Often in my preschool, while sitting around the lunch table, a child will say, “Open my yogurt.” If I don’t respond immediately he’ll repeat: “Open my yogurt!” I’ll turn and say, “Could you ask me a different way?” And he’ll say, “Please!” with a look of victory on his face.
He’s used the magic word! And the magic word, in his experience, is really magic: when he says it, people magically do what he wants them to do. It’s even better than that, because he doesn’t even have to remember when to say it. When it’s required, someone will remind him, “Say the magic word.”
“Give me a cookie!”
“Say the magic word.”
“Here you go!”
But is adding the word "please" to a request actually politeness? Politeness is being conscious of other people and using your voice and actions to convey respect for them; it’s using your socialized brain to regulate your desires. Shouting a syllable when prompted? Not actually very polite. We can’t expect children to behave like adults—nor would we want them to! But childhood is the best time to learn the appropriate way to treat others.
Luckily, guiding a child to speak kindly isn’t that hard. Children learn to use whatever behavior is effective to get their needs met. For instance, when your infant needs help with food he might wave his hands and make noises. But over time he learns to make intentional gestures like holding the food out to you, because when he does this, you understand what he means, so he gets his food more quickly. The same principle helps your child graduate from gestures to words—words are simply more effective.
You can use the same principle to guide your child to speak politely. All you have to do is make sure that polite communication is more effective than impolite communication. When your child demands that you open his yogurt (with or without the “magic word”) all you have to do is not open the yogurt. You might say, “Could you ask me a different way?”—or you might simply smile and raise your eyebrows, waiting for him to remember. Children use the behavior that’s effective. If a demanding tone of voice doesn’t work on you, I promise, your child will try something different.
Remember, too, that children need models for positive behaviors. If you want him to be polite...
- use a kind voice when you ask him to pass the salt;
- wait until he’s done with his game before you tell him to clean up;
- don’t ask him to go get you something the moment he sits down;
- ...and make sure you’re being polite to other people when your child is around.
Lest you worry, being polite towards children does not mean giving up authority. In my classroom I use a kind voice when I say, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but when you’re done reading that book, it will be time to clean up.” That politeness doesn’t mean that clean-up is optional; children quickly learn that I mean what I say, and that I follow through on rules and consequences. I’m just not rude about it.
Early childhood is the time when children learn to treat others with consideration. But all too often saying “the magic word” gets you the thing you want without you having to actually be considerate. Words matter, but so does what’s behind the words. Let’s take away the magic of “the magic word,” and start teaching kids politeness.
Jarrod Green is a teacher and administrator at The Children’s Community School, a preschool in Philadelphia. More of his writing, as well as his podcast and his children’s album, can be found at http://jarrodgreen.net.