09/28/2011 11:53 am ET | Updated Nov 28, 2011

Say Hello, Please, Thank You!


Here I am in Paris having breakfast with my dearest friend Vanina and her husband and adorable two-and-a-half-year-old boy Laurent. Great food, great place, great friends. All would be fine and dandy if it weren't for these darned obsessive interruptions from my beloved friend and husband constantly requesting little Laurent to, "Say hello," "Give a kiss," "Give a hug," "Say please," "Say thank you," "Say bye-bye," "Give a bigger kiss."


It's like a pestering cymbal that keeps crashing in the middle of a symphony. At every corner this kid gets tripped up with a behavioral command for each and every circumstance, much like a puppy being trained with, "Sit," "Lie down," "Roll over," "Now beg." Watching this conditioning of the child to have automatic responses and reactions to everything is not so much exasperating as it is alarming to me, especially when that's pretty much the only kind of interaction I witness between him and his parents. Earning a bite of food requires "the magic word," a trip to the bathroom prompts a "Say please to the waiter," the attention or interaction of strangers induces a recurring "Say hello," and so on.

Meanwhile, I'm actually starting to be slightly self-conscious about my own etiquette here, making sure to increase the my frequency of "Please" and "Thank you," in fear of being scolded myself!

For everything that's happening at the table, little Laurent is systematically asked to say something, as to punctuate, underline, and highlight the whole moment, and both parents beam with pride every time their puppet boy has the right reflex, even if, most of the time, he seems to have no understanding whatsoever of what he's repeating.

I'm becoming aware of the controlling nature of the interaction and the lack of intimate dialogue, and get the sense he's feeling it as well: he's getting more and more agitated and is craving attention.

Now he wants to sit next to me.

Mom jumps in: "What do we say?"

Laurent, immediately: "Please?"

Me: "Yes, of course, please do!"

Mom, swiftly: "Now what do we say?"

Laurent, pronto: "Thank you!"

He climbs into the chair next to me, and I'm thinking that he should be off the hook for a while now, as he's clearly filled his hourly quota of good manners. Fat chance there! I forgot that he never greeted me with the required, "Hello," when we first met earlier, to the great disappointment of his parents who even now, hours later, are still trying to yank it out of him. Sure enough, as soon as he's somewhat settled, he gets another push to redeem himself when dad goes, "And now can you say 'Hello?'"

That's it!

Now I can't help but step in and trying to counterbalance this sterile training-thing with a little humanity, understanding, and affectionate dialogue. After all, I'm in the scene now and I feel a sense of responsibility in the matter.

I turn towards little Laurent. I look into his big blue eyes and say:

"It's okay. You don't know me. I understand if you're not ready to say hello to me just yet. Don't worry about it. Take your time."

This seems to work well for all parties involved, as I don't hear any protests from anyone, and we all dive back into conversation. Good. Small milestone reached.

Well, not really.

Soon enough, Vanina asks for another "Thank you" after I order the fried eggs Laurent prefers instead of the scrambled they have on the buffet, so I quickly jump in before she asks again as he missed that last one, and say enthusiastically, "This is great! I'm so glad I ordered exactly what you like! Let's eat!" -- hoping this will do the trick. But no, I can't stop her. She cannot be stopped. She still goes on fishing for that "Thank you."

My friend Vanina knows I love her pieces and she also knows I say what I mean and mean what I say, truthfully, to the point of being blunt. So I go for it. I ask her why. Why this compulsive obsession with their son's automated responses. She explains how important it is for her that he learns good habits and that he be polite, kind, and respectful, blah-blah-blah. I listen to her whole speech, which is, in itself, legitimate. From where I stand though, he's too young to have a real grasp of any of those concepts. All he's doing is being obedient simply to avoid the disapproving looks from his parents.

At the end of her explanation she asks if I'll share my thoughts with her. I say, "Sure! What's the magic word?" She laughs. Good. I'm on safe ground.

"You're being so diligent," I say, "but he's very young. Obedience is very different from genuine politeness." She asks me how to make him polite and kind.

"Stop trying to make him. Inspire him instead or he will miss the meaning. Thank him when he does something you're grateful for." I remind her that she's not programming an electronic device on which you just press a specific button to get a specific response.

"Since kids learn from our conversations with them, engage, talk, ask questions, point out things that will lead them to feel thankful before you demand the words 'Thank you.'"

Vanina looks interested. I keep talking.

"If Laurent is polite or kind simply to avoid your disapproving look, then his politeness is not a genuine expression who he is and how he feels."

Vanina listens intently and asks me for advice about how to deal with other people's judgments when Laurent fails to say the magic words as he's expected to.

"Get your priorities straight. Who are you training him for? Is it for his benefit? Or for yours, so you can gain approval for your performance?"

By now, Laurent is back at the table. The waiter drops off some bread. Vanina looks at Laurent and says nothing. She looks at me, smiles, and says, "Thank you."

Making kids say "Thank you" only to avoid getting a disapproving look is one thing. Inspiring them to appreciate things and be thankful is a totally different ball game.

Four ideas for inspiring good manners and kindness in a young child:

  1. When someone is kind and polite with the child, point it out. You can say something like, "Did you see how sweet that lady was and how happy you made her feel? She said "Thank you" to you because she was so grateful and she wanted you to know it." Or, "Hey, wasn't it nice how that waiter just said hello to us?"
  2. When the child initiates politeness, notice and acknowledge it. "I really loved when you thanked me. It made me feel good."
  3. Ask the child how they feel when someone is kind to them. Teach them to recognize their feelings.
  4. When you play with them, find various reasons to thank them. "Thank you so much for giving me a puzzle piece that fits right in." "Thank you for letting me play with your favorite doll."