It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Learning never ends

Remember the potential paradigm shift I was considering a week or so ago?

The comment that provoked my train of thought was Angie’s comment, number 9 on my Just an accident! post.

As I read her comment, I was nodding my head. “That makes sense,” I thought, “and so does that, and, oh, that’s a nice way of going about it!” I liked it. She didn’t agree with me, but she was thoughtful and respectful, and her ideas just plain interesting. I rather admired her courage, coming in with a dissenting opinion, knowing that someone, or several someones, might jump all over her.

Now, Angie was just as guilty as I had been of either-or thinking. My either-or was framed “either you expect/nudge/even force the proper words/social forms, or you get rude and disrespectful children”. Her either-or was “either you let them learn by observing/being part of your good modelling or you end up with children with no empathy.”

Neither is accurate, of course, and I think if she and I were to sit down and have a face-to-face chat, we’d explore all manner of nuances, variations, and exceptions to those positions.

But her approach? Would it really work? How lovely if it would! I mean, really: Does anyone enjoy the sight of an increasingly exasperated parent demanding of their silent child, “Say Sorry! We’re not going anywhere until you say you’re sorry!” The longer the child stays silent, the more the parent insists, and around and around they go.

Are you cringing? I always cringe when I see that. Now, you all know I believe it’s absolutely all right to expect the appropriate words (please, sorry, thank you) without worrying if the child is feeling sorry or grateful or whatever. Even so, I avoid being in that situation like the plague. I think it’s safe to say I haven’t done that in 23 years. (My oldest being 25, you see, and she was two when she taught me the futility and mutual humiliation of that approach.) Besides, you can’t win. You can’t force a child to say words he/she doesn’t want to say. You put yourself in a battle of wills that will only make you look foolish, aggressive and ineffectual.

And what is the child learning from that? Nothing positive! So if you could teach the child the forms without such stand-offs? If, moreover, you could teach the child the forms and the empathy all at once, without ever even nudging? Wouldn’t that be lovely?

I do teach empathy, of course. However, I believe that sometimes we learn the form of something first, with full comprehension following. Empathy is a complex, layered, subtle thing and develops more slowly as the child matures. The verbal forms — please, thank you, I’m sorry, excuse me — are straight-forward, and can be taught sooner.

Which is where some parents probably run into difficulty. They teach the form, so that their kids, (as Angie so accurately noted) can “rattle off a muttered ‘soorrie'”… and they think they’ve succeeded. They think the job is done when in fact only a fraction of the task has been completed — the less significant fraction, too.

That’s no good.

We need to keep the goal in mind. The goal is not children who can voice the appropriate words with none of the accompanying feeling. The goal is kind, considerate, respectful children — and those things all require empathy.

How to achieve that is the question! Yes, let’s do it without the humiliating stand-off. I am in full agreement with Angie on that.

I am in equally full agreement with her on the importance of good modelling. You simply cannot teach either manner or empathy without the modelling.

I know. I do it the time. It’s my job, isn’t it? I probably do it more consciously than most humans on the planet. I almost never miss a chance to say please or thank you. I almost never forget to say excuse me. And on the rare occasions when I slip? I acknowledge it, and say “I’m sorry”.

And so all of my children learn empathy and manners without being nudged, right? Here’s where Angie and I diverge.

I am very, very consistent in modelling. And yet… 98% of the kids I work with do not connect the dots. “Mary always uses that word, I think I will, too.” Nope. Some kids do, for sure. There are the occasional children who are exceptionally empathetic.

They are wonderful. Angie’s daughter is obviously one such child. They are also the exception.

So a nudge here and there, an encouragement, a refusal to hand over the cookie until you hear the “please” and the matching refusal to let go until you hear the “thank you”? Pretty much essential for most two-year-olds, at least for a season.

The belligerent stand-off, however? Nasty and pointless. So what do you do when you have a child who should be saying sorry but won’t? Angie has the answer! I love her idea, and will be using it from here on in.

You approach the injured party, and with your own child under your arm you ask the other child if they’re okay. You say sorry on behalf of your child, you give the injured child a hug. In short, you model the behaviour and ensure that your child is part of it. No punishment, no recrimination, no escalating exasperation and embarrassment. We’re not being parental weenies, either: no wandering off and ignoring the situation for your child! But lots of good modelling of both the form (are you okay? I’m sorry) and the substance (empathy/concern/remorse) of an apology.

I really, really like that. It’s brilliant! If you’ve ever found yourself staring down at a child who will not say sorry, a child who will not deal with a situation that really needs to be dealt with… if you as the parent have felt frustrated and helpless and embarrassed — and who hasn’t, at least once? If you’ve ever been in that situation, this approach is a gift. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it years ago! Well, probably because I’ve had a difference approach which generally worked… but I like this one much much better. I will be using it from now on.

So, Angie. It’s clear you didn’t affect a paradigm shift, but you did make me think, and you did teach me something new and valuable. Thank you!

June 20, 2011 - Posted by | manners, parenting | , , , , , ,


  1. This is incredibly timely because I have a kid here now who does the mumbled “sowwie” thing but clearly doesn’t mean it or understand why he’s being made to apologize. I love Angie’s idea, too. And will be implementing today the first time he hits, kicks, or steals a toy (won’t take long, sadly).

    Thank you both! This is why I love this blog!

    You’re welcome! It’s why I love this blog, too. 🙂

    Comment by hodgepodge | June 20, 2011 | Reply

  2. Brilliant! I love this approach!

    Really, though, it’s like the default toddler-training approach in some ways. To teach them to do things, you often do it for them, with them, right along side them. “Pick up the blocks!” we say as we cheerfully take their hand and make them do it. With babies, we might say the “please” and “thank you” for them until they get the idea and we can expect them to say it.

    It’s all the same stepping-stones, but sometimes I find it hard to think of how to use them in each situation…

    I should have guessed you’d be the woman to tease the principle out from the examples. I think you’re quite right, what we’re doing is scaffolding (doing it for/with them in steadily decreasing amounts until they can do it on their own). I hadn’t seen it through that window before, but that’s exactly what it is. Ha!

    Comment by rosie_kate | June 20, 2011 | Reply

  3. My sister used the modelling version of manners. One of her children is very polite, sometimes more in his gentle manner than his words though. The other rarely says please or thank you. They are 27 and 25. Years.

    My brother and his wife demanded manners and employed physical punishment. Their boys are delightful, polite in word and deed and seem to bear no emotional scarring from their parents’ methods. They are 25 and 23 years.

    There’s advantages to being the youngest of four children and marrying one of five. We had so many family members to observe before we entered the world of parenting. Adding Family Day Care and the many families who shared our home to the mix, caused us to tread a path between mindful modelling and prompting manners. (And in case you’re wondering, no, there was definitely no smacking.) I’m not sure I can fully describe how I dealt with the sorry issue. I didn’t make children apologise, though I did ensure they knew if someone was hurt by their actions and tried to help them find a way of making amends. Sometimes that involved sorry but I didn’t insist on that. Why? Because I saw too many children knowingly hit another child, say sorry, then repeat both the action and the sorry. When told that wasn’t acceptable they would respond with “But I said sorry!”. Please and thank you were not negotiable, sorry, well, that involves empathy not just a learned word and was not drilled in the same way.

    Oh, and this post is very timely. My 18 year old daughter who lives 7 hours away in a uni dorm, rang this week and thanked me for insisting on good manners. Seriously! Living with people who don’t use please and thank you, or treat clerical/cleaning/catering staff with respect has opened her eyes to the value of politeness. (She also enjoys pleasant interactions with dorm staff who appreciate her politeness!)

    Ah, the indignant “But I said sorry!” The issue, of course, is that you want them to be sorry. You’re so right: please and thank you are much simpler, and are taught differently.

    It’s nice when your kids express an understanding of why you did the things you did, and, even nicer, with words of appreciation! It’s also true that your daughter may well find that the dorm staff will work with her in a way they won’t feel inclined to work with the other, ruder, young people. Good manners are not manipulative: you don’t treat people nicely so as ‘make’ them treat you well… but that’s often the end result! What goes around comes around, as they say.

    Comment by Maisy | June 21, 2011 | Reply

  4. It simply comes down to different approaches working for different children.

    That’s certainly one of the lessons learned!

    Comment by Laura | June 21, 2011 | Reply

  5. Thank you for such a well thought out post. Yes, I was guilty of an either-or attitude in my comment, and I was more judgemental than I should have been – it wasn’t as well thought out as I had originally thought! 🙂

    I’ve been thinking about it too, and while I don’t think Grace is a “wonderful” child (well, obviously I do, but not always in terms of behaviour!), am am aware that she is, at 2.5, a very verbal child. Maybe that makes a difference – she seems to understand complex explanations and I guess if she didn’t, some of the methods I’ve been using wouldn’t be so effective.

    Yes, the level of verbal skills makes a significant difference, I think, though non-verbal children can certainly display empathy!

    I do agree though that not making a battle out of things has really helped – when I do correct her manners (and I do – I just don’t push the issue), she takes it simply as information, with no negative connotations. For example, today she kept saying “mind,mind” to me (as in “mind out of the way” – no idea where she got that from!). I said “it’s generally considered polite to say excuse me”, and I swear I could see the cogs going in her head as she took it in! We are now being treated to lots of “doo me, doo me” instead! 🙂

    We’ll see if it works with number two! If not, we’ll just have to come up with something different. 🙂

    I’d say it’s a great first-choice system, and with an older sibling also modelling the good behaviour, even more likely to be effective. If you find it’s not working as you’ve come to expect, you’ll develop an effective Plan B, I’m sure!


    Comment by Angie | June 21, 2011 | Reply

  6. What a lot of thought in this post. Thank you. I firmly believe that there is more than one way to do things and we need to treat each child as an individual. One point I want to make about the middle ground of this issue is that not all children have the behavior modeled for them 100% of the time. While I may model all the time for my kids, I don’t have that control for my child care clients. Expecting the proper responses from some kids needs a slightly more direct nudge.

    Comment by Pam F | June 25, 2011 | Reply

  7. I have been thinking a lot abut this lately – as it came up in conversation with my daughters child care provider. As I was picking up one evening, my daughter bumped into another child who fell on the floor. Neither was hurt & it was clearly an accident in the excitement of my arriving. I prompted my daughter to say “sorry” and ask the other child if she was OK. My provider mentioned to me that she doesn’t make the kids say sorry because “they are going to be sorry for enough as they get older.” I didn’t respond & left for the weekend. But I keep thinking about it. She made me question my approach to the whole situation.

    I have tried to teach both of my children empathy & that sorry doesn’t always 1. make everything OK and 2. sorry doesn’t mean that you are admitting fault. That sometime you use that word to be polite & show you care about the other person. A very hard concept… but I am not sure how else to do it.

    Comment by Kristen | June 29, 2011 | Reply

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