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“Can I have a sticker?” asked the bright-eyed and lively five-year-old girl at the grocery store checkstand.

“Say ‘please’, honey,” admonished the girl’s mom.

“Please,” repeated the girl, suddenly subdued and almost inaudible.

Averting her eyes, the girl shyly took the sticker from the cashier.

“Say ‘thank you’”, instructed the mom.

“Thank you,” the girl said tonelessly, eyes lowered.

This is an interaction that I witness several times every day in my job at a local grocery store. When I’m the cashier unwillingly entangled in these teachable moments, I feel both sad and angry. Sometimes, a child, whom I imagine has heard the parental injunction countless times, brays “please” and “thank you” mechanically. Sometimes, a child—often a very young, and quiet one—becomes so embarrassed she or he retreats into petrified silence.

Without my consent, I’ve been drafted as a team teacher in a politeness lesson. My tacit approval is assumed by the teaching parent, along with an expectation that I will smile and wait for the coerced “please”, then cheerfully reply, “you’re welcome” to the child’s “thank you.” Sure enough, I wait for “please” or “thank you”, and respond appropriately, even as I fume inwardly. I have yet to figure out a response that is not rude but frees me from participating in a practice I find abhorrent. (Possible solutions for my dilemma are welcome.)

I’m fully aware that with this post I’m attempting to skewer sacred cows. I abhor these ubiquitous politeness lessons. They feel manipulative and disrespectful. The child is coerced into saying something they don’t necessarily feel or mean. I am coerced into participating in disciplining someone else’s child.

Can you imagine your partner’s reaction if you were to imperiously instruct her or him to say “please” or “thank you” in similar situations? Why is it that so many adults don’t hesitate to publicly humiliate kids? I believe it’s because most adults are not even remotely aware of how their behavior feels to a child. Adults come by this lack of awareness honestly. When we were children, most of us were taught through words and deeds that children’s feelings matter only in relation to the distress and inconvenience those feelings cause for their parents and other adults in their sphere. Children’s feelings are largely dismissed as fleeting and inconsequential, pale shadows of adult emotions.

woman instructing boyWhat are we as parents hoping to teach our kids in these very public interactions? To feel gratitude? To recite polite interjections in order to grease the wheels of social commerce? To nip selfishness and entitlement in the bud? Could it be that we’re inadvertently teaching our children to remember who’s boss, or to butt in on someone else’s interaction and call them out? Publicly admonishing kids to use these words in an automatic way does nothing to convey the power the words hold when they are not used automatically; yet, kids learn to use the words in a meaningless way to avoid their own embarrassment.

I like to use “please” and “thank you” liberally. At the same time, it is illuminating to really think about the many nuances of those words when spoken in everyday interactions with friends and strangers. Ideally, these expressions acknowledge and connect to another person’s humanity. Genuine sentiment is felt and appreciated by people on the receiving end. In many, many instances, the words are throw-away tokens, spoken unconsciously. At worst, they are spoken poisonously while consciously withholding the intrinsic generosity in the words themselves.

Those words contain worlds of meaning depending on the situation. “Please” is a weighty word when it really is a plea. “Thank you” can encompass immense depths of gratitude. People on the giving and receiving ends always know the difference. Kids don’t need help understanding the importance of the words when they really mean something. Humans–children especially–are exquisitely tuned to notice and make sense of the emotional undercurrents swirling around them. It is a matter of survival. Emotional energy added or withheld from “please” and “thank you” is obvious to anyone participating in or witnessing human interactions.

When my son was young, I could never bring myself to publicly urge him to say “please” and “thank you” in his interactions with adults. I knew him well enough to know how embarrassed he would be. Instead, I responded with what I knew to be true. I was the one who felt grateful, so I said “thank you.” No one ever took offense at the absence of “please” or “thank you” from my shy son. Instead, adults seemed to derive pleasure from giving him something he might like.

I assumed my son would eventually figure out the way the words are used as social grease. It took him a long time—into his early teens. It drove me crazy sometimes, especially his reluctance to say “thank you.” So I got to wondering, how does it feel—what does it mean internally—to say “thank you” and mean it?

Whenever I say “thank you” in a genuine way, I am acknowledging that someone gave me something, sometimes something I didn’t ask for or expect. For me, it creates a feeling of gratitude, but also indebtedness that can feel uncomfortably vulnerable. It creates within me a sense of responsibility to be generous to the giver or someone else in return. The gift may also feel overwhelming enough that I feel ill equipped to respond commensurately.

There’s also the predicament of receiving something I don’t want or don’t like, especially when the giver is enthusiastic and generous in the giving. What is the meaning of “thank you” in that context? Should I say “thank you”, which will contain subtleties and undercurrents the giver will probably sense with some unease? Or should I truthfully say I don’t want the gift fearing that I will have to contend with any number of the giver’s potential reactions, from embarrassment to hurt to anger? Whether I say “thank you”—and how I say it—will vary profoundly depending on my relationship with the giver and the nature of the gift.

As for “please,” when I use it to ask for something that is transactional in nature (e.g. ordering espresso from a barista) and say “thank you” when I get my latte, it is an acknowledgement that the transaction was successful and met expectations. If there is nothing more to the conversation than that, the words serve as nothing more than social grease. I might sound and feel rude not to use them, but there’s no real plea or expression of gratitude.

In thinking about both of these words and the universe of potential meaning within them, it quickly feels complicated to convey to a child anything definitive about the meaning of the words. Directing a child to say “please” or “thank you” by rote surely obscures more than illuminates what we hope that child will learn about the words.

Children desire with their entire beings to be competent, to understand, to function at a high level in their communities. As they hear the surfaces of words, they actively seek and decode the subtext in interactions they witness and engage in. It shouldn’t be surprising that children don’t feel compelled to say “please” and “thank you” mechanically; there’s so little substance or emotional juice.

I chose not to instruct my son to use these polite words because I wanted him to create his own litmus test for how and when to use them. Not everyone will feel comfortable with that approach, but I implore parents and other care-giving adults to stop publicly calling out a child’s seeming lack of manners.

If it is important to you that your child use these words in social situations, even when they don’t feel the need for them, then talk to them when they are not in the middle of a public interaction. Tell them why you think it’s important and ask them to remember to use the words as often as possible. Then, let them make their own politeness choices. They may find your perspective interesting and decide it makes sense. To please you, they might say “please” and “thank you” more often, even though they don’t understand why it feels so important to you. They may use the words when you’re around, but not when they’re on their own. Conversely, they might use them flawlessly when you’re not around, and you will never know. They will make choices about when, where, and how to use polite words, just like you do. At some point, their use of “please” and “thank you” will become, for better or worse, just as routine as it is for most of us.