Last month our spring break travels took us, among other places, to New Mexico. We visited Las Cruces and had fun sledding on the dunes at the White Sands National Monument. We also saw a roadrunner statue made out of garbage. It was cool.
Travel can be a pleasant break from your your normal routine. While we really enjoy cooking at home, we love dining out when we’re traveling. An added bonus comes when we can experience less familiar fare (New Mexico cuisine is awesome, btw).
Going from our normal 1-2 restaurants a month to dining out for every meal also lets us observe our boys’ public behavior much more.
Early in our trip, we started to notice a trend: at every single eatery we visited, folks kept telling us how awesome our boys were. The streak held for the entire trip. At one of our final stops, a waitress, full of emotion, exclaimed, “You have THE most polite kids!” I wasn’t sure if she meant “…in this restaurant” or “…in all of Las Cruces” or perhaps “…in the history of the world” (maybe that one), but she was definitely taken with them.
The missus and I were happy for this feedback, but I’m sure it leaves you wondering what monumental feats my sons had performed to earn such consistent and high praise.
They didn’t help an old lady cross the street, or perform life-saving CPR, or rescue Timmy from a well.
All they did, to earn nonstop adult adulation, was to use the words “please” and “thank you”. One very moved waiter told us, “None of the kids say ‘thank you’ nowadays.”
So that’s where we are as a society. If you want to be at the very pinnacle of protocol, all you have to do is say, “May I please have the chicken nuggets?” (it’s almost always chicken nuggets…), and then, whenever someone hands you something, say, “Thank you.” That will apparently put you ahead of almost every other child. Wow.
I am glad my sons have figured that out, but it feels like that should be a base-level expectation for any human not raised by wild animals.
Apparently it’s not, and that’s a problem for society. However, it’s also an opportunity for an individual.
Everyone Must Pay Their Dues (Sooner or Later)
Everyone must pay their dues in learning to respect others. Those dues can come at a young age, when one actually learns respect for others. Or those dues can come later in life, when a lack of respect for others begins to incur huge costs in relationships, job prospects, and overall happiness. I have never met someone with little respect for others who is truly happy.
We are social creatures and are constantly on the alert for cues of respect and gratitude. When we lived in villages and interacted constantly with our neighbors, maybe a few words more or less didn’t matter. But now we have countless daily transactions with strangers, and our entire impression of a person can come down to a few words said. It may not be fair, but when you hear a child say “thank you”, you make massive judgments about the child and his/her parents, upbringing, and values. (And vice versa.)
Mastering the basics of manners therefore seems like a no-brainer for anyone who wants the best for their child. So why aren’t more people doing it?
Maybe It Is a Big Deal
I was pretty shocked that “please” and “thank you” merited such lavish praise from so many people we met. But then I thought back on how we got to that point. It wasn’t a whispered reminder right before the meal (good luck if you think that’ll work).
It was a series of lessons that spanned not weeks or months, but years. Years of effort and practice to get them to say a few simple words. Thankfully, it wasn’t hard work, but work it was.
First, we’ve always tried to set a good example ourselves. The missus and I try to be models of manners with each other, and we know that both boys are watching us closely every time we interact with anyone in public. I’ve seen far too many of my own mannerisms mimicked perfectly to think I ever get a break from their watchful eyes.
But the fun – and it has been fun – in teaching our boys has always been at home. Rather than just elicit a conditioned response, we’ve tried to make them aware that a transaction is happening and gratitude is in order. Instead of barking, “WHAT DO YOU SAY?!?” when someone’s missed a “please”, we’ve developed a lot of different games:
- Taking away something I’ve just delivered
If it isn’t met with a “thank you” – then I bring it back to try again. This definitely gets a little kid’s attention, and can be done in a funny way.
- Pretending not to hear until they say “please”
I’ll stare forward and just raise an eyebrow. The first time they’re confused, but the next time there’s always a knowing “Oh!”. When they say “please” I’ll jump up immediately with enthusiasm, a big smile, and a “Yes Sir!” (really young kids love this)
- Have a “politeness” competition
Sometimes I just furrow my brow and look genuinely curious, asking the table, “Does anyone think they can make that request more polite?” Siblings are good at competition with each other.
- Wait, smile, and stare
Like a guy waiting for a tip, I can just hover and smile when I’ve done something meriting thanks. Humans may not have an instinct for thanks, but we definitely have an instinct to make a hoverer go away.
All of the above and many more were done with a light heart and lots of humor. The only time I’ve ever gotten upset is if they insist on being rude. We gushed like crazy when they started to make improvements and still remind them regularly how proud we are of their behavior.
And as I think back on the hundreds of times I’ve had to play these games to teach my boys a few simple words, I realize that kids really do suck at showing gratitude. It actually is a major accomplishment to master the basics, and that’s what the folks in Las Cruces were trying to tell us.
Mastering the basics of etiquette doesn’t guarantee my kids are going to grow into deeply empathetic and respectful people. But failing to master the basics would surely mean that they won’t.
Have you cracked the code of “please” and “thank you” with your own children? Do you have any secrets to share? Let me know in the comments.