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!"
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
How do you teach a kid manners?