Children and the Courtesy Continuum

Children and the Courtesy Continuum

Please. No, sickness thank you. You’re welcome! Respect and courtesy involve much more than using any “magic” phrase. The way we say something can say much more about our intentions than the actual words. Tone of voice and inflection often reveal a speaker’s true feelings. “Please!” can become a demand. “Sorry!” can sound anything but apologetic. Insisting on polite words won’t teach children respect for others and common courtesy. Modeling will.

If we insist children say please before we serve them food or give them something they want, they will probably say the word. But if we aren’t modeling courteous behavior, the word will be meaningless, just another hoop to jump through. Rather than insisting on please, insist on an appropriate tone of voice. You can say, “That doesn’t sound very friendly. Can you try again with a friendly voice?” If the child doesn’t get it, model a friendly tone and polite words. “May I have some more milk, please?” The tone of voice is the most important element for young children. It conveys respect for others and an appreciation for the action they are requesting. The pleases and thank
yous and you’re welcomes will come later as children become more aware of social customs and want to participate in them to feel “big.”

Apologies are another trouble spot on the courtesy continuum. Too often, adults insist that children apologize for their actions when children feel anything but sorry. By insisting children say it when they don’t mean it, adults devalue the word, and in effect, teach kids to lie. Children who are still learning about cause and effect may need time to feel sorry and to fully realize the consequences of their actions. They may only be sorry that they got in trouble. But if we require they say the word in order to continue playing or have a turn, they will say it without understanding why they should not have behaved that way. A more productive choice is to show children the consequences of their behavior. “When you hit Henry, he doesn’t want to play with you
anymore.” Or, “When you throw toys, they break. You can’t use these toys until you show me you can be gentle with them.” If adults model appropriate apologies (sincere, with the right tone of voice) for our own mistakes, children will learn context and eventually follow our lead.

What Sorry Looks Like

The next time you find your child in a “sorry” situation, try these techniques instead of demanding an apology.

• Identify the feelings of the victim: “She looks really sad that you pushed her.”

• Label the inappropriate behavior. “Pushing hurts.”

• Provide an alternative to the unacceptable behavior: “Use your words to ask for a turn.”

• Model empathic behavior: “I’m sorry he pushed you, are you okay?” Consequences should be related to the misstep and caregivers should remain calm. By focusing attention on the victim, adults can take away some of the motivation for misbehavior. Children who appear to feel sorry but are unable to articulate it may need non-verbal alternatives. Ask them to show the other child they’re sorry (they might offer a hug or toy), or draw a picture to help the other child feel better.


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