Jennifer Lehr recently published a piece in the Wall Street Journal that ruffled my feathers. Titled, "The Wrong Way to Speak to Children," Lehr's essential argument is that when we do things such as reminding our children to say thank you, we're encouraging their compliance and taking away their autonomy. Rubbish!
Lehr's advice is dangerous. If parents take the article at face value they'll stop asking and expecting their children to say thank you or I'm sorry, share their toys, or behave themselves. It's not modern day etiquette as the author describes -- it's good old-fashioned manners. There is already an epidemic of badly behaved children in the world. Half the children I see speak in a disrespectful manner to their parents, are poorly behaved, and can't sit through a meal without an iPad or phone for entertainment. With advice like Lehr's, those numbers will only grow.
Lehr wrote, "As psychologists like to point out, children who learn to defer to the preferences of grown-ups risk losing touch with their own." I agree, but there are many ways you can let children have their own preferences: what sports they play, who their friends are, what they'd like to wear, the list goes on. There are plenty of opportunities to teach them that their feelings are important without condoning poor manners. There are just some rules that are non-negotiable.
Lehr wrote that her daughter seemed kowtowed when she was reminded to say "thank you for having me over" after a playdate. At the age of four, your child shouldn't need a reminder and if she does, there's nothing wrong with gently giving her one. Lehr went on to write, "I know how I'd feel if my boss said, 'Jennifer, can you thank Keith for listening to our presentation?' I'd feel demeaned and resentful." Of course you would -- you're an adult and hopefully know to how say thank you. I'm sure you encourage your child to eat her broccoli but wouldn't ask your coworker to eat his greens. Lehr's logic doesn't hold up because we're not talking about adults -- we're talking about children who rely on us to teach and model good behavior.
When you remind your child to use her manners, you're not raising her to be compliant, you're raising her to know how to carry herself in the world. Manners are not just about having a perfectly polite child; they raise the issue of respect versus entitlement. Take the playdate, for example. It's not just a simple "thank you for having me," it's the child acknowledging that: 1) someone went out of their way to extend an invitation and open their home; 2) it's not a given -- they're not entitled to the playdate; and 3) they are thankful.
I agree that you should always respect your child's dignity. I would never ask a child to hug someone else, as it's her body and her choice. And if your child misbehaves, I would never encourage shaming or embarrassing her. Simply pull her to one side and talk about her behavior. Lehr advises that, if your child forgot her "thank you," that you talk to her afterwards. I disagree. The best time to teach a child is in the moment. If you wait until you've left the playdate to talk about manners, not only have you missed the window, it's simply not good enough.
We're raising children today to think the world revolves around them, and while that may be the case while they're under your roof, that is not the case when they step into the big wide world. It's a tremendous disservice to your child. It's not about compliance and obedience so much as it's about raising a child to be kind, empathetic, well-mannered and grateful. It's about raising a well-rounded, wonderful individual. It's about giving them the tools they need to succeed without you.
Emma Jenner is a childhood development, sleep and behavior expert and the author of Keep Calm and Parent On: A Guilt-Free Approach to Raising Children by Asking More from Them and Doing Less (Atria)
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