Imagine the following scene:
A family enters a coffee shop: dad, mom, two kids aged 6 and 4. Just as the father is about to sit down in a comfy armchair, his young son slips behind him snatching the seat away. The father merely sighs, barely recovering his balance in time to stop the steamy drink from dropping to the floor and perches himself on a child-sized chair nearby. The two children grab drinks off the tray, tossing aside the straw wrappers. Before settling onto her own hardback chair, their mother quickly picks up the debris left behind by her children and attempts to initiate conversation with her husband but rudely interrupted by her children.
The children argue. There are tears. Demands are made and accusations hurled between the children and toward the parents. The parents do all they can to keep the peace and to clean up after their children as all hope of meaningful adult interaction is abandoned. The parents’ full attention is focused on the children’s needs. They are clearly attentive and caring, selflessly serving their children, yet somehow, one wonders how they manage to patiently endure this level of bullying by their offspring.
We have all seen variations of this theme, and some may wonder if this is simply what parenting is. It may seem as though the early years must be endured before children grow into delightful, caring, independent and polite conversationalists.
And yet, it is possible to elevate expectations, even for young children? Yes! Children are capable of taking turns and of interacting in a polite manner with both adults and peers. Here’s what you can do.
Be intentional. Determine what your goals are and what your baseline is for polite conversation. Teach your child words and phrases such as:
“I forgive you”
Your child will most likely not understand the meaning of the words when they are introduced. The important thing is to establish the habit of participating in polite discourse and the implication of words will develop over time. We do the same when we begin to teach babies “hello” and “bye-bye” long before they completely understand their significance and most babies master the skill of their appropriate use at a very early age.
Model the desired behavior. Children learn best when they are surrounded by positive role models and examples. Adults demonstrate positive behavioral patterns when they integrate polite words and phrases into their daily conversations with other family members. Say “Thank you,” to your baby or toddler when they hand you a toy. Start a conversation with, “Excuse me…” when you diverting a family member’s attention away from an engaging activity.
Offer do-overs. If a child makes a demand without asking nicely, simply say, “I’m sorry. Could you please repeat that in a different way?” When your child uses an inappropriate tone of voice, you might ask them to try again. “Hmmm, I don’t understand ‘whinese’. Could you say that in English?” By injecting a bit of humor into the situation and offering the child to correct his or her own behavior without resorting to punitive measures, you can release the tension in the situation.
Introduce a pause-button. When you overhear interactions and behaviors that are unkind or rude between siblings, take the time to “press pause”. Capitalize on the teachable moment by taking a break and pausing the play. Give a quick summary of what you heard and observed and briefly ask how each participant is feeling about the exchange and what could be done differently. Keep the exchange instructional as opposed to confrontational and give the children the opportunity to trade apologies and move on. The pause button also works well at the dinner table, in the car or anywhere families with young children interact.
Allow opportunities to practice. As children grow older, their social interactions will become increasingly complex. At times it may be helpful, particularly between siblings to allow them to act out situations that might be potential trouble spots for them.
“Pretend like you LOVE this pillow so much.
Now you, snatch the pillow away from her.
How do you feel about that?
What could you have done instead?
What should you say now?
How about ‘I’m sorry’?
And what would you say after he says, ‘I’m sorry’?”
Be consistent. As with so many aspects of being a parent, consistency is key. But don’t worry. Everyone makes mistakes. Learn to say “I’m sorry” and keep trying.
Prioritize time with family. As one wise mom recently wrote to me:
“We should never be too busy to have a do-over, say, or pull the van over to discuss some behavior, or move something out of the way to discuss an issue together as a family. I don’t want my kids to feel too busy for their sibling, to work something out or just enjoy their relationship, now or in the future. And that means we may need to cancel something to focus on family issues.”
Take on the role of instructor. It may seem awkward at first to require your own children to be polite to you. It is much easier to remind them to say thank you to others and it may feel a bit selfish to be a stickler for the rule within the family. However, it is a good idea to keep the bigger picture in mind. You are your child’s first teacher and what better place to practice useful life skills than at home within a loving environment?
If you integrate these principals into your family interactions, you will see positive results. Your children will become more polite and thoughtful. When unexpected problems and issues arise, you will find that you have the tools at your disposal to deal with them without drama.