We’ve all been here before: Child opens birthday present, and before voraciously moving onto the next gift, the parent stops the child to say, “Wait now, what do you say to Grandma? Can you tell your grandma thank you?” Child sheepishly and quite unwillingly repeats his mother’s words, “Thank you, Grandma,” before moving onto the next gift, not even considering his words or why he had to say what he said. No doubt, the parent will remind him again.
The same is true for apologies and etiquette.
“Can you say please first?”
“Can you say you are sorry for taking away your brother’s toy?”
“Remember to say you are welcome!”
We as parents are trying so hard, and that’s great news. We want our children to have nice manners and to be kind, respectful, and grateful. This is a part of the teaching, but simply telling our child what to say robs them of the opportunity to understand for themselves why we treat people the way we do. And when we continue to force empty words into our children’s mouths, they grow up simply conforming to a structure that isn’t even valued. I wouldn’t say “thank you” either if I didn’t believe in it.
When our children have the space to self-reflect on consequence — that being offered a gift makes me feel a sense of gratitude that I want to express, for example — they will develop a natural instinct to do the right thing. Instead of an adult telling them what to do, they will already have developed their own thought to say thank you on their own. Because they’ve been offered the time to reflect on these things, they feel naturally motivated to say how they feel.
When all the gifts have been opened and the guests have left the party, for example, ask your child, “How did it feel to open those nice gifts? How did it feel to have people celebrating your birthday with you?” Give them an opportunity to realize and understand for themselves what it means to feel grateful, and then talk with them about ways to express those kinds of feelings. Gratitude is a very abstract concept, but when you help your child think about abstract things with concrete evidence, like what gratitude feels like and looks like and sounds like, it becomes easier to discern.
And, in the meantime, be a role model to your child, and make sure they see how you express gratitude. Instead of urging your son to say thank you, offer thanks to Grandma yourself, and allow your child to see how pleased and grateful the birthday celebrations make you feel.
When a parent is patient with the child to reflect and appreciate the importance of manners on his terms, his own self-motivation to do the right thing will come.
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