It’s an age old tradition to teach children to be polite. We’re used to it. We see everyone do it. We were trained to do it as kids, and most likely we feel these are important skills for our children to have too.
It’s certainly agreed, by teaching children “good manners” in the deeper sense, we are trying to raise humans to display their feelings of appreciation, modesty, kindness and compassion. However, what I’ve noticed is that teaching manners has become more of a mindless parenting ritual, where the dynamic seems less about understanding what these values mean, and more about being trained to perform an appropriately timed social behavior.
So, let’s take a close look at the approach and figure out how it could be transformed from just “training” kids to superficially memorize and awkwardly act their lines in our social theatre, to being compassionate, kind, loving and genuine communicators with other people, and to do this with self-confidence and self-awareness.
First, we must shift from the dominating/controlling dynamic with children, to the cooperating/partnership dynamic. This requires us to see children as competent beings, (no matter their age) and to trust and respect them. Our position with children transforms from an authoritative, ascending figure, to an informative guiding partner and role model.
(Focus on behavior and outcome)
(Focus on meaning and experience)
|Children are seen as wild, unpredictable and irrational versions of an adult.||Children are seen as capable, thoughtful and intelligent people who make logical decisions based on the information they have.|
|Children’s behavior is seen as something that needs to be reinforced, adjusted, manipulated or changed by external means (rewards or punishments).||Children’s behavior is understood by the meaning of their internal experience, and from the information they hold at one point in time.|
|Children are required and forced to display certain behaviors regardless of whether they fully understand them, or how they feel.||Children are invited to express their feelings or needs while being supported, and are provided with information about social interaction in a neutral, non-judgmental manner. Children are invited to use kindness and compassion in communication.|
|Adult behavior is not seen as important as the child’s behavior. (Do as I say, not as I do.)||Adult behavior sets the model for the child’s behavior. How adults interact with children or each other makes a direct impression on the child.|
|The adult’s reaction is based on their emotion of the child’s behavior.||The adult’s response is guided by awareness of the child’s inner experience and knowledge.|
|Examples: “That lady brought you a present, now what do you say?”
“You ran into that boy, now say you’re sorry.”
“When grandma says she loves you, say I love you back.”
|Examples: “How do you feel when someone brings you a present? If you want, you can tell them how you feel, or say thank you, that way they know you are happy. It might also make them happy to know you appreciated it.”
“I noticed that boy fell when you were running, I wonder if he’s o.k.? I’m looking at his face to see how he’s feeling. He is crying because that hurt him. I wonder what might make him feel better?”
“Sometimes grandma likes to tell you she loves you. If you want to, you can tell grandma how you feel too.”
Notice some of the key phrases included in the cooperative dynamic: “sometimes this happens”, “if you want to”, “how you feel”, “I wonder…”, etc. This type of communication is open to internal reflection and allows the child to make an opinion of their own. This empowers them to make a choice depending on the circumstance and to find awareness of their own emotions. If we are forcing children to say something they are uncomfortable with, or reacting emotionally to their behavior, they may receive the message that their own emotions are not acceptable, or invalid, and they must only do things that please the parent.
Also, the way information is presented to children is very important. We, as human beings, are very receptive to insincerity no matter what age we are. If we are wording our explanations to manipulate the result, it will be less likely the outcome will be genuine. Our goal is to promote authenticity, compassion, awareness and kindness. If we really want our children to say or do something it is very important to let go of our own idea of the outcome and embrace the choice they make… even if at first, it seems socially awkward. By allowing them to make a choice of their own, we help our kids have self-confidence and provide them with unconditional love.
I can guess some of you might be thinking, what if they say something horribly rude, like “I hate your present”, or “This food tastes bad”? How do we react to that kind of situation and still provide children with the values we want them to have?
Well, the goal is not about providing them with an appropriate or inappropriate response, but to give them information about the meaning of the response and allowing them to reflect on the ideas, while experimenting with them. We provide the tools, not the finished product.
In a situation where a child says something seemingly awkward (for us as adults) you may want to respond with this type of combination: Acknowledge the child’s emotions, acknowledge the situation, explain what happened, explain the possible result of their action, express support of their internal experience and offer (with an invitation rather than a demand) other more compassionate ways to communicate while explaining why they might work better.
You could say: “I wonder if you feel disappointed about the food/ present? Sometimes we get something that we didn’t expect. I know that person was trying to do something nice because they want you to be happy, but if you say ‘I hate your present’, this may make them feel sad or embarrassed. It’s ok to feel disappointed about the gift, but you don’t have to tell them about that feeling. If you want to, you can just tell them thank you. That might bring them happiness.”
I’d like to add, this type of conversation is best had before or during the actual event. The young human mind deserves time to reflect on an idea and connect it to a situation in reality.
Also, advocating for your child during social interaction helps them find confidence in knowing what to do. In an example where your child feels uncomfortable talking to strangers, you can help alleviate the stress. For instance, in a restaurant if a waitress brings food or a coloring activity for the child, and the child is sitting awkwardly not knowing what to do, it is much more compassionate to say to the child “I see you’re happy” and then to thank the waitress from the both of you, rather than force your child to say thank you.
Explaining things and verbal communication is only one part of providing information and depends almost entirely on the second part, which is modeling the values. If we are telling children “thank you” and “please” ourselves, as many times as we would like them to say it to others, they will naturally mimic what our behavior is and repeat it. If we hold an attitude of righteousness with children, they will reflect that in their own behavior.
So here is a little list of teaching manners without manipulation:
- Respect and trust your child
- Model the type of values you want to see in them by treating them the way you want them to treat others.
- Respond to children by understanding and valuing their inner experience first.
- Provide them with information in a neutral, peaceful and compassionate manner.
- Communicate with open ended phrases to allow for internal reflection and processing of experiences.
- Invite children to try more compassionate methods of communication and explain causes and effects of communication.
- Advocate for your child if they are uncomfortable taking the initiative.
- Show love to your children unconditionally, not based on their behavior.
To conclude, I like to think of things this way: if you want to help someone build a chair, give them tools and teach about the process of carpentry. It is very difficult to build a chair by making someone look at a picture of a chair over and over again, without showing them how to use the saw and hammer first.
I’d love to hear your thoughts! What do you remember about learning manners in your own childhood? How do you teach your children about communication?