Tuesday, December 15, 2009

On Manners

(Originally posted at Rational Jenn)

A few weeks ago, I asked for some suggestions for parenting topics. Thanks to those who left me some good ideas. Miranda asked me:

What's your policy on the kids saying sorry? The normal parenting technique after one kid wrongs another is to force one kid to apologize. And if the apology doesn't sound sincere enough, the kid is forced to make it sound "more real". How do you handle it? Is it even a priority?

As you might imagine, we handle apologies (and other issues relating to good manners) just a little bit differently around here. :o)

To answer Miranda's last question first: Yes, good manners, including apologies, are important to me. I think using kind words to express oneself, particularly with the people you value the most, makes things around here run more smoothly. It's also an expression of justice, treating the people you value as if you, well, value them.

That's not to say you shouldn't express your anger or disappointment or sadness when you feel it, ignoring injustices done to you. But expressing yourself with manners is a good starting place. There's a big difference in saying "Wow! That really hurt my feelings and I'm feeling sad about that." and "Stop being such a jerk!"

I'm also not advocating sticking with politeness for its own sake in the face of repeated injustices. There IS a time and place for rudeness. I haven't read too much Miss Manners, but I love the posts Diana shares on her blog (such as this recent one). Miss Manners is great at knowing when to straighten people out with just the right amount of disdain in one's voice.

Kids and Manners

The most important thing we do to help our kids learn manners is to use good manners ourselves. Modeling appropriate behavior is a great way to teach kids things (since they hardly ever take their eyes off of the adults around them, keen as they are to learn how to be adults themselves).

And you know something? I'm a more polite person than I was before I had kids. That's not to say I was a complete you-know-what all the time; I wasn't. But I make more of an effort to find a kinder way to say what I'm thinking than I used to, because I am very aware of the eyes and ears that are paying attention to me. So I'm better at expressing myself now, and doing it in an appropriate way.

So in addition to saying regular things in a kind way (like "Take your plate to the sink, please!"), I also correct myself in front of them, usually for their benefit:

  • "Let me think of a kinder way to say that. How about . . . ?"
  • "Hmmm....let me try that again."
  • "Okay, 'BLAAAARRGGGH!' isn't exactly a good way to say that. How about 'I'm feeling upset now!"

I also model good manners for them when they are having disputes. And I make suggestions about what they could say.

  • "I know it's your turn on the computer. Could you think of a kinder way to let her know it's your turn?"
  • "What if you try saying 'Please don't touch my projects.' instead of screaming at her?"
  • "Could you try again and ask for that crayon back in a polite way?"
  • "You could say 'Stop! That's my drawing! Please leave it alone!' "

Sometimes when they're in the midst of some tremendously emotional conflict, they simply can't think of appropriate words to say. So I find making suggestions works well. The kid often stops and says the words I suggested (or similar ones). That's good practice for the next time.

I also explain the effect their rude words have on me, so they can better make that connection:

  • "Wow. Normally, I'd be happy to help you, but your rudeness just now makes it harder for me to want to help you."
  • "Can you ask me in a way that will make me WANT to help you?"
  • "When you speak to me that way, I feel angry and that makes me not really want to make the effort. Kinder words are going to be necessary if you expect to get my assistance."
  • "You're not offering me kindness with those words. If you want kindness in return from me, you might start by offering me some kindness in your words."

The older children understand that I am not obligated to submit to their rude demands. And I, in fact, do not feel obligated to do so. I am a whole actual person who is entitled to her own rational self-interest. Mommy, yes; servant, no. (No, they don't like this fact, but they do at least understand it. I'm okay with that.)

In the last example above, I used the phrase "offering kindness." The way we've explained the importance of good manners is by comparing it to The Trader Principle. Rational people trade rather than demand or force. Good manners is a way of trading kindness for kindness, rather than demands. This explanation has really helped them understand WHY using good manners is important, particularly with the people you love most and see all the time. (Here's my original post on the subject.)

Also, I don't insist on the word "please." It's okay if you say "Mom, will you help me open this?" in a nice way. Sometimes parents, I've observed, will make a child repeat an otherwise polite request because the child didn't use the word "please." I hate to dispel such a common myth, but "PLEASE" is NOT magic. It doesn't automatically make any request polite (you can say it in an angry way!!!). And it is not necessary in order to make a request polite. I think you can tell whether a person intends to be polite by their tone of voice and phrasing than whether they used one little word. So I place more value on tone of voice and phrasing.

Suggest and Model, Not Insist

Kids copy the adults in their lives (as you are no doubt aware if you've ever used a, um, colorful metaphor in front of a child) and my kids copy our polite manners, too. Now that Sean is speaking (and demanding), I'm beginning to model good manners for him. And I've caught him trying to imitate my manner and my words, and he is only 18 months old. He'll scream "Nooooooo!!!! Mom-MY!" and I'll look at him and say "No, Mommy! I would like to close the door!" in a kind voice. I'm showing him the words to say and how to say them. And sometimes, he changes to "No, Mommy!" and then blathers on in Baby Language in a kind, sing-songy sort of way. He is learning to be polite.

So we do not insist that they say the words. I strongly suggest, and offer words they could say, and refuse to act when I'm being spoken to in an unjust way. But I do not try to make them say the words.

As Miranda mentioned, parents often insist that their children use good manners--apologies in particular is sort of a hot button issue, and we've certainly encountered that from time to time. When Ryan was small, I tried to make him apologize once or twice and then stopped doing that for a couple of reasons.

First, even a small child can see through a false apology. Which is why, again as Miranda noted, parents often make their kids keep at it until a satisfactory apology is produced.

Next, I think it teaches a potentially harmful lesson to the child who is being made to apologize, especially when he doesn't actually feel sorry. You are telling him that it's okay to pretend that you feel something you don't, to say words expressing this because of someone else. It can teach the child that it's fine to evade your own feelings in the interests of others. Faked apologies can also give the victims a skewed understanding of justice (more on that in a bit).

But what to do? When you do someone a wrong, it is just to help right it. And that is something I do think is valuable to teach kids. Apologies are only one way to help right the wrong (and are often necessary but not always sufficient). Well, as a parent, that's when I step in to say the words my child can't, either because he is not actually feeling sorry or because he is also too upset. So I say:

  • "I'm so sorry you got hurt!"
  • "I'll make sure that we keep that toy away from the baby next time, so that he can't break it again."
  • "I'm sorry that this happened, and I can tell Ryan is feeling sorry, too. It's hard for him to say the words right now, so I'm saying the words for him."
  • "I'm sorry about that. Here's what I will do next time to make sure that this doesn't happen again."

Because I am feeling genuinely sorry that my kid bopped the other kid on the head with a wooden block (to use a completely non-random example), then I have no problem expressing MY emotions. Justice is served, and the apology is genuine. It's not necessarily ideal, in that the perp is not the one apologizing, but I think a genuine apology from a Mommy is better than a faked one from an unremorseful kid.

I have generally found that the victim is willing to accept a Mommy Apology, although sometimes they won't. Those kids who can't accept a Mommy Apology are always the kids who live in homes where apologies are forced, and the older they are, the less likely it is that they'll accept a Mommy Apology. They feel cheated when the other kid doesn't say the magic words, and I am sorry (no pun intended) about that. When those kids interact with each other, they tend to insist on the fake apology, and then lord it over the apologizer in a mean way. This is most certainly NOT good manners. These kids have been confused about the purpose of a meaningful apology, and have learned to use "I'm sorry" as a way to continue their conflict, not resolve it. When these kids demand that my child utter the words, I'll request that my kid apologize first. If he won't, then I'll apologize on his behalf. If the victim becomes upset that my child won't say the words, I'll explain that I will not insist, repeat my apology, and then try to get things moving on to the resolution stage.

The great thing about not insisting on fake apologies is that when my kids apologize, it's genuine. And THAT knowledge is wonderful! I'd much rather have that (and yes, they do apologize to me) than a phony apology any day.

There have been a couple of times when my kids wronged someone, felt genuinely sorry about what happened, yet felt too upset or embarrassed to utter the words. One event in particular stands out in my mind. Ryan and his friend had had a big blow up over something, and his friend left here, crying. Ryan was in tears and told me what happened (I honestly can't remember what it was though). I asked him if he was sorry about it, and he said he was. So I explained that the just thing to do would be to tell his friend that he was feeling sorry, to tell him that he would not let it happen again. He agreed, but completely freaked out about the idea of doing the actual apology. He was embarrassed and sad and completely overwhelmed with emotion. I let him calm down for a while, and then reminded him that he needed to do the right thing--apologize. He got upset again, and I suggested that I go with him and help. He finally agreed and we went right on over and asked to talk to the boy. When the moment came, Ryan started crying again, so I said the apology while Ryan nodded his head along in agreement, which was the only thing he could manage. And things were resolved.

His friend's mom was a little confused, I think, because she knows we do not force apologies and yet she could tell that Ryan was reluctant to be there. But what I tried (and failed, I believe) to explain to her that this wasn't a faked apology. Ryan's remorse was genuine, and he needed my help to do the right (just) thing, because he valued this boy's friendship. So yes, I insisted that we go over and do the right thing, but when it came to it, I said the words for Ryan because he was so upset. In doing this, I modeled good manners and justice for him, which is one of my primary jobs as a parent--helping them and showing them how to act morally.

So that's how we do manners around here. Thoughts?

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