It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Rote vs Real: A non-contest

“Malli, you shouted at Suzie, and now she’s crying. You need to say sorry.”

Suzie’s mother quickly intervenes. “Oh, I never force apologies. They don’t understand at this age, and it only encourages hypocrisy.”

I’ve heard this before, of course. The intervening mother disapproves of my draconian ways and is confident of her moral superiority. If I continue in my emotional manipulation, Malli will grow to become a moral cripple, drilled and skilled in the social forms but lacking any comprehension of the substance, of the meaning of the exchanges. A hypocrite, as Suzie’s mother would have it.


Those who hold this position re: rote apologies don’t understand the agenda behind the expectation. Yes, at first the child has no idea what’s really going on. You tell the aggressor tot to say “Sorry”, and the victim chimes in, too. Clearly, no one knows what they’re doing, or why. So why bother?

We bother because the form does matter. If we wait for true empathy to emerge, we could be waiting a while. One can, however, encourage true empathy to emerge through these rote exchanges. Encouraging emotional development is not the entire reason, however. I’m not even sure it’s the primary reason to insist on rote social behaviours, not at this stage, anyway.

The basic reason is that we want these things to be reflexive. We want them to be automatic. Do we want them to be mindless and insincere? Of course not. But we do want them done!

When you drive, you put on your signal light at every turn. You don’t just put it on when there’s a car behind you. You do do it at every corner, necessary or not, because you want it to be automatic. You don’t want to have to think about it at every intersection.

Similarly, basic social interactions — please, thank you, I’m sorry, excuse me — are much more likely to occur when they’re rote.

Tone of voice matters, of course. Eye contact matters. A smile to accompany the words matters. These things take it from rote to real — but if we haven’t done it in the first place, the “real” is never going to happen! So many of these interactions have to occur in a split second. There is often not time to evaluate and consider. Just as you flick on the signal when you approach an intersection, you flick out an “excuse me” when you inadvertantly bump into someone on a crowded sidewalk.

You do it without thinking — but does that matter to the other person? No. They just want the acknowledgment of their person. Rote is fine.

So, yeah. Rote.

See, empathy takes a while to develop. Rote can be learned much sooner. In order for a skill to become automatic, though, the earlier we start, the better. It is not hypocrisy. The goal is certainly sincerity and empathy — and that will come.

When integration was occurring in the south, studies consistently showed that attitudes changed when behaviour changed. When the kids were taught about the other group, prejudice stayed strong. When the kids were thrown together in classrooms, prejudices broke down. (Not all at once, and not easily, perhaps, but it started.)

Attitudes follow actions. The real will grow out of the rote.

You want an empathetic kid? Encourage them to act like they are. It’s not hypocrisy, it’s training. If it’s rote during toddlerhood, it’ll be real by school age, and automatic all their lives long.

And that, my friends, is a good thing.

February 6, 2008 Posted by | behavioural stuff, controversy, individuality, manners, parenting, socializing | 21 Comments