One afternoon, years ago, we were driving in the car, and my two year old daughter was in a particularly obstinate mood and decided to throw her blankie down on the floor in a great toddler rage. She proceeded to scream at me to pick it up and give it to her. There was no way I was going to give in to this toddler test, so I calmly turned back to her from the passenger seat and told her that I would be glad to pick it up for her if she asked me nicely, saying something along the lines of, “You need to ask Mommy to pick up the blanket, ‘please’.” I would like to say that she asked nicely right away, but unfortunately for all of us, this was not the case. She screamed and cried heartily for at least five minutes for me to pick it up. I kept turning back and saying, “Ask mommy nicely. You need to say please. I can’t hear your demanding voice,” etc.. She would not be swayed and it was brutal. Even my son was begging me to pick it up. After what seemed like a lifetime, she finally grudgingly said, “Mommy, will you pick up the blanket for me, PLEASE.” I handed it to her and gave her a smile.
My daughter grabbed the blanket, looked me in the eye, and promptly threw it back on the ground. We went through it all again, the demanding, the screaming, all of it.
Teaching my children manners has been like running the world’s longest marathon. It has been exhausting, frustrating, overwhelming- but completely worth it.
I think like all parents, I started my parenting journey without a real parenting plan. I kind of expected it would all come to me naturally, so I just tried to go with the flow. Suddenly (it seemed), I found myself with a tyrannical 2 year old and a baby, and my son was ruling the house. I had read a few tips here and there in parenting magazines about letting your kids come to good manners on their own- as if they will learn from osmosis. I specifically remember reading that parents forcing their children to say “please” and “thank you” will stifle their self-esteem and make them feel controlled. This seemed really off to me- but it made me pause. I didn’t want to stifle my child! I didn’t want to make him feel ruled and controlled!
I got over it. By the time Jonah was 2 years old, I had made a lot of mistakes and had to do a lot of back tracking. I know tantrums are normal, I know running away in the mall is normal, and I know demanding things is normal- but it is a nightmare to live with, and my job as a parent is to teach my kids that these things are not actually OK in the long term.
So how did I start? My husband and I looked at our son and tried to picture his teenage and young adult self, and tried to project our hopes for how he would be behaving towards authority at those ages, and went from there. Did I want him to be allowed to talk back and sass off? Of course not, so why should I let him at two years old? Did I want him to complain about the food placed in front of him at dinner? Definitely not. Did I want him to expect things to be given to him when he demanded it without asking nicely or responding with gratitude? No. Did I want him to whine when he didn’t get to do what he wanted or (big one) get what he wanted at the store? No.
Se we focused on these things, and formulated a plan.
Sassing and talking back- zero tolerance. This was probably the biggest one for me. If I allow my kids to disrespect me or my husband, I am showing my kids that I don’t value and respect myself. There is no room for it, no place for it. If they don’t like something, they can deal with it. If the kids said no to us, we disciplined them. Period. From very young. I think as parents this is really, really hard to do, because we want our kids to be able to express themselves, and it is hard to get a grasp on why it is important. For each of our kids, they kind of had to reach a breaking point- and it was equally painful each time. By nature, as humans we do not want to bow to authority- I think it is a survival instinct, and our sin nature. Children definitely do not want to admit that they are not Lord Of Everything. They believe it, and when that is tested, and really, torn down, it can be heart breaking. For each of our kids, it took time, a lot of tears, and a lot of needed reassurance from us as their parents. We had to explain that if they do not learn to respect and obey us, they will not know how to obey their teachers, their bosses, and “Mr. Policeman” someday. They won’t know how to be good spouses or friends. It starts with the first and most important authority figures in their lives- their parents.
One of the things we tried to make very clear, is that we did want to hear our kids’ opinions, just not at the moment of obedience. Obey first, ask questions later. For example, if I ask one kid to pick up the living room, even if it wasn’t all their toys, I want them to do it, when I ask them. They can explain later that it isn’t all theirs- that’s fine. Do it first, then we can talk about it. Sometimes we would even practice- kind of gave them a chance for a “do-over”. It really helps kids to practice how to do it the right way, not in the heat of the moment. Another thing that has really helped us in this area is my husband and I always try to back each other. If one of the kids is disrespectful to our spouse- we don’t stand for it. I think it shows an important respect for each other that the kids need to see- and reinforces the importance of it.
Food complaining. Big pet peeve. Table manners are a huge thing, and have taken FOREVER for us to get together. What did we do to alleviate gripes and complaining about food? Pretty simple. You complain, you don’t eat. We warned them, explained that it is rude to complain about food that is prepared for you, and told them if they say rude things, or make nasty faces, their plate gets taken away, and they don’t eat. It works- I promise. Don’t bend or give snacks later, no matter how much they cry. They will survive. We also explained some kind things you can say if you don’t like everything on your plate- such as, thanking the person for the things you did like, and then politely mentioning that maybe this wasn’t your favorite thing ever. It is cute to hear your kids try to explain nicely that they really didn’t like the split pea soup, but they liked the bread a lot (they still mention that soup). Time at the table is a really great time to work on manners in general.
Please and thank you- simple, basic, gratitude. I would like to conduct a study at Costco sometime, just counting how many people actually say thank you when they take a sample from those nice people preparing the little cups of juice or lasagna. Seriously- I never hear anybody say thank you, and it is SAD. So yes, I make my kids say it. I expect it, I remind them- and I also try to model it. Every day for years when I walked the kids to school I would make a point to thank the crossing guard. I didn’t ask the kids to do it, but now they do it without my asking. I love it. One of the things I have noticed about kids who say thank you, is that it shows a level of respect and confidence that really cannot be measured. As an adult you are immediately warmed to them. It sets them apart, and is a very important gift we can give our kids.
The other big manners issue is whining and demanding. The simplest thing that worked for us is to tell them that we couldn’t hear their demanding or whining voice- and made them try again (and again, and again, and again). I think this has been the hardest for me to be consistent with. Three kids can be overwhelming, and we easily fall back into old habits in this area. Our youngest has struggled the most with whining. With her we wound up having to take away things when she whined. A stuffed animal per whine is what we did (if you know her, you know how much she loves her stuffed animals). This actually worked pretty well- but it has been a tough road. But boy- long term, this is a big one. As I say to my kids, NOBODY likes a whiner or a demanding person.
Teaching our kids to be respectful, well mannered human beings is one of the best gifts we can ever give them. We are not loving them well if we are not strict with them. Maybe that makes me old fashioned, I don’t know. If it does, so be it.
If looking for resources, I recommend: Parenting with Love and Logic by Foster Cline and Jim Fay
“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” Hebrews 12:11
A harvest of righteousness and peace- that is what I’m after.