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.
not asking nicely,” she told me.
After a deep breath, I managed to ask, “OK. So what would
be asking nicely, for you?”
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.
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.