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Mommy Manners

by Miriam Axel-Lute on February 2, 2011

‘How about you ask nicely?” If you’re a parent of kids of certain age, I’m sure you’ve said something like that in the past 24 (12? 2?) hours. Asking nicely has three components in our household (at least we aim for this): the please, formulating the request as a question rather than an order, and not whining or yelling. On most days we accept two out of three.

One night I was facing a hyperactive, uncooperative kid who needed to be gotten into pajamas. I told her in a fairly exasperated fashion to hold still so we could proceed with bedtime.

“That’s not asking nicely,” she told me.
After a deep breath, I managed to ask, “OK. So what would be asking nicely, for you?”
“Just say ‘please,’ and then say the thing,” she replied. “I’ll always say ‘yes,’ ” she added.

I didn’t believe the latter statement for a second (and it would, frankly, creep me out a little if it were true), but the general point was rather unavoidable.

All of a sudden I could hear myself clear as day saying things all the time like, “OK, we have to go. Shoes! Now! Coat. Coat!!” Exactly the same as her “I’m hungry! Yogurt! Now!” And I’d been explaining the Golden Rule just that afternoon. Damn modeling. It never stops.
“Please, would you sit up so we can get your shirt off?” I said, calmly and politely. She did so. “Would you like to take your pants off yourself?” I’d already deviated from the script, but I was in the right spirit and she let it slide.

I played it fairly careful for the rest of bedtime, erring on the side of more individual questions, even for things that were a fairly established part of the routine. It went swimmingly. But of course, it was the game of the moment.

As of the next day, things were a little more normal, as I expected. There is no magic formula for parenting, or any other human interaction. And yet, things were better. A few brewing situations were averted when I tried two different polite requests in a row. I don’t remember every time, and she doesn’t “always say ‘yes,’ ” but our general politeness level, including her asking nicely “the first time” did seem to bump up a little.

Sometimes parenting feels like learning simple lessons the hard way over and over.

But lest we be too simple-minded about it—kids deserve respect, but they are not adults. As much of the research in the recent book on children and parenting NurtureShock shows, their brains are different and that means they have developmentally different needs and incentives and motives on everything from sleep (it’s way worse for them to lose some) to gratitude (unlike with adults, having preteens regularly recount what they’re grateful for makes them more depressed because it shatters their necessary illusion of growing independence).
Sometimes I have to carry my four-year-old kicking and screaming out of the room, or impose consequences for her hitting her younger sister, or do any number of things that don’t fall under the golden rule. Sometimes she doesn’t make any damn sense, and reasoning is impossible. Her idea of what’s fair is as confused and self-serving as most of her peers’. This makes it rather harder to think of her as someone I should at other times be being watching my manners with.
And yet, I think there’s something to be said for accepting that paradox and letting those realities ride in parallel. They do notice our inconsistencies after all.

We have a copy of Mrs. Piggle Wiggle’s Magic from my childhood, in which Mrs. Piggle Wiggle offers beleaguered parents magical cures for children’s bad behavior. Some of it’s funny, but it sure struck all of us that in the no-interrupting chapter the scene-setting example of how awful the children were involved parents privileging a long, drawn-out, self-admittedly boring description of flower arrangements over the children’s news of the day, including a baseball victory and a frog in someone’s pocket. It was hard to feel much sympathy for them. At least the parents were given a dose of the magical cure themselves at the end of the chapter.

There’s been no miraculous flowering of constant politeness in my house in the months since my little “ask nicely” exchange with my older daughter. Four is a hard age, and new sibling is a hard time. Since my daughter’s brief infatuation with Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, I’ve been chastised for interrupting her rather a lot. I guess we’ll keep raising each other.