Little Cat is sitting on the floor at his grandparents house, flitting between his brand new bright yellow rescue helicopter – A toy he has been coveting for the past twelve months – and the full sized keyboard passed down to him by his uncle. This week he is turning four years old and as with many four year old’s, he has been excited about his upcoming birthday for quite some time.
His first reaction to his presents when he opened them five minutes previously, was one of immense seriousness. He held the helicopter up to the camera before silently getting to work investigating all the levers and buttons propellers, just as he had been dreaming of doing every time he had seen it in its box in the shop.
Perhaps somewhat controversially, I didn’t encourage or even suggest he thank his relatives for his wonderful gifts. Instead, I took a few photographs and we sat back quietly, letting him explore them in his own time.
He explored the settings on the keyboard. He played some tunes. He showed his Daddy how the winch on his helicopter worked, and he chatted away to himself in glee.
His Nana got up to make a cup of tea for everyone and then came back and sat down on the sofa. As she did, Little Cat looked up at her and said without prompting:
“Thank you so much for my presents Nana! I like them too much!”
He got up and gave her a kiss and a cuddle, before returning to his new gifts.
So how did we manage to instil such beautiful manners in him? And more importantly, how did we do it without prompting, bribery or punishments?
Part of the answer is in the above statement. Children are very intuitive, and when they feel that they are being coerced into doing something, they immediately put up their defences. If I asked him outright to say please or thank you to his relatives, he might say it begrudgingly, but more likely he would feel put on the spot and instead would clam up entirely. He may have been just about to thank them, but just as we adults hate being told to do something we were already planning to do, so to do children.
When we pressure them, they resist and we can never be sure if they are saying it out of genuine gratitude or just obligation. I would much rather hear those words when he knew he really meant them, than to condition him to thank me for every little thing without experiencing any real feeling behind what he is saying. (For the record, he was so excited by the present me and his Daddy got him that it took him two full days to take a break from playing with it long enough to thank us and tell us how grateful he was. We had clearly already seen how pleased he was, but it was so good to wait and hear from him just how happy he was when he was ready to tell us.)
So we don’t ask, don’t force and don’t persuade him to thank people.
What we do instead is model kind ways of speaking to one another. I must admit, this isn’t something we have done consciously. One of Little Cat’s first words was “Thank you,” and that is simply because I said it to him a lot. I don’t like baby talk and never said “Ta” to him in that condescending tone people like to use with babies. Instead, if he gave me something, I said thank you. As he grew older and began to help around the house, instead of praising him like a puppy, I thanked him.
Basically, I treated him with the appreciation and respect I would show anyone else.
This sweet little boy who is happy to show his thanks openly and fully without being coerced into doing so, is the result.
There are so many complicated “rules of parenting” the so called experts encourage us to follow. It gets overwhelming. Yet to raise polite, loving and helpful children, all we need to do is to give them respect, love and kindness in the first place. It is far more simple than so many would have you believe.
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