Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Minding His Manners

How do you teach a kid manners?

"Please" is easy. You just withhold the Shreddies (or chocolate, as the case may be) until it rolls trippingly off the tongue. Even "thank you" is a no-brainer: Bub hates being offered food that is not to his liking, so we just keep shoving it into his face until he relents. ("No!" "No thank you?" "No-o-o!" "No thank you?" "No, thanks." "That's better.") Twenty years from now, his guests will probably curse our memory as they choke down the soy hot dogs Bub has forced on them, refusing to take no for an answer, but at least he'll always express suitable gratitude for his breakfast cereal.

I like to think that my children have good manners. If an old man holds the door open for us at the mall, Bub says, "Thanks!" in a fervent tone that I invariably find utterly charming. Of course, my assessment is made from a position that is not only biased but also hopelessly naive. I read a post recently (who wrote it? Was it you?) about the importance of teaching children to say "thank you" instead of "thanks." There was a whole code outlining which situations warrant the full "thank you" treatment and which ones can be met with an off-hand "thanks." It was an eye-opener for me, that post - before I read it I had no idea that there was a meaningful difference between the two expressions.

I err on the side of rudeness myself, I realize. I forget birthdays. I never call. I'm not going to even bring up the issue of thank-you cards. Clearly, leading by example is not an option if I want to turn my children into Emily Post's pet pupils.

Luckily, manners are a top priority at Bub's nursery school. Along with turn-taking, sharing, and participation in class routines, the curriculum emphasizes basic social skills - saying hello, introducing yourself by name, waving goodbye. Bub is capable of doing all these things - when he feels like it. Yesterday, however, when his teacher greeted him by name, he avoided eye contact. "Say hello!" we coached as he shrugged his shoulders nervously and turned to find his name tag and post it on the photo board underneath his picture. That task accomplished, he looked up with a grin and said, "Hi Ruby!"

"He likes to have things on his own terms," Ruby commented after class. His compliance is often purchased with some kind of face-saving concession - something that allows him to believe that he's in charge. I'm not sure, myself, whether that's a good or a bad thing. The key to most adult negotiations is to provide some kind of concession (however inconsequential) that allows the opponent to believe he's won. Is it possible to teach children simply to obey, without protest, resistance, or bargaining? Is it desirable to do that, even if it's possible?

"I know you want to pick your battles," Ruby went on sympathetically, "but this one is important." I nodded as best I could while hoisting Bub's backpack with one hand and tugging him back from the door with the other. It is, of course, important to acknowledge people's greetings. It's mandatory, actually. If I simply disregard a friendly hello because I have other things to do, my social relationships will suffer. So this is a worthwhile skill - and even if it's one most children learn without disciplinary intervention, that may not hold true for Bub. So I tried to follow Ruby's advice.

"What did you do at nursery school this morning?" I asked as we walked to the car. "Who did you play with?" This is not a new question - it's part of our ritual recap of the morning, and usually Bub answers with a familiar litany of children's names. Today, though, he ignored me, so I tried again in the car. No response. By the time we got to day-care I was in a dilemma. Do I insist that he answer my question? Or do I simply disregard his rudeness, leading him to believe that his responses are purely optional? I got out of the car and opened his door, giving him one more chance: "Who did you play with at nursery school?" I demanded in a now-I-mean-business tone of voice. Suffice it to say that after a five-minute stand-off in below-freezing temperatures, I decisively lost this particular battle of the wills and retired in defeat, none the wiser.

I know that there is an enabling role often played by well-meaning parents of children on the autistic spectrum. We understand our children and compensate for their deficits; we let them get away with things that simply won't work with their peers. Instead of being a safe place where our children can learn what works and what doesn't, we reinforce false ideas of how social reciprocity functions.

But the thing is, I don't want Bub to tell me who he played with at nursery school because he has learned that responding to my questions is obligatory. There are moments when his stories tumble out of him eagerly, voluntarily, when he glimpses the real rewards of sharing experiences. There are times when he sees a new boy and marches right up and says, "Hi, I'm Bub!" I want his learning to be organic and true, based on the sheer joy of communication.

There are plenty of polite expressions that can be rattled off by rote. Excuse me, sorry, thanks for the ride, don't worry about it, if you wouldn't mind, come again, it was nothing. It is a besetting sin of mine that I place too little value on these rituals of courtesy. But I must confess that any number of ignored questions and omitted greetings are outweighed for me by the unmistakable ring of sincerity in Bub's voice when he says a heartfelt "Thanks!"

44 comments:

Jenifer said...

One a whole I think that manners are inherently important for the reasons you mentioned. That said, Bub is still quite young and from the sounds of it has grasped many of the basics already. There will always be days when no amount of coaxing will force any child to relent.

I am big on thank you cards or at least phoning to say thank-you upon receiving a card in the mail, actual gifts warrant a thank-you card. My Mom made me do it and now I make the girls do it. I would say though that I am in the minority as there is only one friend in our wide circle that also does this.

Manners are not learned overnight. Bub will follow your lead and yes sometimes we must force out something from our kids, but usually I find they express their own heartfelt thanks themselves.

I must say I never really thought much about the "thanks" versus "thank you" if you find the link I would love to read about it.

kyra said...

i'm with you! i go for the authentic moments of connection and communication!

and i'm not sure i see the difference between thank you and thanks. i DO however, get the difference in tone between something meant and something not meant and frankly, that could mean i might prefer a hearty 'thanks' to a rigid 'thank you' any day!!!

Veronica Mitchell said...

I have trouble with this with my second daughter. She is so very, very stubborn that I must be very careful what I choose to make a contest of wills, or I will lose, and that teaches her something worse than poor manners. So I have no advice, but I am watching closely, hoping to learn from your comments.

Kyla said...

Oh my, KayTar is RUDE by typical standards, but as you say, I've modified those standards for her. She says please and thank you, hello and goodbye when she feels like it. Consistent reciprocity in conversation is on a level she is not at yet.

Sue said...

Even children who do not struggle with autism, at this age - won't answer questions about what they did at pre-school, etc. Every single time I ask my daughter what she did at school, she shrugs. It comes out later, in bits and pieces, but there is something about that kind of question that I think kids that age have a hard time answering...

suburbancorrespondent said...

Read finslippy's post for an interesting take on the "What did you do today?" question:

http://www.finslippy.com/finslippy/2008/01/slow-learner.html

And I know with "normal" kids, sometimes you insist, sometimes you don't on the manners, up to a certain age. I'd say 4 and older, you have to insist, because they are no longer cute to other people.

Omaha Mama said...

I often wait for a minute, hoping an authentic thank you will come from my 4-year old daughter to the bearer of whatever niceness she has received. Then I coach her, when it does not come. I keep hoping for the natural thank you, that came without a nudge.

Becky said...

Hmmm... interesting question you've posed here, although I don't know if it's actually a question. If I think about it, I am probably enabling a lot of rude behaviour inadvertently by just allowing silences, too. However, I have seen a gradual improvement on most basic social skills over the last couple years, and I guess I just imagine that the stuff beyond "please" and "thank you" and "how was your day?" will just keep forming in time. I agree with Sue, though - all children learn manners gradually over time and can't be expected to be perfect socialites immediately.

I guess I think the most appropriate way to teach manners is to model them in our conversations with other people and with our children... is that naive?

Mouse said...

I agree with others that Bub's still at a point where coaching is acceptable. With Scooter, we've done enough coaching and scripting that he's very good at please, thank you, and you're welcome and getting better at hello and goodbye. He's pretty good at introducing himself, although his articulation issues mean we usually have to repeat his name for others. He picked this up in a variety of places: two different daycares, home, and social playgroups. That last one especially gave him scripts to handle common situations.

For the question-answering issue, I found that Scooter frequently has needed time at the end of the school day to unwind. A lot of our trips home would be very quiet for about 10 minutes--he would even shush me or ask to have the radio off. And then he would be willing to talk. I've been glad that he can recognize when he needs that space and I figure that he'll later learn how to deal with situations where he can't have that space.

Swistle said...

I have a reluctant-to-respond child who sometimes seems to even get STUCK in his non-responding. I don't want to force him, either, but--as you point out--silence is not a socially acceptable response to a query, and is interpreted badly.

What I've started doing is saying (after a non-response), "You don't have to tell me about it if you don't want to. But you may not ignore me, either. You could say, 'I'd rather not talk about it right now.'" Or I say some variation on this--it's not a SCRIPT. Basic idea is that first I assure the child that he doesn't have to "share" with me. Then I point out that he may not respond with silence. Then I suggest a possible polite reply.

Teah said...

I keep going back to Bub's sincere "Thanks!" at the doorway of the mall. I certainly hope the gentleman heard the sincerity, and will treasure it - had he any idea the rarity of these...glimpses, I think he would understand why that one "Thanks" was worth a thousand of the emptier options.

Nora Bee said...

Manners are a great foundation, but connecting to others through sincere displays of emotion, now that's what life is all about.

JCK said...

I think you have to be the most articulate blogger I read. Always, always something to think about. Just had to say that.

I relate a lot to your stories about Bub as my son had speech and some developmental delays and now recently his daycare teacher is concerned that he might have some auditory processing issues... or not. So, we're having him reevaluated. It is hard to figure out if sometimes he doesn't respond by choice or if he isn't taking it in.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

What a timely post! Thanks so much.

Today my son was denied kindergarten recess because when the teacher's aide told him to do something, he not only didn't do it, but he didn't acknowledge that she'd asked. Son, I said, what's up with that? Well Mom, he replied, I was going to do what she wanted, but I needed to hang up my coat first.

This is a dilemma my son faces all the time. He was trying to follow the rules -- he was supposed to hang his coat first thing -- and IF HE'D SAID SOMETHING the aide would've said oh, I get it, I'll wait. But because he didn't acknowledge her, he was in big trouble.

My son isn't autistic, but he's an extremely poor communicator. And I have no idea how to teach him to communicate -- I have, in fact, enabled him (just as you describe).

Let me know when you figure this one out!

Grilled Pizza said...

Just wanted you to know that i really enjoy reading your blog, we are trying for a baby at the moment and you have definitely given me an insight into what it will be like if we succeed and when they are older.
I think you are doing a great job x

ewe are here said...

Manners are tough, and I'll admit that I was thankful that Ramekin's nursery program has done a really nice job of instilling some lovely manners in him. We get lots of happy 'oh thank yous', etc., But, like you say, I want my boys to have them and answer my questions, but I also want them to want to tell me things and share their day.

Beck said...

Manners are HARD. The Girl, who is quite shy, will NOT respond to adults who say hello to her. She just won't, regardless of our cajoling/bribing/begging/threatening/pleading - and she is a child who normally has quite nice manners, but put her on the spot and she freezes. It's HUMILIATING for me.
She does write thank you letters, though, and as a result, gets way too many presents

Maggie said...

I really like what Swistle said about giving him the option not to share (and teaching how to express that). I know I wouldn't like to be forced to recount my day to someone all the time. And as a former preschool teacher, I think it's kind of odd that his teacher is referring to the exchanging greetings almost as a disciplinary matter; certainly it's something you want to continue to emphasize, but I don't think it enters the "battle" realm. I get what you're saying about not wanting to be overly enabling, but this is such a normal thing for a preschooler that in my opinion it could be approached with some mellowness and a little more sense of fun, with a better result.

Bon said...

fascinated by this entire conversation. as a child, i was trained to be social and polite to an extreme degree, to the point where i have great difficulty withdrawing even when i actually need to, and would just die inside if i didn't send the damn thankyou cards. i don't want to turn my child into the trained seal i was expected to be...and yet, i do think manners matter. and we are beginning to find our way into what i can see could easily become a battleground, as O approaches two.

i really like what Swistle said. and your distinction between genuine communication and the rote stuff. much to chew on.

um, thank you. thanks. really.

Susanne said...

My son talks endlessly but has been ignoring questions a lot lately. He, too, only wants to talk about what's on his mind on his own terms. I'm trying to teach him to say, "I don't want to talk about this now." or "Can we talk about something else, please." or something like that. Basically I try to teach him that it is rude to ignore people but that he is free not to talk about things too.

gretchen said...

So many times, with my autistic son, I feel that I am "breaking his spirit" just to get him to parrot something back to me. It is probably just my too-soft motherly heart, but I often let him do things on his own terms and I don't want to apologize for that.

Jen said...

Like others who have commented, I have a shy kid. He also hates being put on the spot, so if the expected nicety doesn't come out naturally, and people are looking at him, he freezes right up. :-p

We have worked on the friendly wave (look at person, faint smile, wave) as a poor, but okay substitute for saying hello or goodbye. Unlike his brothers, he responds REALLY well to a sticker chart, too. We made one for saying hello, goodbye, please, thank you, sorry without prompting. He ate it right up. Unfortunately, while it had some lasting effect, it definitely didn't cure it. Probably time to do it again, in fact. I just make a grid, and use the pictures I've cut off of those free address labels that come in the mail as stickers. He works to fill up the grid and then gets to watch a special movie or something at the end.

I agree with everyone that it's the acknowledgement that's important -- letting people know you heard, etc. I also heartily agree that any direct questions right after preschool/school (or I can attest, middle or high school, too) just set kids on edge. You can ask how something specifically went, if you know there was an activity, or ask something like was the story good today, but really? Just chatting yourself and not asking (or asking later) gets you a lot more info!

Marla said...

I love how Josephine questions why we have certain manners - "Why do I have to be polite to that person just because they decided to talk to me?", and I agree with her because I too am rather introverted and find it draws a lot of energy to respond politely. So, part of me wants to defend her, because she's right. Just because a stranger speaks up and compliments her hat (that was a gift, that she's forgotten she's wearing, that she didn't even choose to wear most likely), interrupting some reverie, now she has to engage?! And I just hope to avoid the stink-eye you get from having an almost four year old who looks like she's six.

Alas, such is life. And my mom taught me my manners with a wooden spoon at home, and pulling my hair in public.

One thing we do is to coach Josie in the car on the way to and from events, and to draw ourselves away and re-frame the next stage. Like, on the way to a birthday party on Sunday, we worked on the greetings. We withdrew to use the washroom before we left, and practiced a goodbye. I like to try to avoid having to prod her right there and then, because I remember dreading that as a kid.

I will say though - what really undoes the hard work is when adults don't take the time to really listen. Josie was thanking someone for a present yesterday, and he talked right over her - and she was frustrated and hurt and bewildered. I didn't ask her to go through the "Thank you for choosing such nice gifts for me" again. We talked about that all the way home.

I always enjoy your posts.

Smiling Mama said...

This is so important but so hard, isn't it? I know I've been trying to use my very best manners just to be an example hoping it will all just sink in!

Thy said...

Wonderful post! I have been thinking a lot about manners when it comes to child rearing. On one hand manners are a very important thing to teach to give your child access to society, but on the other hand teaching said manners seems to involve some very rude behaviors on the teacher’s part. Forcing somebody to share or not fulfilling someone’s request since it was not phrased right? Or even worse forcing insincere apologies or making a child accept that slobbery kiss from aunty? I honestly don’t know how to get around it!

MAGIRK said...

I wholeheartedly agree with you.

Niksmom said...

Wow, this is great food for thought! Nik is non-verbal so the speaking bit is a non-issue at this point. But I try to be really mindful of the enabling or excusing of inappropriate behavior too much. Interstingly enough, it is Niksdad who often doesn't respond right away when I sak him a question or say somethign which would normally elicit a response. I often ask if he heard me...he has but he's trying to formulate a response. Jennifer's (ponderosa) story about her son and recess really hit home...

wheelsonthebus said...

"His compliance is often purchased with some kind of face-saving concession - something that allows him to believe that he's in charge. I'm not sure, myself, whether that's a good or a bad thing. "

I would say it is a pretty normal thing. For all children (except the ones in Stepford).

nomotherearth said...

This post is timely for me in several ways. First, I am a person that does thank you cards - not because I want to, but because I was forced (um, taught) to by my mom. Now I think it's just a nice thing for people to get actual snail mail. BUT, an in-law just called and asked why I hadn't done my Christmas thank you cards yet and I was floored. Floored and furious. Rude, much?

Secondly, I'm having great trouble getting the Boy to respond to me at all, much less tell me about his day. I will be checkign back for suggestions. I like Swistle's.

bubandpie said...

This is so fascinating. I don't think I realized how many of us come into the world with a built-in disinclination to respond to people's questions and remarks. And yes, Swistle rocks - it really hadn't occurred to me that choosing not to share can be a polite response. Poor Bub was trying to be polite yesterday, meeting each inquiry with an increasingly insistent, "No thanks" (followed by a less polite but more clear "Don't question me!"). Yup - my own manners could use some work, as I'm sure Bub can attest.

Julie Pippert said...

Oh how complicated.

I still coach my two.

I joke it involves a lot of (specific) prayer. ;)

I think, honestly I do, that some will simply do it when prompted or forced until some magic moment of understanding dawns, and the empathy checks in, weighing, finally, more than the selfishness.

And some will perhaps never quite understand the need.

And all of us need to keep in mind that good manners does not a good person make. There are many other qualities.

I will take genuine any day, too.

Luisa Perkins said...

The balance between sincerity and politesse--something most adults can't even master.

I think my kids are pretty polite on the whole, but I find myself still coaching my 14-year-old once in a while.

Laural Dawn said...

I've gotta tell you, sometimes my son also refuses to answer questions like that. I have no idea why.
I let it go when I can.
I figure the stubbornness will get him places that my pliability will not get me.
Rudeness, not okay.
I agree though. the enthusiastic politeness rocks!

Jenn said...

I would rather have one sincere "thanks" than one thousand robotic "thank you's".

Follow your heart, mama--you know what is right, and you will pass it along.

a beaverhausen said...

I SO want my kids to say "please" and "thank you". Even if it means they do it only because they know it's expected in polite society. However, you know you've hit the jackpot when they do it out of sincerity...when they really, really mean it. I know exactly what you mean.

Merle said...

Being polite is a social construction. It involves memorizing a set of social rules for responding and buying into their importance. But what is their importance to a person with ASD? The person who is much preoccupied by their own interests and much less by the people around them.

Social niceites are really not much difference than the ability to make small talk. Small talk really means nothing. (Yes, we both can see it's raining outside. Why is it so important to comment upon it?) But small talk, like manners, help us reaffirm that others are important. That we respect and care about them. That we appreciate them.

Bub is four. And I would guess that he struggles to buy into the socially constructed meaning of manners. Having ASD he may struggle for a long time. How do you help a four year old understand that his refusal to respond hurts the person he is supposed to be communicating to? How do you convince him that this hurt he has caused is important enough that he should expend effort to change his natural inclinations? Why should he submit his will to your guidance, change who he is and say all those words that society has deemed he should say?

I think the answers are twofold. First, I would expect that as he grows, the social world will become more important. He will find he wants to have friends, he wants to fit in and he hates that he unintentionally hurts people. It is then that he will be motivated. Then all the social rules you know can be imparted expicitly. He will want to memorize them in order to function better in the world. But that will take time. He won't buy into the social constructions for a while yet.

In the meantime, you are already doing what is necessary. You teach him and model to him compassion. You teach him to love himself. You model genuine manners to both him and others. Your story of the heartfelt thank you shows that he does know. When he is motivated by honest emotion, he does respond and connect.

But that is what was missing from the car ride. He didn't want to talk. Perhaps, he did need to process the day before he spoke. Perhaps, he simply didn't care much about his day or remember. Perhaps, he was simply grumpy. And I agree with Swistle that it may be important for Bub to learn a simple response to say he doesn't want to talk. But above all, it is important to understand that he doesn't buy in yet. To him, it is useless chatter. I have a guess that pushing the issue too hard, given where he is, will simply fustrate both of you. Instead I would suggest encouragement, guidance, couching and finding ways to help him to save face. And hold on for now to those moments when he does respond with honest, genuine care for others. And trust that his doing so is an amazing accomplishment for a four-year-old with ASD.

slouching mom said...

jack has attended the same preschool/kindergarten since he was two years and nine months old. fast forward three years and a month to this October, when jack said, "Hi, Miss Kassie!" as he walked into her classroom.

It was the FIRST time he'd ever been able to do that.

the new girl said...

This is a fascinating discussion. My nephew is 18 mos. old and they are just now introducing those 'polite' words.

I think it's hard for all kids to see the benefit of taking the extra step and so it's not something that sticks in their minds initially.

I also like what Swistle said and say things like that to the kids I treat, even. It is very helpful to them (I think) to know that there is a boundary and that they don't have to 'tell me everything' just because I am an adult and I've asked them a question. But, still, I deserve the same respect that I give them because I'm a person too.

KAL said...

I'm with you on this one. Half the time when I ask Sam a question, he will ignore me completely. I know that he definitely has trouble processing language - but sometimes answers come tumbling out and it's perfect.

Marla said...

Wow - Merle's comment is brilliant!

Angela said...

You will find a balance
You know your child.

the end of motherhood said...

Sincerity is at the heart of true manners - all the rest is fakery.

Jaelithe said...

Well, expecting a kid Bub's age, even a kid with average social skills, to answer questions and return greetings every single time is I think a little unreasonable. I am sure that most of the kids in Bub's class DO usually answer the teacher's questions and return her greetings, but school is a different environment than home; many children will do things for a teacher that they won't do for their own parents; Bub's refusal to answer as the other kids do MAY have something to do with autism, but it may be, too, that Bub just doesn't like to bow to authority, and that is not necessarily a BAD trait, just a difficult one to grow up with ;)

That said, it is important to teach children polite conversational behavior. When my own son will not answer a question I have asked him, I don't DEMAND that he answer, for the same reasons that you don't demand answers from Bub. Instead, I say, "It's rude not to answer when your mother asks you a question. It hurts my feelings when you are rude to me." If he continues to ignore me after that, I say, "I don't like the way you're treating me right now. If you don't want to talk to me right now, you can play by yourself, and I'll go do something else."

This way I am A.) Telling him his behavior is rude, B.) Telling him WHY rude behavior is bad (it hurts people's feelings) and C.) Demonstrating the consequences of rude behavior (people will not want to be around you if you are rude). All without raising my voice or making demands.

It usually works.

kittenpie said...

To be honest, I insist on getting SOME answer, even if it's something inane or avoid-ish, like, "I don't remember," or "I don't know." Because you're right, ignoring someone is just rude on its own.