“Mia, how do you ask for something?” “Now what do you say to Uncle Marty?” “What’s the magic word?” A child who’s questioned like this may mumble a faint “please” or “thank you,” and parents may feel somewhat reassured. But they may also wonder why they have to constantly remind their child to use polite words.
When children say “please” and “thank you” without being prompted or coerced, parents feel a sense of satisfaction. They’re proud when their child is polite in public, and they feel good when she’s polite at home. Children make so many requests throughout the day: “I want juice!” “I need a napkin!” “Tie my shoe!” Toddlers point to what they want or use one word to describe what they want, “Cookie!” When a child says “please” and remembers to say “thank you,” parents often feel good and less overwhelmed, and have an easier time responding to her constant needs.
So why don’t most young children say “please” and “thank you” spontaneously? And why do many parents find themselves in situations such as this: A mother preparing to leave a neighborhood party tells her three-year-old daughter, “Say ‘good-bye’ and ‘thank you’ to Mrs. Miller.” Her child turns away and refuses to speak, as other mothers stare at her. She tries again, then thanks the hostess herself and leaves, feeling embarrassed by her child’s impoliteness.
Yet when children forget or refuse to say “please” and “thank you,” they’re usually not being impolite. There are several explanations for their behavior. First, they have a difficult time grasping general rules, including ones about responding in socially appropriate ways. A child who’s told to say “thank you” when given something at Grandma’s house may not connect that experience to a similar one that happens later at a neighbor’s house. Although she’s again being given something, she’s too young to understand that she should respond as she did earlier.
Another reason children may not use polite words is shyness. While some children respond to prompting, others are just too self conscious, especially when adult attention is focused on them. A shy child may refuse to say “please” or “thank you,” and this can lead to a struggle if parents force the issue.
Finally, a child may be too preoccupied to say “please” and “thank you,” especially if she’s just been given a new toy or has an urgent request. She has a difficult time thinking about and considering other people’s wishes, and saying what her parents want her to say may be the furthest thing from her mind when she’s excited.
If you constantly remind your child to say “please,” you might put yourself in a bind. You may inadvertently convince her that her wishes will be granted if she uses what, for her, may actually seem like a magic word. For example, in a toy store she may say, “Please, Mom, please. Will you buy this for me?” When you explain why she can’t have the toy she just politely asked for, she may not understand (or not want to hear) your reasoning. “But I said please!”
Since you want to encourage politeness, you may be reluctant to say “no.” Inevitably, your child will receive a confusing mixed message, saying “please” sometimes gets her what she asks for and sometimes doesn’t.