At the start of term in January a few years ago, a mother who had done my course just before Christmas spotted me across the playground and ran towards me shouting gleefully “Stephanie! Stephanie! We’ve just had a brilliant Christmas and I didn’t say please once!!”
“Shhhhh!” I said with alarm, “people might hear you!”
I don’t want anyone to think that I teach bad manners…as if my courses are all about being rude to your kids or something. That shout across the playground sounded like a Daily Mail headline; sensationalist and completely lacking in nuance. It would have taken too long to explain to every other parent watching that nowhere in my course do I actually say “don’t say please to your kids.” Not exactly. I can explain here though, on a blog post, I’ve got lots of time!
I used to over-use the word ‘please’ and I think we generally do it because we want to model to our children the polite way of asking for something, which is all well and good and we get plenty of opportunities to do that. There are times, though, that a parent doesn’t have to say please, or if we do use it it’s in that brisk perfunctory way when we’re giving an order which is non-negotiable, like ‘Off the computer now please.’ My daughter once used the word in this way to me; ‘Pass the salt please’ she barked and I was outraged. So you see, it’s not a simple good/bad word, it all depends on your tone of voice…
The problem with the word is that it can sound pleading, like you’re appealing to the child for help when really what you’re telling them to do is a non-negotiable order which they have to obey. It’s always better to be honest and phrase an order as an order, not a request. The child knows that they have no choice but you’re acting as if they do and that can make certain children very cross. You don’t want that.
“Off the computer now. Thank you” is much more effective if you want to make things clear.
Children are quite capable of understanding this. To the child who says “But you didn’t say please!’ you just need to explain matter-of-factly that that’s because it’s an order and they have no choice so it’s just being honest, and you’re allowed to do that as a parent.
There’s another area where over-using the word ‘please’ sends out the wrong message, and it came to me one Christmas when I realised that, even as my kids got older, I was still always the one who managed everything and took all the responsibility. It was as if the whole thing was my job which I asked other members of the family to help me with, as if they were doing me a favour. So every member of the family got thanks for their contributions, except me! This won’t do, I thought.
I was saying things like ‘could you get this cleared away now please’ and ‘can someone please help me with this,’ all the time reinforcing a dynamic that I really didn’t want. So instead I started acting like we were a team; I dropped the ‘please’ and began to say things like ‘we’ll get the decorations up now’ and ‘you sort out the table now and I’ll get the food ready’ and ‘we’re going to get the house cleared up now.’ Sometimes I would point out what I’d done: ‘Look! I got that finished really quickly!’ and I’d get a ‘Well done Mum!’ Sometimes I’d say ‘How’s it going? You got your bit done?’ AS IF WE WERE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER.
I replaced my pleas for help with an assumption that everyone was willing to play their part and although I still did the lion’s share of the work, I no longer felt that festering resentment that my work was taken for granted while everyone else’s was appreciated. I do actually really enjoy all those Christmassy jobs, as long as I feel like I’m doing them freely rather than in a state of resentful martyrdom in front of an indifferent family…
CWK will be back in the New Year, half a stone heavier. Merry Christmas!
I found this post very thought-provoking. Timely too, with all the Christmas preparations here.
When I moved from the UK to the US, I found it really hard to hear children asking for things, but without saying “please”. They’d say “Could I get a drink?”, and it just sounded wrong. It did make me realise what a huge amount of effort British parents put into getting their children to frame questions with the word “please” included. “Say please” seems a sort of parental chant! I know this is a bit off topic – because in that context, the use (or lack) of the word “please” is a cultural issue rather than anything else (I don’t think American kids are brought up to think that it doesn’t matter if you’re polite to adults or not – just have different ways of expressing that). But it is important to think about such words, and how we use them, and what the underlying assumptions might be. (And though I concluded that children’s use of “please” was largely cultural, I do have to confess it did always sound rude when a child asked me for something and didn’t use the word.)
I absolutely agree with you – the continuation of that sentence about parents not always having to say please is ‘You, on the other hand, as a child, always have to’ (although I have to say, when a child says really politely and respectfully ‘Mummy, would it be alright if I…?’ I don’t mind the lack of a ‘please’) I think the mantra ‘say please!’ is the least effective way of getting children to do it though, so maybe I’ll write a blog on that!
I’m not convinced anyone needs to use the word please to make a request polite. I think you can still be very polite without having to use it.