Is it possible for children to grasp the concepts of gratitude and courtesy naturally, rather than repeating them in parrot-like fashion? Beth Cooper Howell looks at how it can be done.
Parenting expert Naomi Aldort, author of Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves, believes that we don’t need to teach our children manners. This, she says, is because our traditional approach to good manners is not the best way to raise authentically kind, well-adjusted people. Naomi explains that telling children to say “please” and “thank you” may work for you, but the words are meaningless for your child. Internally, the vocabulary of good behaviour doesn’t resonate with anything authentic – your child uses the required words in order to avoid your anger, please you and seek your approval.
The main problem with teaching manners, says Naomi, is that telling someone what to say or do is bad manners – and that is what children learn. “So many parents ask what to do about a child who is bossing them around. They wonder where the child learnt to be so controlling and why she has no manners,” says Naomi. “The answer is that the child is imitating the way she is being treated. She learns that life is about telling others what to do or say and about making them be the way she wants them to be.
“When treated lovingly and with respect, children will learn manners on their own because they want to live happily in society. Children emulate what they experience and what they observe, but in their own time.”
Naomi calls her approach to raising children “authentic parenting”.
If teaching a child manners doesn’t teach her to authentically feel and express gratitude, what is it that she could be learning instead?
Naomi says children learn that telling others what to say or do is “good manners” – they can’t trust themselves to know what to do, should obey instructions and always rely on authority figures for guidance. The result is insecurity, dependency, succumbing to peer pressure, consumerism and the inability to follow their own inner guide, she claims. “Children may also experience confusion and a sense of inadequacy if their true feelings conflict with what they are being told to do or say,” says Naomi. “Have you ever tried to apologise when you are sure you did nothing wrong, or express appreciation or gratitude when you don’t know for what?”
How can you teach your child manners without telling her what to do?
Naomi believes that parents should not manipulate their children, but rather express love and kindness towards them.
Teach your child to be grateful by expressing your own gratitude and respect. The way you treat your child teaches her how to be, while telling her what to say is actually disrespectful. Lead by example and allow your children to see you showing appreciation and treating others with kindness. “Children will assimilate what they see, hear and experience,” says Naomi. For your child to find learning manners pleasurable, she needs to see that you enjoy it. Uttering a phony “thank you” when a bank teller finally helps you isn’t authentic, because you’re actually feeling frustrated. Instead, display your authentic emotion and remain positive by saying, “I’m grateful that this situation is now resolved.”
It’s important to acknowledge your child’s feelings. If your child claims to “hate” her best friend, validate these feelings. Numbing negative emotions will result in numbing loving, kind and positive feelings too.
An attitude of gratitude
A top tip from Naomi is to bring gratitude into your daily life – and not only for the obvious things, such as a birthday present or because your child tidied up her toys. “We can demonstrate it throughout the day. I often say things like, ‘I’m so happy to have this wonderful house. I love this community. I’m so lucky to have you in my life.’ Feeling grateful develops positive awareness in kids – and is at the heart of naturally good manners,” she says.
When will they learn?
Children’s manners develop naturally at their own pace – much like walking and talking, says Naomi. “Children learn because they want to – we can’t force them to walk before they are ready and they can’t engage in adult conversation before their language ability has developed. Children become what they absorb around them. Be what you want them to become and treat them the way you wish them to learn to be with others.”
Authentic parenting in action
When children feel good about themselves, they generally participate and behave well because they want to, and because they enjoy interacting with you – not because you’re the “manners police”. Naomi relates a real-life situation from one of her clients:
A father was working in the garden while taking care of his four-year-old daughter. She went inside to pour herself a glass of milk, as she didn’t want to disturb him. When she spilled the milk, the father’s instinct was to shout at her about the mess, but instead, he took a deep breath and lead by example:
Dad: “I see that you had some milk all by yourself.”
Daughter (hesitantly): “Yes, and some of it spilled.”
Dad: “That happened to me the other day at Granny’s. I felt clumsy, but Granny gave me a towel and said it was easy to clean up.”
His daughter ran to the bathroom to fetch a towel and they cleaned up the mess together.
“It’s interesting to note that if a guest in your home spills milk, you say, ‘Don’t worry, never mind,’ and you clean it up,” says Naomi. “But when your child does the same thing, you have an emotional reaction and treat her with bad manners.”
In this case, the story ended well and the little girl felt good about herself because her dad validated her experience.
Beth Cooper Howell is a freelance journalist based in the Eastern Cape. She has a keen interest in holistic health and progressive parenting. She has written a book on breastfeeding, enjoys interviewing experts on cutting-edge parenting topics and believes that nothing beats being barefoot in the veld.