how I use them. He’s so young after all and doesn’t even string words together into sentences yet!

    I was also taken with the line at the end about not being the parent in the park threatening your child by counting to three… I started using counting to three when my son was a baby to let him know something was about to happen – so he could prepare (mentally and/or physically) for a transition (after I explained what the transition would be). For example, “I’m going to pick you up now – one, two, three” or “It’s time to get in the car seat now – one, two, three”. This was something I read about in Janet Lanbury’s writing about respectful parenting and RIE. I suppose you might have been alluding to the parents in the park who use a threatening tone when counting to three to get their kid to comply with their wishes. Anyway, just wanted to let you know that there may be more going on behind some of those counts to three than you might initially assume.

  • Avatar
    September 28, 2019
    Nicki Varner

    I read your article about telling a child to say please. I work in a room for emotional behavior room with 1st and second graders. I’m wanting to know if you would suggest the same responses?

    Thanks

    Nicki

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