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042: How to teach a child to use manners
2nd July 2017 • Your Parenting Mojo - Respectful, research-based parenting ideas to help kids thrive • Jen Lumanlan
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I actually hadn’t realized what a can of worms I was opening when I started the research for today’s episode, which is on the topic of manners and politeness. It began innocently enough – as an English person, for whom manners are pretty important, I started to wonder why my almost three-year-old doesn’t have better manners yet. It turns out that it was a much more difficult subject to research than I’d anticipated, in part because it draws on a variety of disciplines, from child development to linguistics.

And at the heart of it, I found myself torn between two different perspectives. The parenting philosophy that underlies the respectful relationship I have with my daughter, which is called Resources for Infant Educarers, or RIE, advocates for the use of modeling to transmit cultural information like manners – if you, the parent, are a polite person, then your child will learn about manners. On the flip side of that is the practice of saying “what do you say?” or something similar when you want your child to say “please” or “thank you,” something that I know a lot of parents do. My general approach has been to model good manners consistently but I do find it drives me bananas when my daughter says “I want a [whatever it is]” without saying “please,” and RIE also says parents should set a limit on behavior when they find it annoying. So I have been trying to walk a fine line between always modeling good manners and requiring a “please” before I acquiesce to a demand, and I wondered whether research could help me to come down on one side or the other of this line and just be sure about what I’m doing. So this episode is going to be about my explorations through the literature on this topic, which are winding and convoluted – actually both the literature and my explorations are winding and convoluted, and by the time we get to the end I hope to sort out how I’m going to instill a sense of politeness in my daughter, and how you might be able to do it for your child as well.

 

Other episodes referenced in this show

004: How to encourage creativity and artistic ability in children (and symbolic representation)

026: Is my child lying to me? (Hint: yes!)

005: How to “scaffold” children’s learning to help them succeed

034: How do I get my child to do chores?

007: Help!  My toddler won’t eat vegetables

031: Parenting beyond pink and blue

006: Wait, is my toddler racist?

References

 

Becker, J.A. (1988). The success of parents’ indirect techniques for teaching their preschoolers pragmatic skills. First Language 8, 173-182.

Brown, P., & Levinson, S.C. (1987). Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

De Lucca Freitas, L.B., Pieta, M.A.M., & Tudge, J.R.H. (2011). Beyond Politeness: The expression of gratitude in children and adolescents. Psicologia: Reflexao e Critica 24(4), 757-764.

Durlack, J.A., Weissberg, R.P., Dymnicki, A.B., Taylor, R.D., & Schellinger, K.B. (2011). The impact of enhancing student’s social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development 82(1), 405-432.

Einzig, R. (2015). Model graciousness. Retrieved from: https://visiblechild.wordpress.com/2015/09/02/model-graciousness/ (Also see Robin’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/visiblechildinc/)

Ervin-Tripp, S., Guo, J., & Lampert, M. (1990). Politeness and persuasion in children’s control acts. Journal of Pragmatics 14, 307-331.

Grief, E.B., & Gleason, J.B. (1980). Hi, thanks, and goodbye: More routine information. Language in Society 9(2), 159-166.

Ely, R., & Gleason, J.B. (2006). I’m sorry I said that: Apologies in young children’s discourse. Journal of Child Language 33 (599-620).

Gleason, J.B., Perlmann, R.Y., Grief, E.B. (1984). What’s the magic word: Learning language through politeness routines. Discourse Processes 7(4), 493-502.

Kuykendall, J. (1993). “Please,” “Thank you,” “You’re welcome”: Teacher language can positively impact prosocial development. Day Care and Early Education 21(1), 30-32.

Lancy, D.F. (2015). The anthropology of childhood: Cherubs, chattel, changelings (2nd Ed.). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Lansbury, J. (2014, January 16). They’ll grow into it – Trusting children to develop manners, toilet skills, emotional regulation and more. Retrieved from: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2014/01/theyll-grow-into-it-trusting-children-to-develop-manners-toilet-skills-emotional-regulation-and-more/

Lo, A., & Howard, K.M. (2009). Mobilizing respect and politeness in classrooms. Linguistics and Education 20, 211-216.

Snow, C.E., & Gleason, J.B. (1990). Developmental perspectives on politeness: Sources of children’s knowledge. Journal of Pragmatics 14, 289-305.

Suzuku, M. (2015, October 23). Bowing in Japan: Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about how to bow, and how not to bow, in Japan. Retrieved from: https://www.tofugu.com/japan/bowing-in-japan/

 

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Transcript

Hello, and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast.  I actually hadn’t realized what a can of worms I was opening when I started the research for today’s episode, which is on the topic of manners and politeness.  It began innocently enough – as an English person (honestly, despite the strange accent) for whom manners are pretty important, I started to wonder why my almost three-year-old doesn’t have better manners yet.  It turns out that it was a much more difficult subject to research than I’d anticipated, in part because it draws on a variety of disciplines, from child development to linguistics.

And at the heart of it, I found myself torn between two different perspectives.  The parenting philosophy that underlies the respectful relationship I have with my daughter, which is called Resources for Infant Educarers, or RIE, advocates for the use of modeling to transmit cultural information like manners – if you, the parent, are a polite person, then your child will learn about manners.  On the flip side of that is the practice of saying “what do you say?” or something similar when you want your child to say “please” or “thank you,” something that I know a lot of parents do.  My general approach has been to model good manners consistently but I do find it drives me bananas when my daughter says “I want a [whatever it is]” without saying “please,” and RIE also says parents should set a limit on behavior when they find it annoying.  So I have been trying to walk a fine line between always modeling good manners and requiring a “please” before I acquiesce to a demand, and I wondered whether research could help me to come down on one side or the other of this line and just be sure about what I’m doing.  So this episode is going to be about my explorations through the literature on this topic, which are winding and convoluted – actually both the literature and my explorations are winding and convoluted, and by the time we get to the end I hope to sort out how I’m going to instill a sense of politeness in my daughter, and how you might be able to do it for your child as well.

 

So the first thing we should acknowledge as we set out on our journey, that both politeness and impoliteness are awfully difficult to define, they are contextually appropriate, and they are culturally appropriate as well.  In fact, politeness and impoliteness seem to be difficult to define *because* they are contextually appropriate and culturally appropriate.  So we might agree that it is rude to interrupt people when they are speaking, and yet I’m sure we can all imagine a time when we were excited to tell someone something and we interrupted them – perhaps repeatedly – so we could do it.  We might even be able to find a culture where interrupting people isn’t that rude at all.

We might all agree that saying “please” and “thank you” form the basis of good manners and yet how many of us ALWAYS say these things at the appropriate times?  I pride myself on my manners and yet I know I don’t ALWAYS use them (although I do make an extra special effort to use them when my daughter is around).  And manners are, of course, highly culturally appropriate – you only need to think of how strange it seems to Americans to bow to someone else to show deference and respect, which is, of course, commonplace in Japan – there’s a helpful guide linked in the references to the exact number of degrees your bow should be in each of a variety of circumstances that require different levels of deference and respect in Japan.  But there are some countries in southern Europe where the translation of “please” into the local language is apparently a term that connotes begging and is seen to be rude, so even something as simple as that is not universal by any stretch.

 

If we start to think about the purpose of manners, I like to look first to the ethnographic literature to see how things are done in other cultures, because I think this helps to ground our explorations with a view on whether us Westerners are doing things in a way that the rest of the world thinks is crazy or not.  For this I turned to our old friend David Lancy, whose book The Anthropology of Childhood I’ve referenced many times on the show.  I was surprised to find that manners are actually quite universal in nature – what precisely are the social graces that one needs to master varies by location, of course, but the concept of manners does seem to exist in an awful lot of cultures  – and so does teaching children about those manners.  In a majority of cases it seems as though the mother teaches the child manners so it appears more attractive to other potential caregivers, which reduces the burden of parenting on the mother.  Kwara’ae mothers in the Solomon Island drill their children on terms to use for their relatives and polite ways of conversing with them, and these sessions contain not only information about family structure but also about values of delicacy and peacefulness.  Four-year-old Fijian children are expected to bend over in an exaggerated bow to show respect to passing adults, and will be scolded or hit if they don’t show sufficient respect.  Javanese mothers repeat terms of politeness over and over and correct their children’s mistakes, so one-year-olds can do a polite bow and say a polite form of “goodbye,” while an aristocratic five-year-old will have an extensive repertoire of graceful phrases and actions.

David Lancy notes that there is actually considerable evidence that children will learn appropriate prosocial behaviors in time – despite the importance of social instruction in many areas of the south pacific, Samoan children begin to pick up the distinctive features characterizing people of rank and authority without being explicitly instructed.  Apparently there are many societies that value “proper” behavior a great deal and that don’t engage in any kind of enforced compliance or training since, after all, the success of the human species actually rests on our VOLUNTARY compliance with social norms.  The English well-known ethologist Desmond Morris claimed in his 1967 book The Naked Ape that there may be an instinctive basis for greetings and other similar rituals, but it seems to me that children would pick them up a lot more quickly than they do if this were the case.  Six years seems like an awfully long time to wait for a behavior to emerge that is so important in navigating social situations that the child encounters from much younger ages.

French children are well-regarded for their table manners with wrists being held on the edge of the table when the hands are not being used for eating, for example. The gulf between French and American children’s manners prompted the bestseller Bringing up Bebe, which teased us with descriptions of French parenting that alternated between these strict mealtime rules and a great deal of laissez-faire parenting that permits a great deal more parental relaxation than under the typical American model.  David Lancy points out the supreme irony that Americans spend such a huge amount of time teaching their young children things – all kinds of things, in an effort to help them get ahead, much more time than we spend teaching them about things related to kin terminology, politeness, and etiquette (even though it might feel to you as if you spend quite a lot of time saying “what’s the magic word?”).  He attributes this discrepancy to the importance of kin terminology, politeness, and etiquette in interdependent societies where the whole is valued more than the individuals within it.  Western society, and particularly American society, values individuality to such a great extent that being able to recognize one’s feelings and expressing those feelings are far more important than what anyone else might think or feel.

 

 

I’ve been trying to think about what it is about these words “please” and “thank you” that are so meaningful for us as parents and that leave me, at least, so ticked off when they aren’t used.  Particularly “please” which I find much more triggering when it’s omitted than “thank you.”  Certainly it’s possible to be polite without using them – something like “would you kindly pass the salt?” is polite doesn’t use “please,” although perhaps the average three-year-old is less likely to come out with this variation that they probably don’t hear very often.  Maybe it’s because we feel taken for granted much of the time and once we’ve asked our preschooler to say “please” a number of times we feel as though they ought to remember the routine, and that if they can remember how to say “I want some banana,” surely they can remember to say “I want some banana please” – although one study did find that a polite request by a child was less likely to be granted than a neutral “I want some banana” kind of request, perhaps because mothers in particular are conditioned to comply with distressed or angry requests.  If the child is already distressed then we don’t want to escalate the situation by denying the request, but if the child says “please” and they’re asking for something we don’t want them to have they’re probably in a mood in which we can negotiate with them.  It does seem as though we’re shooting ourselves in the foot a bit, though, by denying more requests when they are accompanied by a “please” than when the child stamps their foot and says they want the thing.

On the flip-side, though, I can imagine how frustrating it must be to be a child and not be able to reach the bananas, or the milk, or the scissors and glue, and to always have to ask for everything an adult thinks must be kept out of your reach.  So we use these phrases to get people to do things for us, and to show our appreciation for doing things for us, because in our society these things have become routinized.  As one researcher noted, routines are a way of guiding a person’s normal interaction in social situations, and if everyone shares the same “rules” about what those routines should be then the interaction goes more smoothly.  For this reason, researchers have found that young children who have improved social and emotional skills do better in school, although I would argue that so much of “doing well in school” in the early years pretty much does consist of being able to sit still and keep quiet when the teacher says “be quiet” and not get into disagreements with other children so in a way it’s kind of a “well, duh” that children with better manners do better in school.

 

So what I really want to get to the root of is: how much do our toddlers and preschoolers understand about all this?  Should we teach them the routines of politeness before they understand what the routines mean, or should we wait for the child to understand what it means to be polite and to feel grateful before we expect them to start saying “please” and “thank you”?

 

Professor Jean Berko Gleason did a fair bit of important work on manners, and we’re going to talk about several of her studies, although most of it was in the 1980s and I think we can assume social conditions have changed a bit since then.  In one study she and her co-authors wanted to understand HOW children learn politeness rules which, she says, are even more difficult to understand than rules of grammar, which children obviously struggle as well because, like with manners, grammar has lots of rules but also lots of exceptions to those rules.  The researchers use a definition of politeness which says that the amount of “work” that needs to be done when making a request is determined by three parameters – firstly, the degree of imposition of the request (so, “could you pass the salt?” and “could I borrow $1,000 from you?” require different levels of politeness, even if you’re asking both questions of the same person), secondly the social difference between the requester and the grantee, and thirdly the power differential between the requestor and the grantee.  The researchers wondered how children learn the rules of politeness in all of its many and varied forms when no parent ever says to them “you can be rude to me but you’d better be polite to your teacher because there’s more social distance between you and her than between you and me.”  But children do receive lots of information from two other sources – firstly parents teach by modeling, for example, by trying to minimize threats to their children’s social standing, or “face,” by making polite requests that help their children “save face” or using more polite forms of requests when asking for special favors from their children.  Secondly, parents do directly teach children about what forms of politeness to use in certain situations, usually taking the form of “say please” or something similar.  Unfortunately, the researchers didn’t make any attempt to analyze how effective were the different methods of teaching.

 

In another study, Professor Berko recruited eight families, four with girls and four with boys all aged between three and five.  With the families’ permission, she left a tape recorder in an inconspicuous spot in the dining room and recorded the conversation that occurred during the evening meal.  She points out that “it should be noted that the fathers had more occasion to say please or thanks since they were being served.”  One might hope that in modern families at least...

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