The Magic Word…

As I picked my girls up from last weekend’s birthday party, the birthday girl’s Mum stopped to say how well behaved and polite my girls had been, always remembering their ‘pleases and thank yous’. I must confess I was quite delighted to hear that my children had ‘remembered their manners’ despite the fact that we don’t make a very big deal about ‘manners’ at home.

I don’t make my children say please, thank you or sorry. At home I often don’t even encourage, or prompt them to say please, thank you or sorry, and we definitely don’t withhold things waiting for ‘the magic words’ to be said.

I remember when my girl’s were little and someone asked them if they wanted a treat. “Yes! Yes! Yes!” what their excited reply. “What’s the magic word?” asked the treat giver, and both girls stopped and looked rather confused for a moment, then Izzy pipped up… “I know… it’s ABRACADABRA!”.

My girls had never heard that phrase before, so at two year of age the only ‘magic word’ they knew was ‘abracadabra!’ I still giggle when I think about it, but I am not sure the treat giver found it so amusing. In fact the look of horror on her face makes me suspect she was writing my name on the ‘worst parents in the world list’, but I don’t care.

Please and Thank You are not ‘magic words’ that you can utter and magically have everything turn out the way you want it. You can’t have something simply because you said please. Simply saying thank you does not mean you appreciated something or someone, and just saying sorry doesn’t magically make whatever happened ok. There needs to be understanding and intent behind those words to make them meaningful, and I don’t believe you encourage that be making a simple rule that they must always be said.

It’s not that we don’t value manners nor want our children to know how to behave in social situations. What we want is for our children to really mean the things they say and to understand why they are saying them. We can all parrot the right words when required but a thank you means much more when accompanied with real gratitude and sorry means much more when partnered with a hug.

At the Pickle Farm we talk about what it means to have ‘good manners’ and to be gracious, thankful, polite and compassionate. We help our children find the right words or ways to interact in social situations, including when it might be nice to tell someone you appreciate them, or how it makes you feel when someone asks for something in a nice way, or how you might help make things better if you’ve hurt someone or made a mistake. We try to lead by example and model these things, and also be honest when we don’t quite live up to our goals.

Sometimes I think it would be easier to just prompt our kids to say the right thing and not take the time to explain things… but when someone tells me how polite my children are when I’m not around to prompt them, then I know that easier isn’t always better.

Do you think it is important to teach children manners?
How do you teach your children manners?

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Read the comments or scroll down to add your own:

  1. says

    Lol at “abracadabra”!

    I used to find it quite amusing as a Speech Pathologist, when children would have almost no intelligible language and parents were making a big deal about getting them to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. Of course, I realise the parents were just working with something they knew, but these words are not particularly functional in helping a child express needs, wants and emotions…

    I totally agree with you that an attitude of compassion, gratitude, selflessness etc is what we are aiming for, rather than kids thinking of ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ as magic words which help you get what you want. I think the best way to pass those traits on to your child is to model them in your own life, rather than to teach them to say essentially meaningless phrases.

    • katef says

      That is such an interesting point…. though I do wonder if having social words such as please and thank you might be quite useful later on, especially for kids who might struggle to ‘fit in’ socially?

      • says

        Hi Kate,
        I do think there is a place for teaching ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘hi’ and other social/ greeting type words, particularly for children who struggle with social language and appropriate use of language in social contexts. Appropriate “manners” are often taught through social stories, diaries, visual cues etc to children on the Autism Spectrum etc. (I’m sure Marita has some stuff about this on her wonderful “Stuff with thing”)

        I was thinking more specifically of early language intervention (for toddlers), where learning specific, preferred and meaningful (to the child) nouns (drink, biscuit), verbs (go, stop) and adjectives (hot, sad) is going to allow a child to express their needs and wants more easily and therefore reduce frustration for the less communicative child.

        • says

          Oh yes! I am also a Speechie and I remember so many conversations with parents of language delayed toddlers and the first word they often wanted their child to learn would be “ta”. Yes, it’s a powerful word that elicits beautiful smiles from others. But it’s not very USEFUL. It doesn’t get you anything, as it’s said AFTER the event, not before.
          Mind you, once I had my own kids, I still taught ‘ta’ as one of their first words!! Social pressure, I guess!

  2. says

    Great post! Amy is often complimented on her manners and I think its more and more of a choice on her part now rather than something instilled. We also believe in understanding the process of good manners rather than toting out the “magic word”! She did however ask me if I would write a few of her thank you letters after her birthday and so we had a little chat about how that wouldn’t really mean the same as if she actually sat down and wrote them herself!

    • katef says

      I think gratitude is quite a hard concept for children to understand. Lately we’ve been trying to explain to our seven year olds what it means to be ‘gracious’…. that sometimes you need to say thank you for something you don’t really want, but that you are still thankful for the thought of the other person…. really hard concept!

  3. says

    I’m a bit of a manners nazi… I wonder if it’s stemmed from teaching 10 year olds before I had kids and being horrified by the lack of manners on some of them LOL.

    Julie’s comment has given me pause for thought though. The small boy of very few words is often prompted (by all of us) for please and thankyous. And he does have those words (peeese and da-too) but she’s spot on about them not being the words he needs most right now.

    • katef says

      See my reply to Julie’s comment… I hope she comes back and replies again because it is such an interesting topic…

  4. Stacey K says

    My middle is going through an I want stage. Driving me crazy until I realised that instead of saying to the baby what would you like (which we made a habit of with the middle after the big being a bad I want-er) I’m saying to the baby what do you want, use your words & my middle is mirroring that. I want doesn’t get, but a nice voice & nice words do. Not always please but I would like or we get the occasional nicely darling sweetheart…which is lovely.

  5. nic says

    Im a manners nazi too LOL But I dont demand it of them, I also try to explain why its nice to say thank you and please etc

  6. says

    I don’t believe in forcing the kid to say hi or thank you but it’s really the social pressure that makes us do it. We go to gatherings and elders will be asking them to greet them (especially important in asian culture). I see parents telling their kid, “what must you say?” and the kid ignores them and the parents had to repeat in a stern voice and a very unwilling “thank you” followed when I give them a gift.

    I believe in setting good examples for the kids and they will follow. I do prompt them “will you say thank you?” when the adult is waiting for it but I don’t make a big deal if they don’t, I will just say thank you on their behalf.

    • katef says

      Oh yes there really is a lot of social pressure…. I often succumb to that also!
      I have a boy a boy who doesn’t like to be kissed or cuddled but the social pressure for him to farewell some people in that way is very high!

      I usually just speak for my kids if they don’t or can’t say the appropriate words themselves. In the case of my boy I often say “I don’t like to be kissed, but I still love you” and he’ll often repeat that, or not LOL.

  7. Emily says

    I was a teacher of some very un-thankful 10 year olds before I had children and I think it made me a bit of a “say thank you and please” Mommy. We talk about being thankful and why asking is important. But I think our diligence on these manners really shows when we are not paying attention or around, because our son says thank you and please when others are giving him things. This is the true test of parenthood- how kids act when you aren’t around! Our son also just had a birthday party and he said Thank you after each gift and you could tell by his tone and enthusiasm he MEANT it!

  8. says

    I am anal about manners- perhaps from being an older mum, and seeing friends’ childrens behaviour, and knowing I wouldn’t want my children being excluded from things because they’re little horrors! It’s funny, I’ve never used them as a tool for the girls to use to get what they want, but as a form of respect. For that reason I’ve never used the magic word phrase either. While I agree that children need to have an understanding behind words and their use (thank you, please etc), I also think if they’re in the habit of using words it makes it easier for them to remember their manners, without the effort of putting the thoughts behind them, especially for my super busy kids! if that makes sense. My older child is now reaping the benefits, she’s being invited to many, many playdates after kinder, and has heard me be told she has such lovely manners, she’s lovely to have around- that makes her beam…

    • katef says

      I definitely think that manners are a form of respect, but I guess the parroting of phrases on automatic doesn’t feel so respectful to me… well perhaps it just feels less personal?

  9. Rachel says

    Your post provides good food for thought. I agree that getting a child to say sorry when they are not is perhaps not helpful. Harder in practice when your toddler has just hit another at the local park. My daughter (nearly 3) is very good with her pleases and thank yous and like others say it makes others (adults) respond so much more positively towards them which in turn tends to make them more socially confident. I will try to think of the lesson more.