It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Impossibly rude

“Wash! My! Hands!”

She turns to face me, her sticky hands extended.

I! Am! Appalled!

And NOT by the sticky hands.

The other toddlers have not caught this strident demand, but 4-year-old Emily’s eyes are round, her face frozen in shock. She can’t believe what she’s hearing, either, and knows that something Major is about to happen.

“I beg your pardon?” Each word carefully enunciated, my voice thick with warning. If this child has any sense, she will ease up and apply some thin veneer of civility. Immediately.


Emily gasps. I feel the same response, but give the child One More Chance.

“You know better than that. How do you ask?”


Holy Hannah. What’s gotten into this one? Tired? Her cold getting worse? Were her parents fighting on the way over? Some other random thing? Doesn’t matter. This is INEXCUSABLY RUDE, and I will not be treated like this.

We are marching to the Quiet Stair as I speak. “You do NOT speak to me llke that, young lady. That was very, VERY rude.”

I plop her small butt on the step.

“When you can ask nicely, I will help you.”

Yes, her hands are still sticky, and yes, I will have to clean the wall by the bottom step, but I don’t care. Basic respect is waaaaaay more important than clean furnishings.

It only takes a minute or so.

“Mary, may you wash my hands?”

“May I wash your hands, what?”

“May you wash my hands, Please?”

And my face warms into a brilliant, welcoming smile. “Of COURSE I can, lovie! Come into the kitchen and let’s get you cleaned up.”


But really: What the hell was that all about?

April 21, 2010 - Posted by | manners, power struggle |


  1. if this is Ms. we-know-who, it might be because of the new arrival in the family…

    No, not her. Wouldn’t have mattered anyway: rude is rude.

    Comment by suzie | April 21, 2010 | Reply

  2. Maybe she was just making sure the boundaries are still in place?

    They are.

    Comment by Amy Mingo | April 21, 2010 | Reply

  3. What was making her hands sticky? Was it something new that freaked her out? This is another of those times you wish you could read their minds.

    She wasn’t in the slightest bit freaked out. Just totally imperious. If she knew how to snap her fingers for her maidservant, she’d have done it. (And no, nothing she hasn’t had lots of times, anyway.)

    Comment by jwg | April 21, 2010 | Reply

  4. I don’t have kids, but I read your blog and marvel about when I’ve seen these scenes played out among adults.

    For example, when I was in my early twenties and a family crisis was in progress, I found myself having Emily’s reaction to hearing my elder sister speaking to our father on the phone. I was stunned. I would never speak to either of my parents in that tone of voice. Refuse to speak to them at all, sure, but never in that tone of voice.

    Many a long year later, she still seems to think that screaming at relatives is something she should get to do. I’m realizing I never want to see her again in person until she decides otherwise.

    And she’s probably not likely to, is she? There’s no one like that in my family, thank heavens, but there’s one in my husband’s. I agree with your resolution; we’ve made a very similar one ourselves.

    Comment by Helen Huntingdon | April 21, 2010 | Reply

    • A number of people thought when we were young that my sister and I were evidence of personality being inborn. Though we came from a family of screamers, I was pretty young when I decided that cutting off contact with someone was an acceptable way to deal with hostile behavior, but screaming at someone isn’t.

      My sister believes the opposite. In her view, cutting off contact with family is an unspeakable crime, but screaming vitriol at them is not. I’m in for another round of being the black sheep.

      Comment by Helen Huntingdon | April 22, 2010 | Reply

  5. wow, that’s the last time I click on the “possibly related posts” links.

    Really. If you’re going to tackle a subject as painful as that, you don’t do it in egregious doggerel. Too bad I have no control over those things, or I’d delete it.

    Comment by lisa | April 21, 2010 | Reply

  6. Oh my gosh! I have a 3 year old I care for and we still go round and round about the “please” issue. He is very used to demanding that things happen the exact way he chooses, and he gets his way with grandma, but he tries with me and I “demand” courtesy by way of a “please”. I said this exact thing to grandma, whose response was: “well, I don’t suppose he’s really old enough to understand that concept just now.” … (my jaw is now on the floor)…uh… YES he is. I’ve taught toddlers who can’t even speak to sign “please” before getting their snack. If they can do it, a totally verbal 3 year old can too!!!

    WHAT? With all due respect to her childcare experience (she has, after all, raised at least one child to adulthood) … Grandma is nuts. You are absolutely right. Children are absolutely capable of saying ‘please’ with a request. It’s absolutely the easiest one to teach: they don’t get what they want until they say it.

    In fact, the youngest child in care right now, Baby Lily, who has a vocabulary of about six words? One of them is “dankoo!” — which she uses for both ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. It’s adorable. 🙂

    Okay, so maybe they don’t get the full-fledged adult understanding of respect and courtesy, but that’s not the point yet. What you’re after is to make the form of courtesy — the pleases, thank you’s, excuse me’s — automatic. The function of courtesy will be understood a bit at a time, as they grow in sophistication.

    I sure hope grandma isn’t around much when you’re trying to work with this child!

    Comment by Liz C. | April 21, 2010 | Reply

  7. My nephew, who just turned 3, has been saying “please” and “thank you” (without prompting) for many months now! And he understands that they aren’t just words for him to get what he wants, they are the nice (polite) words to express his request and appreciation 🙂

    Comment by June | April 22, 2010 | Reply

  8. I am a part time nanny for two little girls, ages 4 years and 18 months. The little one isn’t in a hurry to start using words, she’s more of the point and “HEEEHHHHHH” type. But of the words she does say, please and thank you are only second to mommy and daddy.

    Except it comes out as a very urgent, pleading, and loud “BEEEEEEEEEES!!!?!!!” Followed by a very satisfied, mellow, and soft “gankgoo.”

    Comment by Liz B. | April 22, 2010 | Reply

  9. that reminds me, I really should work on that one with my just 3 year old. I admit I get so used to the command line that I forget that really there is a “please” missing. And we haven’t managed the polite question linguistically yet (so I forgive that part).

    Comment by cartside | April 23, 2010 | Reply

  10. Yeah, that’s not acceptable. I remember once being in the throes of training our firstborn to use polite words and my MIL got all upset at the table because I made him properly ask her to hand him something. She said, “Oh, he doesn’t have to do that with me!” and I said, “If he doesn’t do it with his family, who love him, why on earth would he do it with people he doesn’t know?”

    Sophie’s preschooler phrase used to be, “May I please cam [not can, cam] I have _________?” And when she’d see a dog, she’d walk up to the owner and say, “May I please cam I pet your dog?” SO CUTE!

    Comment by Candace | April 23, 2010 | Reply

  11. Grandma is nuts indeed – my granddaughter found out before she was a year and a half old that a head-on-the-side smile and a charming “please”, followed by “dank oo” was the surest way of getting anything she wanted. Well, usually.

    Comment by Z | April 25, 2010 | Reply

  12. Ha – I can HEAR your voice in my head on that one.

    But really, even my daughter who has been thanking me since she could talk every once in a while seems to forget or try pushing it with a rudely-put “request” (read: command). Not that it gets her anything more than a pair of raised eyebrows and an, “ExCUSE me?!”

    The little guy is now asking with a please much of the time. Warms my little heart.

    Comment by kittenpie | April 27, 2010 | Reply

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