"Say 'please'," or not - What Really Matters

My family now knows that insisting that children say "please" and "thank you" will likely result in their saying that (especially in our presence), but whether others feel the gratefulness or feel the appreciation depends. Is it from the heart? Or because they "should," a part of "being nice."  "Be nice!" is what many of us were told by our parents. While there is certainly nothing wrong with being nice, it can become an act that obscures honest and heartfelt appreciation and empathy as well as potentially upsetting but real feelings. Good social learning skills include integrating honesty without being offensive, and that means understanding the power of context and the creation of contexts. How we say what we say is often more powerful than what we say. How we say what we say is determined by a context. What we say is determined by our circumstances. We may not have a say in our circumstances, but we do have a say in our context. Here is an example:

I learned this from preschoolers in my classes many years ago. I would hear a preschooler ask her parent, "I want some banana!" and the parent would respond, "Say please!", and the child would say, "I want some banana (in the same demanding tone) ... PLEASE!" And she would get it. And I would ask myself, "what did this child just learn?" That "please" is a magic word?

Wouldn't you rather be asked in a way that respects you, that trusts you, that loves you, and know that you value that love and respect?  I never insisted that my own children or the children in my preschool classes say 'please' when asking for something. I did several other things, however. I let them know that "I want ... " is not asking anything, it is just saying what you want, and that we all want things that we don't have. If someone can get something for you that you can't get yourself, it works to ask for it.  Asking sound like this: "Mr. Marty, may I have some more juice?", or, "Will you pour me some more juice?" You may or may not get what you ask for at the time you ask, but people will enjoy being with you and will more likely feel good about getting something you ask for. It works to ask. By the way, you can say "please," but here (in our family or in my class) you don't have to and it is fine to add "please."

Having said that, we do occasionally say please with each other, we tend to say please as part of the asking in more formal social situations, and my children at home and at school did likewise. Finally, think about this: when a child is taught to say "please" as a magic word, the asking part - as a social skill - can then be ignored, and the please becomes a form of begging. It does irk me to see young children being taught to beg in place of showing how to ask (along with learning the difference between a statement and a question).

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Broader Understanding: We could say "pushing" polite terminology as what one "should" say overrides the intrinsic experience of personally choosing to show gratefulness, appreciation, and interferes with development of personal responsibility in having powerful social emotional learning (skills) (aka, SEL). "Should" is a problematic term in many ways, especially in a child's navigation of his relationship with his parents while successfully integrating his/her own autonomy and desire for learning how life really works.

Upcoming post on "Say you're sorry!" as a human social skill - or being a parrot!

NOTE: The revised second edition of Beyond Good Parenting - The Art & Science of Behavior, Learning, and Partnership is now available at Amazon.com (blue cover), or, if you are in San Francisco, I'd be happy to deliver a signed copy in person!!  (send me a message!) Marty