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 | , , , , , , | 7 Comments


“Ow!” Anna’s voice is rich with indignation, and a small measure of actual pain. “Timmy, you hurted my elbow!”

“Sorry!” Timmy doesn’t look up from his pile of tiny plastic bears. “Sorry, sorry.”

Perhaps noting a smidge less than genuine concern in his voice, Anna ups the ante.

“You need to kiss it better.” She waves her elbow near his nose. He leaps up and starts dancing around it.

“I don’t want to kiss it. I only want to say ‘Sorry’. Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry!” He sings the word as he dances around her. He isn’t seeking to tease, he’s just having fun.

And he’s not at all sorry.

“You know what, Timmy? I think Anna’s right. I think you do need to kiss it better. You hurt her elbow. It was an accident, but you still need to pay attention to Anna when you say sorry. Stop dancing and look at Anna’s eyes.”

He complies. And kisses the elbow.

“There!” He says, looking into her face. “Is that better?”

Ah. Success! Because that genuine attention and concern? That’s the point of a “sorry”. Anna knows it, too.

“Yes, it is. Do you want this blue bear now?”

And the play rolls seamlessly on…

April 17, 2009 Posted by | Anna, manners, socializing, Timmy | , , , | 3 Comments