The magic word

When my elder son was a toddler, I spent a lot of time policing his manners. I thought I’d cracked it years ago, with my constant refrain of ‘What do you say?’ and my upbeat exhortations to remember the P-word. Fast-forward a decade, and he seems to have regressed. Head ducked, grunting and mumbling as he shovels food into his mouth in a restaurant or at a friend’s house, he apparently finds it more comfortable to be perceived as rude and entitled than to lift his head and say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ to an adult. It’s infuriating. Is he just ungrateful, or is there more to it?

I’m beginning to realise that, for a boy approaching adolescence, it requires a certain self-assurance to look an adult in the eye and express gratitude (let alone initiate a conversation). Charm opens doors, which is why it’s taught at public schools; its absence in a child shouldn’t necessarily be equated with rudeness. When I was eleven or twelve, I was under strict parental instructions to seek out my friend’s mother whenever I’d been round at her house and say, ‘Thank you for having me, Mrs Martin.’ I still remember the accompanying flush of shame: it was excruciating. But it wasn’t as bad as the time when a close friend of my parents insisted that I address him by his first name. I was so mortified that I ended up calling him nothing at all until I was about thirty. No doubt I came across as rude and sullen, but inside I was dying of embarrassment.

My real problem with my son’s behaviour, I suspect, is that it reflects badly on me as a mother. Consider the way we encourage small children to parrot the word ‘sorry’. Some toddlers can sign it before they can even speak. But ‘sorry’ isn’t really about teaching our children kindness or morality: often, it’s about our desire to save face in front of other parents. Whatever the misdemeanour – from bashing a child over the head with a building block at playgroup, to biting him on the leg in the sandpit – small children learn that a swift apology gets them off the hook. It’s a get-out-of-jail-free card. Better to remove the perpetrator from the scene and get her to reflect on her behaviour. If that doesn’t result in a heartfelt ‘sorry’ – because the victim has wandered off, or the moment has passed – then so be it. Other parents may tut their disapproval, but our child will have learnt a lesson and be less likely to do it again.

Like that sing-song ‘sorr-ee’ at toddler group, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are usually said reflexively, without real feeling. More often than not, they’re a matter of social convention rather than a genuine measure of our consideration and gratitude. So, just for the record: my gauche pre-teen greatly appreciates the many dinners, outings and sleepovers arranged for him by family and friends. It’s just that, at the moment, he finds it difficult to express that verbally – for the same reason that he flushes when approaching the supermarket check-out, or mumbles incoherently when asked to read out a poem in class. He knows he’s lucky to have these treats, and no doubt I’ll continue to badger him if the magic word doesn’t trip off his lips. For the time being, though, I refuse to judge him for its absence.


20 thoughts on “The magic word

  1. clairelsimpson

    Love this. I’ve been thinking this for some time but haven’t quite found the words to express it so acutely as you just have. I’ve always thought manners were a bit over-rated, after all a gift to interpret social etiquette correctly can quite easily cover up the fact someone is a psychopath inside.

  2. Dongle

    I live in a South American country where manners are ingrained from a very, very young age. I don’t know why it’s different, I just know that teenagers WILL look you in the eye, and say thank you, good morning etc. It’s strange, but quite nice. I do wonder if it’s tied to insisting that all kids take part in public speaking/dancing/performing from a very young age (my two-year-old did a presentation the other day at nursery, and in two months will perform a salsa routine in front of the school – intrigued to see how that one will pan out!). Perhaps the confidence this instills might have something to do with it.

    Where I live is far from perfect but I do like this aspect of it.

    1. bristolbetty Post author

      That sounds amazing – good luck to your two-year-old! I believe there’s a similar approach in France, where children are expected to address adults politely – and by name – from an early age.

    2. Sraga

      My husband is from South America too and I met him whilst volunteering with street boys as he worked for the same charity. Funnily enough they always managed to be polite despite having many other behavioural issues due to traumatic childhoods. Sorry to say it but I do not think endorsing this behaviour is helping the son in question. To me it sounds like he has very low self-esteem. All throughout life we have to do things we are not comfortable with (eg. telephone calls for work) and I believe it is better to practise saying ‘thank you for having me’ etc. when you are young with your parents’ support, so you have more confidence as an adult for other things that may make you nervous. Also you will be a much more pleasant person to be around. The younger boys used to greet their teacher with a kiss on the cheek and say ‘Good morning teacher’ (in Spanish).

      1. bristolbetty Post author

        Sraga, I don’t think there’s anything in my reaction towards my son that he could read as an endorsement of his behaviour. It’s more a question of trying to change how I privately perceive him, and to understand what’s going on with him at the moment.

  3. Andrea

    Hi really enjoyed this – we read Alfie Kohn’s unconditional parenting when no 1 was 3 and no2 was a baby. Like you , he says forcing a child to say sorry is simply teaching them to lie. We have necer force our boys to say please or thank you but from the book have told them that when you say please or thank you to someone it makes them feel really appreciated. The amazing thing is they see it less often than the other children who are forced to say it but when they do say it, its utterly heart felt.

  4. Juggling

    I don’t know, I think it probably does teens good to learn manners, how to say a simple please, thank-you, and sorrynk
    Sometimes it is a work in progress though

  5. Mboyle

    Sorry I disagree. It’s a life skill which has to be taught however seemingly unpleasant. You are trying to instill a good habit early in a child’s life which will hopefully be a lifelong one. Monkey see, money do. I would approach it like potty training, persist repeatedly and eventually it will happen naturally( as it should).

  6. Amanda Thompson

    I couldn’t disagree more. Good manners taught well to tot and reenforced throughout childhood mean there is no embarrassment and they come naturally during the awquard adolescent years. When do those who agree with the post feel their offspring should be expected to start again? When they are interviewing for university or jobs? Good manners are simply about consideration for others and vitally important.

  7. Lena

    Oh, the aspiring middle class liberals. Always looking for an excuse to justify their offsprings’ bad manners.

    1. bristolbetty Post author

      No, simply at the end of my tether, and trying for the sake of my own sanity to see things from a different angle. Don’t judge until you’ve been there.

      1. Sharlene Taylor

        Am there now and do NOT agree with you. Do not think your way is the only or the right way. Pre-teens and teenagers are still a work in progress we are still parents we need to be showing them the way.

  8. MammaMic

    Agree with the general sentiment te your son but the 3rd para is misguided IMO. Certainly not to save face in my world and I’m not overly concerned about what others think. My concern is teaching my child that if they hurt others or break rules, they need to apologise. And they know that it will be discussed so they understand why and how they ‘transgressed’. Good manners don’t cost anything. Ps&Qs and sorries make a difference, no matter how uncomfortable. Life can be uncomfortable….

  9. sugarspiceandallthingsautism

    I was brought up like you, making sure I thanked everyone for every little thing.
    I still do it now “please can I have a ticket to London, if it’s no trouble please, thank you, I appreciate it..” ( exaggerated) but I find my self saying please and thank you in situations that I don’t even need to say them in.
    Like you said, I feel I just automatically blurt them out with no thought behind them, and that’s not really being thankful then!
    I am the same with sorry, if someone bumps into me, I APOLOGISE!
    My brother travels to Germany often to visit his friends, being very British, my brother said thank you after being served at the checkout ( but in German), his friend laughed at him and the checkout girl gave him a strange look. My brother was very confused. His friend explained that a customer doesn’t need to thank the shop assistant as the customer is using his own money to purchase items, it’s not like they’re for free, and the assistant is doing the job because she wants to help you, it’s because she is being paid to. The shop should thank the customer for their business and that’s all.

    It makes sense to me, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stop saying thank you for everything!

  10. kirsten

    I understand all of the opinions on here, but what makes me quite sad is the fact that the world is becoming more disconnected and on a regular basis I hold a door open for a complete stranger and get no thank you or acknowledgment, that is just rude and quite frankly makes me want to slam it in their face. I understand its embarrassing, but its also common decency. Both of my sons (13 & 10yrs) say thank you and I wouldn’t have it any other way, I must be old fashioned!

  11. Betty

    Only yesterday husband and Iahd a n argument about this! My 13 yr old says thank you when he is with other people, but he never really thanks me for taking him swimming/to a friend’s house/to the cinema. I don’t care much for a mechanical “thank you” at the end of it (which DH insists on), I much prefer a spontaneous hug a few hours (or days) later, when he says :”that was so much fun”

    With the outside world, a formal “please” and “thank you” is required, but at home it’s just a word and can be expressed in better ways, at better times.

    1. Sharlene Taylor

      I don’t want a hug from my sons teenage friends that I don’t know well. I want a nice “thank-you” and to feel they appreciate the effort it takes to ferry them around, feed them etc. Just as I want my son to acknowledge that other parents are going out of their way to do things. We are NOT the sum of our children and their mates. There are a thousand and one other things I could be doing on a Saturday afternoon other than picking up, dropping off , feeding, overseeing teenagers but I choose to do this and I expect gratitude.

  12. harrietgrant

    I can understand wanting to look at a situation with a more positive feeling – but I do think children should be prompted and reminded, otherwise it really won’t become habitual. And then they may well come across as rude and lacking in manners to people who dont know them well. Life is not all about the individual and their ‘feelings’ – we are a community of humans and have to understand the way in which good manners oil the wheels of social interaction. I agree ‘monkey see monkey do’! it is indeed like potty trianing. and just because it made you blush with shame as a teenager – so what? you did the right thing and your parents taught you well.


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