As a peaceful parent, is it OK to expect my kids to say “please” or “thank you” or anything else, for that matter? I believe that the answer is no.
I don’t force my kids to say anything to anyone. I would rather teach them values, rather than “rules”… societal or otherwise. Teaching kids rules says “this is what we do, period”, peacefully teaching kids values says “this is why I do this, this is how other people do it, this is the line of thinking behind it, etc”. Rules are arbitrary, and usually followed by a condition: “you must say thank you or else…”. Values are meaningful, but should be presented as an option: “I like to say thank you when I receive something because…”. I believe that forcing a child (or anyone) to do something that you value is wrong, because force is wrong. I don’t expect my kids to automatically accept all my values, because they are individuals. Their reality is not mine. I’m here to pass on the knowledge, wisdom, and experience I’ve accumulated in my time here on Earth. What they do with that information is up to them.
When we place our expectations on our kids, there is a chance those expectations won’t be met. So what happens when our kids fail to live up to our expectations? In this case, what happens if your kids refuse to say the words you expect them to say? Even if you don’t overtly punish your children for this failure to meet your expectations, you will still be disappointed. If you are using your disappointment as a coercive tool to convince your children to meet your expectations, you are using force; albeit in a more subtle way, but it is force nonetheless. Not only is force the opposite of peacefulness, but it typically doesn’t produce the desired results in the long-term, because force is extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation fails because once the external source is removed, if there has been no intrinsic motivation instilled, there will be no reason to continue the behavior that has been forced upon the child.
This is a rather lengthy article that talks about character education in schools, but it is relevant to this topic, because parents often attempt to modify their children’s behavior in much the same way.
Here is an excerpt:
The techniques of character education may succeed in temporarily buying a particular behavior. But they are unlikely to leave children with a commitment to that behavior, a reason to continue acting that way in the future. You can turn out automatons who utter the desired words or maybe even “emit” (to use the curious verb favored by behaviorists) the desired actions. But the words and actions are unlikely to continue — much less transfer to new situations — because the child has not been invited to integrate them into his or her value structure. As Dewey observed, “The required beliefs cannot be hammered in; the needed attitudes cannot be plastered on.” Yet watch a character education lesson in any part of the country and you will almost surely be observing a strenuous exercise in hammering and plastering.
For traditional moralists, the constructivist approach is a waste of time. If values and traditions and the stories that embody them already exist, then surely “we don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” remarks Bennett. Likewise an exasperated Wynne: “Must each generation try to completely reinvent society?” The answer is no – and yes. It is not as though everything that now exists must be discarded and entirely new values fashioned from scratch. But the process of learning does indeed require that meaning, ethical or otherwise, be actively invented and reinvented, from the inside out. It requires that children be given the opportunity to make sense of such concepts as fairness or courage, regardless of how long the concepts themselves have been around. Children must be invited to reflect on complex issues, to recast them in light of their own experiences and questions, to figure out for themselves — and with one another — what kind of person one ought to be, which traditions are worth keeping, and how to proceed when two basic values seem to be in conflict.
In this sense, reinvention is necessary if we want to help children become moral people, as opposed to people who merely do what they are told — or reflexively rebel against what they are told. In fact, as Rheta DeVries and Betty Zan add (in a recent book that offers a useful antidote to traditional character education), “If we want children to resist [peer pressure] and not be victims of others’ ideas, we have to educate children to think for themselves about all ideas, including those of adults.”…
To say that students must construct meaning around moral concepts is not to deny that adults have a crucial role to play. The romantic view that children can basically educate themselves so long as grownups don’t interfere is not taken seriously by any constructivists I know of – certainly not by Dewey, Piaget, Kohlberg, or their followers. Rather, like Values Clarification, this view seems to exist principally as a straw man in the arguments of conservatives. Let there be no question, then: educators, parents, and other adults are desperately needed to offer guidance, to act as models (we hope), to pose challenges that promote moral growth, and to help children understand the effects of their actions on other people, thereby tapping and nurturing a concern for others that is present in children from a very young age.
Forcing a child to say certain words, through whatever coercion we use (even our “disappointment”), might result in the child parroting the desired words, but those words are unlikely to have genuine empathy behind them. Here is an example:
If we want our child to express an honest apology, we must be patient and not push. ‘Hi’, ‘goodbye’, ‘share!’ and ‘thank you’ are all loaded words for toddlers when parents demand them, but ‘I’m sorry’ takes the cake when it comes to parental expectations. Since our goal is for our child to make amends for his misdeeds because he genuinely regrets them, we must trust him to find the words in time.
We are powerful examples for our children of all that is human. We teach “I’m sorry” best by modeling it. Children need to hear us apologize to others, and also to them. They need to know that human beings are not perfect. When we say to our child, “I’m sorry, I made a mistake,” we give the child permission to make mistakes too.
Here is a further explanation of how forcing a child to apologize actually creates dishonesty and impedes the development of empathy:
Why does empathy matter when it comes to saying “sorry”? Because it implies that the child feels bad for what they have done, and in order to feel bad they have to understand how they have made another feel. For instance, if a toddler hits or bites another toddler at a playgroup, saying “sorry” would imply that they understood that the other child is in pain. Secondly it implies that they regret hurting the other child and wish to make them feel better. If they have poor empathy skills (as is normal for this age) they will not have such a train of thought. In fact, if they bit or hit another child in order to get hold of a toy that they wanted they may in fact believe that the injured child feels happy, as they themselves are happy now that they have the toy. Forcing the child to apologise in this instance doesn’t make the child sorry, in fact all it does is force them to lie.
You may ask “so what? They have to learn”, but do you really want your child to learn to lie? How do you feel about teaching your child to lie because they know if they say “sorry” (when they are not) that they get out of trouble? In the toddler and preschooler years you may not see the implications of this, but visit any school playground and you will hear an echo of “sorry” around the playground. The chances are most of these are empty and hollow. The children aren’t genuinely sorry, they have learnt that saying it gets them out of trouble. Most apologies in this instance sound incredibly insincere, that’s because they are. A child fights with another in the school playground. The midday assistant steps in and tells the attacker to “say sorry”, the child parrot fashions “sorry” and they are let off. The chances of the child actually being sorry are quite low, they have learnt that lying gets them out of trouble. Would you prefer your child to act in the same manner (to lie to get out of trouble) or actually say “sorry” when they really meant it?
So, if you don’t make your child say “sorry”, does that mean that you are totally permissive and let the little darling ‘get away with everything’? Surely that will raise an even less empathic child? Absolutely! The alternative isn’t to just ignore everything, but to approach it from a position that raises empathy without lying. For instance if you are at a playgroup and your child shoves another and makes them cry, the first thing you would do as a parent is to apologise to the child and the child’s parent, because the chances are you are genuinely sorry. This is a great role model to your own child. Next, it’s time to speak to your own child in a quiet area where you explain, simply, that the other child was crying because it hurt when they were shoved. This is a great way to help develop your child’s empathy skills. You can reiterate that they “shouldn’t shove but use their voice” if they are upset next time. The chances are they will still shove the next time though, because that’s what two and three year olds do, but if you keep repeating this process each time you have a much greater chance of raising a truly empathic child, who sincerely means it when they say “sorry” when they are older. Isn’t that what all parents would really prefer?
This all relates to forcing manners in a very similar way:
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….
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 think that this whole discussion could be reduced to one simple question: “Is it OK to force a fellow adult to say or do things that I think are desirable?” I believe the answer to that question should always be “no”. Force is not peace. Force undermines freedom to individuality. (That’s not to say that you shouldn’t protect yourself from harm, but I think that’s another discussion entirely.) And I believe that children are deserving of the same rights as adults. Human rights shouldn’t be conditional. They shouldn’t be based upon gender, beliefs, color of skin, age, or any other factor. Human rights belong to all humans.