Children and manners: Teach them well

When children come to see me for a checkup I give them a book. It’s part of a program our practice is involved in to promote reading to children. More often than not when I hand the book to the child the parent says, “What do you say?” The response that is expected, of course, is “Thank you”. This is just what we do as parents in our society, we teach our children manners. We teach them to say “please” and “thank you”. To be honest I cringe every time this happens. I have learned that teaching these automatic responses is actually very self-disconnecting. I know, this sounds like heresy, but please hear me out.

One of the most wonderful, connecting experiences we can have with each other is to express our gratitude. When we are doing this we are sharing with another how their actions filled a need of ours. In his book, ‘Being Me, Loving You’, Dr. Marshall Rosenberg describes how we can best connect with others when we are saying “thank you.” “We tell them (1) what they’ve done to enrich us, (2) what our feelings are, and (3) what needs of ours have been fulfilled by their actions.”

Inbal Kashtan gives a wonderful example in her book ‘Parenting From Your Heart: Sharing the Gifts of Compassion, Connection and Choice’. In this example a parent shares how their child was able to find something to do while his dad had a conversation on the phone. His initial response was, “I noticed you were doing a great job at being patient while I was on the phone”. If we compare that response to Dr. Rosenberg’s instructions above we see a few things are missing: what feelings the parent was having, and what needs were being met. The parent also wasn’t really describing the action of the child; they were describing their evaluation of the action.

So if we use Dr. Rosenberg’s directions, the dad’s response comes out like this: “I noticed you occupied yourself the whole time I was on the phone without talking to me. I’m very grateful because I needed support to focus on the conversation.” There’s his observation of what the child has done, his feelings and what need of his was met. This may sound ‘wordy’ to you, but it really does the job of helping us self-connect to what we are appreciating and then connecting to the person we want to share this appreciation with.

In my situation I think I can get a little clearer about what I’m doing to help this process. When I hand out the book I need to explain that I love books and we are offering free books with checkups to encourage parents to read with their children. I can then ask both the parent and the child if they would like a free book. Of course that means I need to be open to a “no”. If they agree to accept that book and the parent says, “What do you say?” I could then ask the child if they like books and why. We could have a brief conversation where I can help the child self-connect and we can connect with each other. How much more satisfying!

It’s always a process remembering to connect with others. I’m celebrating a time recently when I did remember to connect with a parent in sharing my gratitude. A grandmother was sharing with me how well her adult daughter was doing regarding some very personal and important life changes. She was actually in tears as she described these events. I felt so moved that she had taken the time to share some very personal and difficult issues. It was one of those moments when you feel connected to another human being at a deep level. I was able to remember to say, “Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and feelings about your daughter. I’m feeling so grateful for having this connection with you right now.”

As parents we want our children to be able to express gratitude, and what a gift to be able to teach them how to self-connect and connect with others much more deeply. So, what do you say?