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The Not-So-Magic Word

on Tue, 02/03/2015 - 10:57

By: Jarrod Green

Often in my preschool, while sitting around the lunch table, a child will say, “Open my yogurt.” If I don’t respond immediately he’ll repeat: “Open my yogurt!” I’ll turn and say, “Could you ask me a different way?” And he’ll say, “Please!” with a look of victory on his face.

He’s used the magic word! And the magic word, in his experience, is really magic: when he says it, people magically do what he wants them to do. It’s even better than that, because he doesn’t even have to remember when to say it. When it’s required, someone will remind him, “Say the magic word.”

“Give me a cookie!”

“Say the magic word.”

“Please!”

“Here you go!”

But is adding the word "please" to a request actually politeness? Politeness is being conscious of other people and using your voice and actions to convey respect for them; it’s using your socialized brain to regulate your desires. Shouting a syllable when prompted? Not actually very polite. We can’t expect children to behave like adults—nor would we want them to! But childhood is the best time to learn the appropriate way to treat others.

Luckily, guiding a child to speak kindly isn’t that hard. Children learn to use whatever behavior is effective to get their needs met. For instance, when your infant needs help with food he might wave his hands and make noises. But over time he learns to make intentional gestures like holding the food out to you, because when he does this, you understand what he means, so he gets his food more quickly. The same principle helps your child graduate from gestures to words—words are simply more effective.

You can use the same principle to guide your child to speak politely. All you have to do is make sure that polite communication is more effective than impolite communication. When your child demands that you open his yogurt (with or without the “magic word”) all you have to do is not open the yogurt. You might say, “Could you ask me a different way?”—or you might simply smile and raise your eyebrows, waiting for him to remember. Children use the behavior that’s effective. If a demanding tone of voice doesn’t work on you, I promise, your child will try something different. 

Remember, too, that children need models for positive behaviors. If you want him to be polite...

  • use a kind voice when you ask him to pass the salt;
  • wait until he’s done with his game before you tell him to clean up;
  • don’t ask him to go get you something the moment he sits down;
  • ...and make sure you’re being polite to other people when your child is around.

Lest you worry, being polite towards children does not mean giving up authority. In my classroom I use a kind voice when I say, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but when you’re done reading that book, it will be time to clean up.” That politeness doesn’t mean that clean-up is optional; children quickly learn that I mean what I say, and that I follow through on rules and consequences. I’m just not rude about it.

Early childhood is the time when children learn to treat others with consideration. But all too often saying “the magic word” gets you the thing you want without you having to actually be considerate. Words matter, but so does what’s behind the words. Let’s take away the magic of “the magic word,” and start teaching kids politeness.

 


About the Author: Jarrod Green is a teacher and administrator at The Children’s Community School, a preschool in Philadelphia. More of his writing, as well as his podcast and his children’s album, can be found at http://jarrodgreen.net.

 

 

Comments

Something really helpful about this approach is that it can unite a classroom full of children who speak different languages. Parroting a 'magic word' that they don't really understand is not a good model for improving interactions for DLLs. But, when teachers model a kind tone of voice and bit of patience, all children can learn to adopt these constructive behaviors and improve the interactions they have with peers and adults. This is one of the great challenges for children who come from different languages and cultures - and you provide a good solution!

It's also helpful to have children seek solutions other then relying on a teacher to help in a classroom. Encouraging children to show each other solutions helps with this concept of politeness.

When a sales clerk pointedly quizzed and pestered my 3 year old son Shawn to come up with the right answer to the 'what's the magic word' question, he considered for a moment before confidently guessing: 'bibbity - boppity - boo??'

This is exactly what we do! We never refer to please as a magic word because we also don't want our kids to think that please means you automatically get what you want. Sometimes we thank them for asking so politely but tell them it's still not something they get.

I think the same thing about asking children to say they are sorry. It is amazing how a classroom can change when you are respectful to the children and teach them to be respectful as well. Children start to get along and work things out on their own, or with only a little guidance. Thank you for sharing

OK, maybe I'm missing something here, but I was taught to say "please" and somehow managed to grow up without assuming that saying the word would automatically get me what I wanted.

Like XaurreauX, I was taught to say please and thank you and I will continue to teach children to say please...Its the polite thing to do.

I agree with you, Xaurreau.

I don't think he is saying kids don't need to say please. With my children if they demand "more!" For milk or whatever it is they want, I also don't ask for the Magic word. Saying the word please after a demand is not polite for a child, or an adult for that matter!!. I have taught them to say something like, "can I please have more milk". So I then ask them how do we ask for things? I make them repeat the phrase, not a word.. I have explained to them this is a polite way to ask for things. Thye are very good with it now!, reminding others!

How about parents teach their children to say please, so that they say please? Tell them the word is only magic if you say without someone having to remind you? Why couldn't you teach this child to ask "Open my yogurt, please" the first time? If they forget and you have to remind them, don't encourage them to say just "Please." Encourage them to say it in a different way, sort of like you opened the story with, except don't just accept "Please!", insist on "open my yogurt, please". Saying please is a part of being polite. But it isn't if it is used as a magic word. Teach your children how to be polite, not how to use magic words.

I teach the children basic manners here. Acting as a little gentleman or little lady takes practice and so we practice throughout the day in different situations. Having a yelling, demanding child yell please just because you didn't respond will not they get their way. Tone is just as important as being polite. I believe if we start young and lead by example, then yes, we help raise polite little beings.

I'm sorry but are all children boys? This article is written as if it its only boys that it is relevant for.

Just came home from work, and I am quite frustrated. I work in a Bakery in a local grocery store, and we hand out cookies to children when they ask for them. Being a parent of a 7 year old, I am trying to teach my own son manners. Tonight, a child came up to me and said "chocolate chip". I didn't think anything of it, but after I handed him a cookie, I said "what do you say?". The child just looked at me and walked away. The mother then proceeded to scold me saying "This is the third time you've asked him for that, he knows his manners, he's just shy, you shouldn't be demanding that of him". All I could say was "I'm sorry ma'am".. she then went and complained to the manager about that.. and the manager instructed me NOT to ask for manners. Are manners going to the wayside nowadays? am I just old fashioned in my beliefs? I feel requesting a child for manners might jeopardize my job. I was under the impression that it takes a village to raise a child.

Wow...that is so sad! I work as an ECE teacher. I just had to accept a job at a center-based program. They teach the children to yell at each other (to get their 'big' emotions out. I am told that we cannot 'force' themselves to say please and thank you. When I had my own program, I modeled manners and taught as the author of this article did...and the children did learn general respect and how to treat each other respectfully. Sadly, there is too much of the Baker's story out in the world today.

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