“What do you saay…?” Nooo Thanks!

Hey – We’re on vacation!!! And for more about how we got here (as in what we had to do to make it here), check out Natalie’s post.

One of the things I noticed as we traveled through four airports and across the entire continent was (you guessed it) the parenting going on, and the ways grown people relate to children. I have begun through diligent effort to attract views of parents treating their children with kindness, adults looking lovingly at their own and others’ children, and generally a more respectful kind of approach in the parenting I’ve witnessed. I say, “through diligent effort”, because I have actually sought to change the kinds of interactions I was attracting (and therefore witnessing a lot) just by working with my expectations.

So I was glad to see that, for the most part, that was working – and that if there were kids out there being mistreated just for being kids, I wasn’t having to sit through it with my tongue between my teeth. BUT… one of the things I did see a lot, and which still gets my proverbial goat (almost every time), was the numerous attempts by nervous (brow-beaten?!) parents all across the country to enforce the strict, artificial gratitude-politeness nebulously demanded by our culture.

I can not tell you the innumerable times I hear(d) parents say, “What do you saay?” to their children after some miniscule kindness afforded them by another grown-up or child. Where the *#%* did our society get the idea that if you want kids to say “Thank you” you have to badger and remind them every single time with the phrase, “What do you saay?”? And further, why do so many parents seem to feel the need to coddle the egos of all the other adults in the world by employing this ridiculous method? And even further, when is someone going to succeed in making parents understand this method sucks?

For starters, and in case you, dear reader, have never noticed, this method doesn’t actually work, as is obvious by the mere fact that parents say it so much! If it was a functional method, children would be saying “Thank you”, instead of being told to say it. Also, even if your kids are now remembering to lob the phrase when appropriate, I’ll bet you anything that they deliver it with no (or next to no) meaning. You’ve heard this version a lot I am sure — the gratitude uttered so blandly, flatly, and quietly as to be virtually inaudible, and certainly meaningless.

I am also of the opinion that the prompting method is demeaning, both to the children and the parents. Have you ever seen this? Person gives child something, parent looks wistfully at gift-giver, then quickly to the kid and says robotically, “What do you saay?” then the kid says (just as robotically), “thnkue”. Then the parent looks back at the other person, with sort of an embarrassed, “hope-that-was-good-enough” look, mingled with a “see-we’re-all-compliant” demeanor and then tries to move on. Again, I’ll bet you anything, that even if the parent doesn’t feel uncomfortable with this scenario, the kid does. And more importantly, the child probably also feels sold down the river, embarrassed, disrespected, and (remember this one) resistant. You may want to tell yourself this isn’t true, especially if you learned the prompting method from your parents or other parents you know, but let me reassure you, kids don’t like to be reminded of things like this, and being publicly reminded is almost always embarrassing — to anyone. I am sure you can think of examples from your own life. Oh, and just so you know, there is no evidence out there that proves embarrassing children is a successful way to make them learn something (except maybe that their feelings don’t mean that much to you…).

Another thing I want to mention here is that I know the social pressure feels like a ton of bricks. I know parents want to look capable, and want their kids to be considered “good little ones”. I know it seems like our culture demands our compliance. I know, too, that parents want their children to be kind, respectful, polite, and even gracious. And I know that prompting is the method most in vogue, and most posited as “the way to do it”. But the bottom line is that it doesn’t work and it doesn’t feel good.

After moving through all the different time zones, different concourses, and different social hubs, and finally arriving at my parents house in the deeply polite South, and witnessing all the prompting and discomfort, I was realizing and telling Natalie, our children say “Thank you!” more frequently and fervently than any other kids I know or see.

At the time, I wasn’t so much bragging as I was marveling, though I was aware that my parents overheard me. So when we went to the science museum and IMAX theatre the next day, and our kids did not thank my dad directly for all the fun they had — though they did say they had a lot of fun — I got a little antsy about how my dad would feel about it. I came very close to actually whispering to the girls, “Hey do you want to let your Grandpa know how much you appreciated the fun outing?”. And I think that would have been all right, but I chose something else instead. I let my own appreciation be known, and in earshot of the girls I thanked my dad a couple times for all of us.

And if I have suggestions for other parents in this area it would be these:

  • Model appreciation to your children — thank them often, and say please when asking them for something. I cannot stress the efficacy of this method enough. In fact, if there is anything you want your children to do, let them see you doing it. As I’ve mentioned before, they are biologically designed to take their cues from you and will follow suit in almost all cases.
  • If you want the other person to feel some appreciation, and your children aren’t delivering, give it yourself. This handles the social pressure a bit, and models the idea in another way for your children to see.
  • Talk to your children about the concept of appreciation. Tell them about how good it feels (to adults especially) to have someone express appreciation to them for a favor. Tell them how it feels for you to be thanked. They will identify with the feelings more easily than almost any other explanation you could give about social norms.
  • Finally, realize that social nuances such as these are complex and take awhile to master, and give your children and yourself a break. It isn’t the end of the world if some stranger, or friend, or even a family member happens to think your child is rude today — they’ll get over it, and a lot faster than your children will if you embarrass and shame them into compliance.

You may find it hard to change a deeply entrenched habit such as prompting, and/or be wary of bucking the conventional methodology in this case, and that is completely understandable. And you may think it is so important that you are willing to embarrass your children to avoid feeling embarrassed yourself if they don’t properly express their appreciation. And again, I think I can understand feeling that way. But may I encourage you to give it a shot anyway. See how it feels, and imagine or ask your children how they feel about it. You may find it easier than you think, and you just might discover it feels better to all of you as well. And even if no one else does, let me at least say Thank YOU for choosing your children and your relationship with them over pleasing the politeness police.

Be well.

About Nathan M McTague, CPCC, CPDPE

I am a full-time parent of three, Writer, Life Coach, Lecturer, Parenting Mentor, and Shamanic Practitioner. In all of the above, I am seeking to assist my fellow humans in their processes of claiming and unleashing their highest potentials.
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23 Responses to “What do you saay…?” Nooo Thanks!

  1. Lindsay says:

    woooo hoooooo!!! thank you for this heart-felt, well-written post. let’s make fliers of it and post it EVERYWHERE!!!! 😉

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  3. Joe Bower says:

    Marvelous message! So true.

    Thanks for sharing

  4. excellent post! the same goes for the whole “say sorry” routine.

    • I couldn’t agree more Michelle.
      When another parent is trying to get their kid to apologize to me or my daughters (for some accident), I am always simultaneously attempting to make it clear that I don’t need an apology, don’t care about the convention, or some other diversion to keep the poor kid from having to perform such perfunctory gestures. Sure, an attitude of “Oops, I spilled hot cocoa on your lap and you’re bummed…” is appreciated, but teaching kids to robotically grovel isn’t helping any of us.

  5. Gina says:

    Ugh. I am totally one of those parents and I LOVED this post. It always has made me uncomfortable to remind them & badger them about saying thank you. And even though I always model being polite and being kind to others, it felt necessary to do this nudging. No more! I am a convert. So glad to remember that my own behavior is enough to teach them. Thank you. 🙂

    • Gina, Thanks so much for writing in, and being so honest — that takes guts. I’d be interested to hear how you feel about it after you experiment a bit leaving out the prompt.
      Really glad to know that you walked away feeling encouraged to just be what you want your kids to be.
      Best regards,

  6. Thank you! This is so ingrained in me, even though I know I don’t want to do it, that I have to keep catching myself from chanting those robotic phrases. (See, the parents are robots, too!) I find it particularly hard around family members who raised me that way and expect the prompting — and to see them doing it once again, to the next generation. On our last family trip, there was so much, “Don’t I get a hug?” and “How do you ask nicely?” and I felt not just frustrated but also really sad for them for missing out on the genuine expressions of love and gratitude that my son will offer when he’s allowed to do his own thing.

    • Boy, Lauren, you really hit the nail on the head — the prompters, and the people they are hoping to placate by prompting, both miss out on whatever genuine feeling the kid is having pretty much every time. That’s partly because what is being asked of the child is to perform a procedure, not express his feelings. Lots of lost connection there, because of insistence on procedure.
      It can be extra tough when our larger family is together, and our parents, or other elders, or cousins don’t parent the same way we do. Then there winds up being weird internal conflicts about doing what is best for our children, versus being respectful of other family members. Hard stuff for sure.
      Keep loving him your way, Lauren.
      Be well,

  7. how do you all teach your kids to say thank you and sorry/BE grateful and repentant? or do you not care if they don’t/aren’t?

    • Suzannah,
      I do make a couple of suggestions at the end of the post, but most importantly, I would say model those things to your children. If you want them to be or do anything then be and do it.
      Thanks for commenting.

  8. Tina says:

    I really liked this post. I have always believed that modeling is the best method of teaching. I know I was browbeaten into the “What do you say…” but it wasn’t until I decided for myself to show appreciation did I genuinely show it.

    What’s your take on prompting at home? For example, you prepare a snack and hand it over…just you and the kid at home. My gut instinct would be to prompt, especially given the lack of audience. But then if I’m modeling enough, I wouldn’t need to? Now I’ve got a mind battle going, lol.

    • Hey Tina,
      I think the mental wrestling is a great sign of conscious parenting. Keep questioning what you are doing. There will be times when you don’t have a sure answer, but there will be other times when you do know for sure — once you look at it.
      To address your question — I’d say don’t divide your strategies. Your instinct seems like the stronger bet — keep modeling instead of prompting. Also, with the example you gave, I might not even look for a thank you for food I prepared. To me that just feels like “thankless parent territory” — where we do, because we love.
      The bottom line is, it isn’t just “the audience” that will make the prompting method troublesome. The worst part is actually that children learn the wrong thing by prompting. They learn a reactive procedural action (how and when to utter some words), not a genuine response to a gift. You can’t “teach” the genuine version with prompting. You have to show it (so they feel it), explain it (so they know about how it works, and what other people think/feel about it), and repeat.
      Keep keeping on, Tina!
      Be well,

      • Tina says:

        I agree with most of your response 🙂 I don’t think preparing food should fall under “thankless parental territories” at all. Yes, we do it because we love, but that doesn’t mean it has to be thankless. If someone prepares me dinner, I show gratitude and appreciation. Likewise, when I prepare dinner, my husband shows gratitude and appreciation. Perhaps we’re a little different in that respect. Perhaps that means that we’re already modeling something and the prompting won’t be necessary. And perhaps I’ve just made my whole, initial, argument null and void and reinforced your argument. LOL

      • Good point, Tina. We will all have our own ideas about what is important in terms of specifics. The bottom line, though, is that whatever we want our kids to do — we should be certain to let them see and feel and hear us doing. Sounds like you’ve got that one down!
        All the best,

  9. Kelly says:

    You hit it out of the park. Thank you for this post; I’ll be sharing!

  10. Samantha says:

    A beautifully humane and thought-through post. Love it and will share it. Thank you so much. Really glad I found you (via Alfie Kohn) and delighted to be able to subscribe. 🙂

  11. Gina says:

    Hey Nathan,
    Been thinking a lot about this post. So much so that I have been experimenting with it and posted some thoughts on my own blog today (sharing your post as well). Had an interesting conversation with my hippie dad about it too. That’s always fun. 😉 Anyway, if you like, here’s my post: http://thetwincoach.blogspot.com/2010/09/pushing-politeness-creating-kindness.html And thank you for your blog…it’s new for me & I’m loving it!
    Be well,

  12. Pat Torngren says:

    I really enjoyed reading this blog post! Ironically I recently published on on the very same theme, so I do so agree with you. Am I allowed to leave a link to it here? Well, I’ll try, and thanks so much for saying it — it can’t be said often enough! 🙂


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