I often hear parents tell their kids, “Sweetie, can you say “Thank you” to that nice lady?” to which the kid usually responds in a sing-songy route, memorized, kinda way: “Thaaaaank Youuuuu.” No eye contact, no substance, just a well rounded, well-rehearsed phrase. Normally, most of us smile back with a “well done” head nod to the parent. Off the bat you would think this is a really nice thing to do and a nice exchange, we may think “ahhh here is a well mannered child” such a nice kid!” We also think training our kids to say “ please and thank you” promotes kindness and great social decorum. That is somewhat true but I am here to challenge this idea and ask you to think a little deeper.
My coin phrase when I do teacher training or as a consultant, is always “Think WHY you do what you do” I am always challenging adults interacting with Littles (2-6 year olds) to think in Toddlerese, and think long term, big picture. How does this translate into adulthood? At this stage, kids are not necessarily listening to your words, they are watching your mouth and taking emotional temperature in the room. The real superpower Littles have is translating intention and feelings. In this developmental stage (toddler and preschool years) their rational brain is forming, their emotional brain is the lead character and they walk around functioning mostly on an emotive level. Therefore they have very little distraction from the ‘cause and effect’ logical brain, they are probably more able than adults to move around and make intuitive emotional inventory of their surroundings. So I challenge you to think WHY we train our children to say “Please and Thank you” and WHY we always equate these polite phrases with being kind and being grateful.
Take the example above and think, What if your child didn’t want an extra serving of food, or maybe the supplies for the project that they didn’t want to do. We are missing the opportunity to allow them to practice honoring their inner voice by slapping an ‘I don’t care what you want, you just have to ACT grateful.’ And by the way, let me be super clear, this does not mean that we cannot teach our kids to be graceful and be kind in the way in which they express their needs and desires, this means we have to differentiate between real gratitude and grace and courtesy.
When we link gratitude with social decorum, we are missing the opportunity to plant seeds for a deeper future- one based on authenticity and not simply “looks” and fluff.
Human beings are social beings, we live in a society and as such we must learn to interact within our community and act in ways that make us contributing members of society. As such we must learn grace and courtesy, ways to be polite and courteous so that we can all have a more pleasant experience of living with each other.
Grace and Courtesy and Understanding Social Contracts
When my kids were in elementary school they didn't understand why they couldn’t curse in school when it was ok to curse at home (btw this rule was intentional for me as it taught a bigger theme in a very simple way.) Our rule was that we can use, almost, any word as long as it is not used to hurt someone else; telling someone that they are “stupid” is just as bad as telling them that they are an “a-hole,” it is the intent behind our words that matter. That being said we have to be respectful of the rules in place and if we choose not to be respectful of them, then we won’t have the benefit of interacting with others in that venue. This all translates to, you can say “poopy face” and laugh if you think the word is funny, but you cannot call someone else that word because it would be hurtful to them- and you are not allowed to say that in school because it can be disruptive to the class and it is the school’s rule that we must respect. When my kids were older, I used to say that you can say the F-word as much as you want to at home, “it doesn’t bother me, but if you use it with friends and in someone else’s home where it does bother them, then you might not be invited to play there again.” That translates into adulthood, you can scream and punch a pillow at home to self regulate, but if you do that at work you will probably not be allowed to work there anymore! We have to be really clear with our intention behind our actions AND understand that we all have different perspectives and rules and when we are somewhere where we don’t call the shots, we have to adhere to a social compromise and develop social contracts so that we can play well with others!
We start planting the seeds to this concept early on by pointing out what our family’s social contract (rules of polite behavior) is and what other’s social contracts may be. It is super important to start noticing our differences so that we can then be respectful of them and not constantly feel the need to challenge them. This way we can differentiate between our needs being met and acting in a way that helps meet the needs of others so that we can socially interact in harmony.
The best way to do this is by leading by example. We use words like “Please and Thank you” ourselves and we act kindly to all people even when we are in adversity- that means we are not pushovers or people pleasers, we are genuinely kind in our exchange with others. For example when getting bad service at a restaurant or over the phone, we calmly explain our stance and make a clear request for a change; there is never a need for using derogatory words or attacking language. We lead by example. And when we are frustrated we model self regulation behavior- like for example, we take deep breaths and express out loud our process. In the early years 2-6ish while the rational brain is still forming we (the adults in our Little’s lives) need to help them form the words that go with the emotion or process that we are experiencing. “Please and thank you” are words we use to express gratitude but it is not the gratitude itself.
Sometimes they are words we use as place holders to get out of a situation that we need to process (like when we really don’t want to be pushed into eating more and we say thank you just so that we are left alone. Or when we say “Please” because we feel guilty and not worthy of our request and use “Please” as an apology.)
True gratitude is an attitude. It is living with joy because we notice and celebrate the things that fill our souls. We are grateful when we see how lucky we are for what we have, we live in wonder and in reverence of the things and people in our lives.
Living with an attitude of gratitude is something we can pass on to our Littles by example. Live with appreciation, with reverence for the magic you can find in the smallest things. Children already live in wonder so maybe it is time we look at them to learn a thing or two about gratitude. Observe your Little’s wonderment over watching a sail leaving it’s trail on the ground as it travels as slow as molasses.
Attach words to those moments of wonderment. Ahhh I am so grateful for the warmth I am feeling on my face this morning. I love the sounds of the ocean, my dog's sounds when she snores, the warm cuddles in the morning, a cozy sweater on a crisp and cold day...By saying it aloud kids learn to attach the words/phrases to the feeling they are already having. One of the things that I love most about being a preschool teacher is that Gratitude is contagious and when I stop and observe my Little’s bewilderment and fascination with the world around us, I am reminded of it myself. Watch a child in awe of, let's say, the water trickling out of the faucet, and don’t tell me that you are not reminded to live with delight. That’s gratitude!
To equate the words used to be polite and an attitude of gratitude would be a disservice to our always watching Littles. We use kind words to interact in society- we say please and thank you as a form of grace and courtesy and to live well with others. We practice living with gratitude so that we have a better relationship with our souls.
“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of a thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” Gilbert K. Chesterton
Follow my instagram account Greenleaf_Montessori for practical ideas to implement both Grace and Courtesy as well as Gratitude in your daily lives.