My mom taught me that the worst thing you can be is a ‘phony.’ Like my mother, I value authenticity, and I hope my own children will always have the self-confidence to show their true selves to others and act the way they feel. I also hope that, as members of society, my kids have the kind of pleasant manners that make them desirable companions.
The infants and toddlers I spend time with in my parenting classes are just beginning to learn accepted social behavior and graces. In the meantime, I enjoy their unbridled authenticity.
Asa is an active, agile one-year-old. He almost never stops moving and has a wry sense of humor that is more evident each week. In a recent class we had the pleasure of a grandmother’s visit. Grandma Anne was attending for the first time. She sat with us as we observed her granddaughter and the other children interacting and thoroughly exploring the room. Suddenly, towards the end of the 90-minute class, Asa turned to Anne, extended his arm in the air and waved a big “Hi!” The spontaneous greeting took us all by surprise, since Asa had been focused solely on activity until that moment and had not acknowledged Anne’s presence earlier.
A few minutes later, the parents and I compared the value of Asa’s exuberant salute to the more dutiful greeting a child might give in response to a parent’s prompting. We all agreed that Asa’s honest gesture was preferable to a thousand adult-initiated toddler ‘hellos.’
I understand a parent’s wish to raise a child with good manners, and we all want our children to know the basics: “Hi,” “Bye” and “Thank you.” Our children’s public behaviors feel like a giant reflection on us, both as people and as parents. When someone greets our baby, we worry that the person might feel rebuffed if the baby does not respond in kind. Even though this fear is usually unfounded, most of us believe our child’s social emotional development is more important than the possible ruffled feathers of others. How do we best teach children to be polite and caring, while also encouraging their authentic responses?
The answer is to trust and model.
Trusting the child means appreciating his or her simple, honest reaction to a situation, rather than wishing for more. It is common for parents entering my class to say to their baby, “Say ‘Hi’ to Janet, or “Say, ‘Bye-bye’!” when the class is over. More often than not, the baby is looking me in the eye and telling me those things in his own age appropriate way. The look of acknowledgement communicated through a child’s eyes is infinitely more valuable to me than a parent waving a child’s hand, or telling the child to wave his hand. When a baby does have the impulse to wave on his own, or when an older baby spontaneously says “Hi” or “Bye” to me, it’s icing on the cake.
A child imitates the adults in his life, so parents teach best by modeling the manners they want the child to learn, then trusting the child to incorporate those responses into his social repertoire when he is ready. When a baby first waves, he will often wave towards himself, since that is what he sees. This backwards wave represents a brief moment of time in a baby’s life, before he learns the ‘right’ way. Now that my children are older I truly appreciate the charm of a baby’s early efforts to socialize through imitation.
In our attempts to be good models for our children, we may find ourselves using the words ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ a bit more often. Wait, who’s teaching whom manners here?
It’s especially valuable to model “Thank you,” instead of the commonly used, “Good job,” when a child is cooperative or helpful. “Good job” is a reflexive response for parents, but it is the kind of praise that feels more like an authoritative (and slightly demeaning) stamp-of-approval than a response of appreciation. We help our child to grow authentically when we describe an accomplishment rather than praise it. “You put your foot through the pant leg yourself. Thank you for helping to put on your clothes.” A gracious acknowledgement helps to keep a child in touch with the intrinsic reward of his accomplishments, rather than training him to perform for praise and approval. (When our arms are full of groceries and someone holds the door for us, we don’t say ‘good job.’)
Even when we have modeled graciousness for a child, we must still find the patience to wait for him to find his own motivation to show gratitude. If we force him to mimic good manners, the child may begin to perform for approval only and not as an expression of his genuine feelings. Ultimately, we want our children to understand the words and greetings they are using. Realistically, most children cannot be expected to say “Thank you” (and mean it) until they are at least 4 or 5 years old.
I can relate to a parent’s impatience to hear a child express gratitude. I still worry that my eight-year-old son will forget those words and I occasionally ask him quietly, “What do you say?” or remind him, “Don’t forget to say, thank you.” But if I waited another moment or two, my son might say those words on his own without prodding. When I am on the other end of this scenario, as the host or helpful person, I know I would much prefer a child to look in my eyes, smile shyly, or do nothing at all, than perform a robotic “Thank you, Mrs. Lansbury.”
Our trust and patience are an investment in a lifetime of good manners motivated from within. Instead of prompting responses from our baby, we should try to relax, observe and enjoy our child’s natural reactions and expressions. We might be surprised by our child’s spontaneous displays of cheer and affection. And when we encourage the authentic development of social skills, we give our child permission to continually act from the heart.
When one-year-old Max entered the classroom during a recent parent/infant class, his friend, Jack, walked over and gently embraced him. I can’t imagine a more sincere “Hello.”
I share more practices that help raise children with respect and authenticity in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting (now available in Spanish and Chinese!)