I was reflecting the other day on some of the social niceties that we teach out kids - out of habit more than anything - for instance, saying "please" when we ask for something. Alfie Kohn, a well known writer on issues of parenting, education, and human behavior, has pointed out that in most cases saying please is simply a meaningless ritual, an automatic trained response, and that the only reason to teach kids to say it is because others expect and will think you rude if you don't. In other words, there is no intrinsic reason to say please. It doesn't mean anything anymore.

I was thinking about this and basically Kohn is right. In today's world "please" doesn't mean anything. In fact, if anything, we teach it to kids simply as a way of adding emphasis - "pleeeeaaase, mommy" - that it's the "magic word" which, if they say it, automatically makes it more likely that the adult will have to give in and give them what they want.

However, it wasn't always like this. At one time saying please had a very specific meaning, and it's purpose was actually the opposite of manipulating others into doing what you want. Consider the original phrase: "If you please" (from the French, si vous plait) or "if it pleases you". What does it mean to put an "if you please" on the end of a request? Well, quite literally you are acknowledging the free will of the giver and respecting their right to say no. Rather than simply demanding that another person bend to your will and give you what you (which is how most children have learned to use the word "please"), "if you please" is a way of saying "Listen, only if you want to. You don't have to and I recognize that I don't have the right to command you." In other words, in its original form saying "please" is a sign of respect for the equality and freedom of other people, and a way of recognizing their actions towards you as a gift and not an obligation.

But I doubt that many children these days would understand it as such, and that is our fault as parents as much as anything. How many of us instruct our children on why we say "please" beyond simply telling them that it's "polite" or that it's the "magic word"? I know that I hadn't thought of it in that way before nor presented it that way to my daughter either. But imagine how formative it could be to teach our children to respect others as equals and free agents, and not simply as servants intended to fulfill our every whim. Imagine what it would be like to teach our children to treat receive everything in life as a gift and not simply as an entitlement. Hopefully some of us already are. I know it's something I want to do better and more consistently. Perhaps explaining the true meaning of "please" is a good place to start.
posted by Mike Clawson at 9:37:00 AM |


At December 24, 2007 at 8:20 PM, Blogger Maria

I don't know that the pre-school crowd can make much of the idea of the other person (especially when that person is a parent) is a free agent. Of course, I tend to redouble my efforts to teach basic etiquette when I get tired of being ordered around like the lowest grunt in the Army. For me it comes down to respect. I don't want my kids barking orders at people, least of all at me!


At December 26, 2007 at 11:10 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

You're probably right Maria, I don't think most pre-schoolers are going to grasp the concept of free-agency. But I'd rather give them the true answer to the question of why they should say please, and hope they'll understand it eventually, than give them a false answer that will be misleading to them down the road.

Also, as I think about it, you actually just might be able to explain free agency to pre-schoolers as long as you put it in their terms (like don't use the words "free agency"). You could explain that we ask people to do things, we don't tell them they have to; and that if we ask someone, we have to let them know it's okay for them to say "no", and that if they do say "no" we won't be mad, and that's why we say "please".


At December 27, 2007 at 8:31 AM, Anonymous Jenn

We also have to remember to "model" what we are striving for. It's hard to expect our children to do it if we don't. We have friends who take the social "niceties" to the extreme (IMO), insisting that their children do the whole "May I please have....?" and they don't get said item until it's phrased in this way. Unfortunately, I've never been spoken to that way by the very people enforcing these manners! Just some food for thought.


At December 27, 2007 at 11:26 AM, Blogger Emily

Richard Foster wrote about politeness in Celebration of Discipline, in the chapter about service. This and some of the other subtle acts of service (such as "guarding the reputations of others") have been instructive to me. His point is just what you're saying, that we acknowledge the dignity and humanity of the "other" when we form a pattern of considerate behavior.

Thanks for the encouragement to make the reason for our behavior clear to our kids from the start. And I am so thankful for a co-parent who helps me model respectful and considerate behavior and speech. I have found myself a little confused about how to avoid modeling a bit of demanding speech, however. Do I send the wrong message when I first ask "Please come here and put your shoes on" and then it all spirals into "I'm not asking you anymore, I am telling you. . ."?


At December 27, 2007 at 1:51 PM, Blogger Julie

Jenn - I does bug me when I see parents insist that their children say certain words but then never say it themselves. Or to insist their kids immediately respond positively to their demands, but get upset if their children model those demands right back at them.


At December 27, 2007 at 5:54 PM, Anonymous Jenn

Emily- there are definitely times when we need them to get their shoes on. I try to phrase it in a respectful yet not optional way. "Get your shoes on, please." If they are not wanting to, not listening, etc. I then put the option of "are you going to put them on by yourself or do you want me to help you?" This approach works well for us and they are still having some control over how it gets done.
Julie- I have seen it get to the point where said friends use the whole "listen and obey" line and I just about want to crawl out of my skin....