Now, what do you say?

Zoe is getting pretty well-versed in sign language. For the past several weeks she has been signing “cat” and “where” and pointing to the door.

I still can’t figure out what she means. Whatever it is, it is obviously important to her because she keeps saying it over and over.

Anyways, I had a friend over today who kept trying to get Zoe to sign “please” for some food.

“You won’t have any luck with that,” I piped up. “I haven’t taught her the signs for ‘please’ or ‘thank you’.”

“Veena! You haven’t even taught her basic manners?”

Nope. No, I haven’t. Nor do I plan to even when she can speak.

Why do we say “please” and “thank you” anyway? Social expectation is the obvious answer, but what is the real ideal behind these words? The idea is to be kind and grateful.

Now answer me this: do you honestly think a 16 month old child can understand the concept of gratitude? You know, Zoe is a pretty remarkable person and I know that she does feel and express kindness—in her own way. She spontaneously kisses me. She freely shares her food and toys. It’s a pretty neat thing to watch.

One of the main reasons Zoe can afford such kindness is that I am not forcing it on her at every turn. I don’t yank her hands out of her toys ever. I don’t harp on her to share. I just let her be and allow her to explore her graciousness towards others at her own pace. In consequence she’s remarkably more giving than other children her age. She feels safe.

That applies to expressing kindness in any way and it also applies to gratitude. First off, I don’t believe there is any way Zoe could understand the concept of gratitude, not do I believe it is her responsibility. She’s a toddler, for Christ’s sake. They’re programmed to just take and take and take. It’s practically in their job description. And whenever Zoe does become capable of understanding the concept of gratitude, I want her to bask in that feeling. It’s a beautiful, divine feeling that inspires happiness and a feeling of wealth.

I do not want her to feel a crushing sense of obligation and an annoyance in waiting for my line: “Now what do you say??” three milliseconds after anything nice happens to her. I want her to enjoy the nice thing. I want her heart to swell with appreciation. I don’t have any need to make her beholden to me or any other adult who might be temporarily gratified by interacting with a polite child.

Zoe, any day I would much rather you be happy than polite. I also have confidence that when you are happy, you will be polite, but also much more; you’ll be a loving person. You’ll have genuine concern for the welfare of others. This I know to be true. I’ve seen it in my life and in countless others.

If we withhold food and toys from our kids, we can train them to say anything. We could probably train them to say “Fuck you, you motherfucker” on command. Or we could train them to say “please” and “thank you.” In the first case, no one would actually believe that our little darlings have suddenly become filled with that much anger and spite. Nor in the second case are they filled with gratitude and understanding.

For those of you believing that you’d end up with rude child, au contraire, mon Capitan. I offer the example of my best friend who has actually raised her kids this way. They are the sweetest, happiest, and most polite kids I know. And although this is not ever the goal, they actually say “please” and “thank you” a lot more than anyone would ever think to say it because they really are grateful for so much.

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