Politeness or Phoniness?

Our son refuses to say “please” and “thank you.” He claims “it would be fake” to do so. I agree with his desire to not say false things but I also think there’s a value in being polite. I think he would be received by others more favourably too. He won’t listen to me. Do I just let him learn the hard way?

Ah, this is a topic dear to my heart! I felt and did exactly the same thing at around ages ten to twelve. I also felt it was phoney to smile and pose for photographs, so any pictures of me at that age have me scowling while everyone else smiles.

What was going on?

On the positive side, I was developing my own moral values, and a sense of myself as a person with integrity who didn’t just do or say what other people wanted me to, but spoke the truth. I had learned that honesty is very important, and that you can only trust a person if they are honest. I was trying to live what I believed.

On the negative side, I wasn’t yet mature enough to understand how other people felt. I was still a child, and therefore still pretty self-centred. I wasn’t able to put myself in other people’s shoes. I couldn’t imagine being the aunt who gave me an inappropriate birthday present because she didn’t understand kids. So I didn’t feel any obligation to treat her with kindness when she hadn’t bothered to find out what I might like.

I also hadn’t learned how mean some people can be if you don’t treat them gently, so I was willing to risk others’ disapproval, and I didn’t really understand those who were more afraid than I was.

How do we help our children develop into moral adults, people who don’t just blindly follow the crowd, but can stand up for their principles while showing kindness and compassion to others? We do this by :

1) setting an example, and talking about what we’re going through when we make moral decisions;
2) encouraging our children to think for themselves, to be independent people rather than obeying us or the rules blindly;
3) helping our children understand the meaning of truth and falsehood, and the results of deception;
4) helping them learn to think maturely and flexibly, and to consider the long-term results of their actions and look at all aspects of a situation;
5) teaching them how to deal with their emotions so that they don’t act in ways they may regret later, and
6) helping them develop empathy for other people, so that they can understand what it might be like to be each other person they are dealing with, and therefore treat others with gentleness and compassion.

These abilities don’t all develop at once! Your son, like myself at his age, has clearly mastered independence and honesty. These are very important qualities, which will give him the strength to resist peer pressure as he enters his teens. It’s actually healthy that he doesn’t worry about what others think of him and doesn’t just blindly follow what’s expected of him.

However, he probably hasn’t developed much empathy yet. If and when you discuss these issues with him, focus on what the other person might be going through, and what a “Please” or “Thank you” might mean to them. Help him put himself in their shoes. Then let him make his own decision. With time and experience, he will be able to understand people quite different from himself and treat them with kindness.

My guess is that your son won’t experience much “learning the hard way,” as the people who expect those Pleases and Thankyous are your peers rather than his. But you may be embarrassed at appearing to have a “poorly brought up” child. Perhaps you can assist those people in understanding where he’s coming from.

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