“Sophia, use your words. I don’t respond to grunts.”
“Here you go.”
This brief display of manners has been brought to you by 2 years of relentless consistency on the part of my wife. She has insisted, from the time Sophia started to be able to use words, that she use the words “Please” and “Thank You” with every request. We’ve reached the point where Sophia will do it about 30% of the time without being prompted, about 95% of the time when reminded, and about 5% of the time it results in a full raging meltdown of indignation. It’s not just her eyes that are Irish.
All of this please-and-thank-you-ing has gotten me to thinking about manners. It seemed odd to me that we were investing so much energy (consistency really is exhausting) in a few words of social convention. I mean, manners are nice and all, but they’re just the little polite handshakes of social interaction. Can’t we wait until later to let her learn some of this?
My wife is a pretty smart gal. In addition to that, she has a very astute sense of intuition, and will often do things that “feel right” to her, without having to know all the reasons behind why. In the 10 years that I’ve known my wife, I’ve learned that it’s usually best to assume that she’s right, and that I’m not on the ball enough to know why yet.
While my wife and I are building an intelligent and creative little girl from scratch, I’m also in the processes of assembling a linux webserver from scratch. It’s the long-term solution to last week’s tragic blog meltdown. Building a webserver from scratch involves a lot of typing things like
"./config --prefix=/usr/local --use-bindings" into a text interface, which the magical computrix machine then executes for me. Most of the really important things I’ve learned in my life happen while I’m building linux installs for webservers. Well, OK, just one thing so far, but still.
Manners matter because they recognize the freedom and dignity of the person you’re talking to.
When I ask my wife to pour me a second cup of coffee, she has the freedom to do it or not do it. I am asking her to yield whatever she had planned to do with her time for a few moments, and to honor my request. By recognizing her freedom, I preserve her dignity when I add the simple word “Please”. My wife is not a servant, she is not a slave to my demands. She is a free person, and any act that she does on my behalf is done on the basis of that freedom. That’s what I mean by dignity. When I say thank you, it is a second recognition that whatever act she just performed was not compelled, but was a gracious act on her part.
My linux server has no dignity. It has no freedom. It simply executes whatever command I give it. To use “please” or “thank you” with my commands would be an absurdity. It’s not performing a gracious act, or a kind act, when it executes my commands, because it has no other option. There’s no basis of freedom out of which it does what I ask.
By insisting that our daughter use the words “please” and “thank you”, my wife is, of course, teaching our daughter that the people around her have freedom and dignity. She is teaching her that the things done for her are gracious acts of kindness, and not the automatic responses of life-like robots. My daughter may not understand any of this yet, but the most important lessons are often absorbed before we ever understand what they mean. The choice to be a grateful person, respecting of the dignity of others, is one of those lessons.
Also, we do it because it make the other parents at Gymboree insanely jealous.