As far back as most of us can remember, it was considered a part of good breeding and manners to teach children to say “please”, “thank you” and “sorry”. The problem is that most of the time, children just learned to recognize when it was time to say these things or were reminded by their parents, and then they just said it. Sometimes they said it to get a parent off their back. What was usually missing, was an understanding of what someone else was experiencing.
For example, if little Joey wants to play with his older brother’s camera, he first must understand that a camera is not a toy; it is a costly tool. It took his brother months of doing chores to be able to save up for it. In addition, one must learn how to use it properly or it will break. Then, it will cost a lot to fix. Who should pay for it? And that is why his brother will not give him the camera.
Inasmuch as a child is not able to see situations in depth, without the above explanation, he would simply begin to object to not being given his brother’s Nikon. After all, he said, “please”. To a child who is told to say “please” before asking for something, it is assumed that if he says this magic word, he will receive what he asked for. That is why such a policy does not work and can, in fact, be a trap for a child.
So what should Joey’s parents do in this situation? To Joey, saying “please” ensures him that his brother must let him play with the camera. What his parents should do at this point, what they should have done when they first taught Joey about the need to say, “please”, is to give the following caveat: “If what you want to play with is the other person’s new toy or is easily breakable or delicate you may not borrow it at all. If what you want to borrow does not fall into these two categories, you can ask to borrow the item, but the other person may say no even if you say, “please” very nicely. That may not be nice or fair, but it could happen. Getting upset won’t help you. You can decide that you will not be this person’s friend anymore or that you will not lend them your stuff. That’s totally cool.”
This is a much more realistic picture of what life holds in store.
The other word we parents teach our children right alongside ”please” is “thank you”. How can you go wrong with teaching a kid to say, “thank you”? In reality, it goes wrong more often than you think.
Over the years a number of my young clients have told me that it was difficult for them to say “thank you” for something if they really didn’t like it. Doing this one correctly, builds character. We need to explain to our young wards that sometimes we are not thanking a person for the thing that s/he gave us, but for taking the time and effort to look for it and spending hard earned money to pay for it. Often, younger children are only impressed with fad items. That’s the time to explain that the gift they received holds a lot of meaning. Even if they don’t completely understand at the time, they will later on. The main idea is to help them change their one-sided way of thinking.
The most egregious misuse of a nice word that I keep hearing is, “sorry”. Most parents with whom I have had discussions on this topic, have told me that they believe that the child/adolescent will learn to say s/he’s sorry if a parent constantly reminds them to do this. But their children tell me a different story. Many a frustrated child has said to me, “,…but I am NOT sorry I did that. He has been hitting me every day since school started. I’ve had enough!” One can easily understand this boy’s anger. He is not being protected by school staff, so he takes the situation into his own hands. What have his parents done about the situation? When I asked him, he said that his parents, “are always on the teachers’ side.” Ouch!
In the above scenario, the parents should have contacted the school which, in turn, should have watched out for the student at out-of-class timeframes. Children will almost always cooperate once the parents and the school form a coalition. Children of all ages do much better when they know that someone reliable has their back.
On the opposite side of the situation, as a trainee in a clinical therapy graduate program I had occasion to be in juvenile court in Baltimore City. This was a while ago, when we were all less sophisticated and knowledgeable about how teens operate. On more than one occasion, I actually heard the judge ask the defendant if he was sorry he had committed the crime (usually theft which often involved non-weapon physical abuse). The savvy defendant always answered in the affirmative, sometimes too profusely (the teen doth protest too much?). Yet the judge let this boys, and others like him, off with a slap on the wrist. In the hallway outside the courtroom and on the street, I watched as these young felons chortled at what they had gotten away with. If the judge had acted with a bit of wisdom he might have asked the defendant to accompany being sorry with doing something about it, like paying for damages or doing some cleanup/repair of the property he damaged. Some community service might be in order.
The phrase, “I am sorry” needs to mean something. If it is not meant, then the reasons for that need to be discussed.
There is no point punishing an unrepentant child/teen/adult without understanding the underlying reason for the negative behavior. Not addressing this with a plan to receive help as needed will just reinforce to the perpetrator that this is an uncaring world where one must count only on his own resources. In this world, saying, sorry” is just part of a self- protection strategy. It does not come from the heart. It does not build character.
So maybe it’s time for a different parenting goal. Enough with “niceties”. Let’s aim for character.