|In a recent letter to the editor of a local paper,
the writer expressed a common complaint: several children had
neglected to say "thank you" for the Halloween treats
she had given them. She further suggested that the words
themselves are the most important consideration, and that parents
should resort to force, if necessary, to extract them.
It is natural to feel hurt when it seems that our kindness is
being taken for granted. But maybe we should look a little deeper,
especially when it comes to children.
As I see it, there are two entirely different reasons a child
would say "thank you". One child may thank us because
she is genuinely appreciative of our kindness, and has heard many
expressions of gratitude within her own family (especially
gratitude expressed to her).
Another child may say "thank you", but be merely
mouthing empty words out of fear of punishment. Behavior based on
fear, with little understanding of the meaning behind the ritual,
means little. Such behavior is not only meaningless, it is futile,
as it fails to accomplish what we are seeking. It may also create
an unfortunate connection between the giving of thanks and
feelings of embarrassment and pressure.
With threats of punishment, we may force a child to say
"thank you", but we can't force the genuine courtesy
that we really want. True kindness grows within a child when she
is treated kindly. It cannot be forced into her heart by forcing
words into her mouth. Besides, where is the joy in hearing
"the magic words" spoken submissively by a frightened
child? All words lose their magic if they aren't spoken from the
The educator John Holt once described a "real" thank
you which he had received spontaneously from a young friend as a
"lovely little present in words, full of pleasure, affection,
and gratitude." He goes on to say that: "As far as I can
remember, this was the first time she had ever said 'thank you' to
me ... This little person has never been told to say 'thank you'.
So why did she say it to me, if no one has told her to? How did
she learn it? Because we adults always say 'thank you' to her, and
because she hears us saying it to one another. By keen observation
she has picked it up that when people do something nice for each
other, it is a little gift of love, and the one receiving the gift
gives a little gift back. Since she wants to do what we do, she
did the same thing. In time, it will become as natural as
Holt continued, "How different from another kind of scene,
which I have witnessed more times than I care to remember: A child
gazes on his gift, lost in pleasure, excitement and curiosity,
when an adult voice says, often in a scolding or angry tone, 'What
do you say?' The child is snatched out of his world of awe and
pleasure and is suddenly made to feel guilty and ashamed. He hears
what he understands very well as a threat - if he doesn't say
'thank you', something bad will happen to him. So, all pleasure
gone, possibly even hating the present that has put him in this
painful situation, he grudgingly and sullenly says 'thank
At Halloween, children go to some effort too, carefully
selecting their new identity, getting dressed up, and walking for
an hour or more. How many of us bother to say, "Thank you for
showing me your costume"? This is more than a question of
fairness, but also of helpfulness, because genuine courtesy comes
most of all through imitation. Children learn to treat others with
kindness by observing the adults around them doing kind things,
and by having explanations, respectfully given, of the reasons for
the behaviors we prefer.
Instead of complaining about rudeness in children, we should
remember that children behave as well as they are treated, and as
well as they see us treating each other.
"How can anything
outwardly command us that has not first inwardly claimed us?"
- Author unknown