Unpopular opinion here, but I feel called to say it anyway.
I don’t believe in forcing manners on our kids.
Never have I ever asked another adult to give me “the magic word” while holding their desires captive.
I feel that society has become divided, and I am not talking politics. The divide starts in our own homes - Team Adult vs. Team Child. The Big People vs. the Little People.
But we don’t play that game in our home.
If you think I am a mama with a screw loose, know that I want respectful kids, too. But shaming and patronizing our children by dangling carrots when they say or do the “right” thing isn’t the way to get there.
Anyone who has ever asked a child to force an apology, a please, or a thank you, has seen the crushing pressure of shame on their spirits. Their eyes drop. Shoulders slump. Hearts sink.
In insisting on manufactured emotions and behaviors, we move children out of the wholeness they are. We teach them to conform, to become people-pleasers, and we teach them that their feelings and words don’t have to align … that their intuition is wrong.
Children Don't Learn Manners Through Fear And Shame
Children are experiencing everything for the first time and they often become swept away in their enthusiasm. For children to be manipulative and downright disrespectful it requires the development of a part of their brain that is still highly immature.
Our toddlers are developing their capacity for verbal communication while also taking in an insane amount of information every second. Add to that, neurological synapses are firing at rapid speed. If they don’t mutter a forced “please” or “thank you” it is kind of like they have bigger fish to fry.
Children move from their feeling brain, not their logical brain, which means impulse control, empathy, and emotional regulation are forming … but they aren’t mastered. This journey lasts into their twenties, and when you think about it, even beyond, because we are all constantly evolving.
Children are naturally egocentric, which is a survival mechanism necessary for development from day one on this planet. It takes time for them to shift toward a more altruistic nature - to move from a me to we mentality. Forcing manners for superficial reasons of appearance doesn’t get them there any quicker. If anything it actually belittles a child’s ability to access this innately in the long term. Coerced politeness teaches children that manners are empty and their feelings and words have low worth.
Manners are the byproduct of gratitude, responsibility, empathy, and respect. For these to be embodied, we have to stop shaming, threatening, and blaming our children into the submission of empty words. We have to stop sabotaging their self-worth and self-esteem by railroading their experience.
We have to start seeing the goodness that is already there and trust that if we model and guide, our children will cultivate more of it. I mean, don’t we want to raise children who give heartfelt apologies and expressions of gratitude rather than raising bots who know when to say the convenient thing?
I know that we have loving intentions when we say, “What’s the magic word?” We think we are teaching the lesson, right? To be kind and respectful. I mean, we all want to raise good humans who will make the world a more beautiful place.
But here’s the point I am making. Our kids already are. Just by being their vibrant, curious, emotional selves. The skills are part of the journey to adulthood. We want our children to understand the meaning of these phrases and choose them when it feels right for them - not when an adult tells them it is right for them. For this to happen, our long-term goals have to be supported by our short-term parenting tools and tactics.
5 Tools To Motivate Manners
If we want to step away from punitive measures and towards a deep understanding of manners, and an internal motivation to practice them, it stops with “say the magic word” or “say you are sorry” or “what do you say???” And it starts with these 5 tools.
1. Excite Those Mirror Neurons
Research has shown that we all have mirror neurons that mimic the nervous system and behaviors of those around us. This means that we can give all the beautiful dialogues we want but our kids are watching what we do much more than what we say. So if we want to raise kind, well-mannered humans, we must be that human. And we won’t be perfect at it. I don’t know one adult who is well-mannered 100% of the time and guess what, not the end of the world. We can learn to give our children the same grace. So open the door for a stranger, give gratitude when you feel it, make repair when you need it, and show your children the same respect you desire from them.
2. Shift Expectations
Whether your child is two, four, ten, or twelve, check your expectations. Just because our kids act big sometimes doesn’t mean that their brain is developmentally mature. Just because they do something some of the time doesn’t mean they have mastered it. And just because they don’t say whatever you think they should say in a moment, doesn’t mean they are disrespectful, ungrateful, or manipulative. How you view your child will affect how they show up. When you see impolite children, you tend to look for their impoliteness. When you set realistic expectations and see their goodness, an entirely different child comes into focus. Sometimes it is our perspectives that need to shift, not our child’s being.
3. Throw Them A Bone
The cashier at the grocery store once gave my son a sticker and the pause after her handoff was palpable. She was clearly waiting for something that he was too distracted to give. I mean, he was fascinated by the sticker and what was on the sticker, and where to place the sticker. Kids can focus on one pure thought and emotion at a time. Right then, his focus was on that damn sticker. So, I said thank you for him. Kind of goes back to step one (model it). We all moved on with our day and everyone felt seen. Next.
4. Focus On Authentic Emotions
Sometimes kids don’t apologize or give thanks despite us believing that it is warranted. Instead of jumping to conclusions, ask them the why behind it. Ask them how they feel about the situation and help them communicate their genuine expressions. Daily rituals in a Calming Corner using feelings posters from the Time-In ToolKit is a powerful way to help children nurture their brain capacity, integrating their feeling and logical brains. If we want respectful children, we must show them how to notice and understand their emotional and bodily sensations and share them with another.
5. Set Boundaries
It can feel immensely uncomfortable to be stuck in the middle of someone’s expectations for your child and your child’s response (or lack thereof). It may even feel tempting to ease your own discomfort by forcing manners at the moment, yet, as we have discussed, this is rarely beneficial for anyone. Give yourself permission to pause and set boundaries with the other adults in the room. Your child doesn’t have to meet their agendas and you can set empathetic limits communicating that. In advocating for your child, you help nurture their confidence, self-worth, and sense of safety.
Parenting is a long game, an endurance race. While we can’t rush development, we can do things to promote optimal development. In remembering that our children aren’t that different from us in that they have a full spectrum of emotions, thoughts, perspectives, and agendas, we can lean in with curiosity and connection rather than coercion and control.
The way we treat our children becomes a blueprint for how they treat themselves and others. We show them the ropes with our implicit and explicit messages. So, the question becomes, what are we teaching our children? Are we demanding respect or are we offering it? It makes all the difference.