Little Miss Manners

“Unggh Unnnnnngh!”

“Sophia, use your words. I don’t respond to grunts.”


“Yes, Sophia?”

“Juice Please!”

“Here you go.”

“Thank you.”

(Dance break!)

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.

16 thoughts on “Little Miss Manners

  1. Chad

    Good parenting is like making it in the industry.

    It’s all a matter of who wants it more.

  2. aly hawkins

    No, Jon! He contrasted Gretchen with a Linux server. Big difference. Not only was it his wife instead of his kid, he pointed out to us how Gretchen and the Linux server are different (contrasting), not the same (comparing).

    This Sesame Street Literary Moment brought to you by the letter C.

    And also, great essay, Michael…

  3. Morphea

    C for Cerise, a model of courtesy and literary accomplishment herself. Thank you, Aly.

    Beautifully written, Michael. I almost drifted away when I saw “Linux”, but hung in there and was suitably rewarded with a wonderful ending. Thanks for reminding ME why I say please and thank you.

  4. Isabella

    Great post. Thank you.

    A while ago, you posted 20 things you had learned in the process of parenting. One of the items was that Babywise works. Someone else (Paul?) said it was your parenting that worked rather than the somewhat suspect system of Babywise and he was going to write something for this blog on Babywise. Has he done so? I’d love to read what he has to say.

    In the meantime, is a good site for further info.

    p.s. My husband and I are new parents. We have relatives who have used Babywise. We are adopting a very few principles from Babywise but are not avid fans of the whole system.

  5. michael lee Post author

    [quote comment="90745"]Someone else (Paul?) said it was your parenting that worked rather than the somewhat suspect system of Babywise and he was going to write something for this blog on Babywise. Has he done so? I’d love to read what he has to say.[/quote]

    He has not. Paul has been a very lazy, very tardy blogger. Something about other publishers actually paying him for his work, and me being a cheap bastard who exploits the talents of all who wander into my path. I didn’t catch the whole thing because I was pretty drunk at the time.

    [quote]p.s. My husband and I are new parents. We have relatives who have used Babywise. We are adopting a very few principles from Babywise but are not avid fans of the whole system.[/quote]

    I think that describes us pretty well, too. The biggest thing was getting a handle on scheduling. When we got Sophia on a consistent bedtime, regular feeding, scheduled naps, the resulting change in her behavior and disposition was very clear, and very fast. 2-3 weeks felt like forever at the time, but looking back a year and a half later, it was pretty quick.

    Beth (reader / commenter on the blog) said something a while back that makes a lot of sense to me. She said that parent’s shouldn’t reason with kids, because kids aren’t yet reasonable people. We’ve seen a lot of parents who take the opposite approach, and treat their kids like they’re fully grown, fully developed people right from the beginning. The idea that a 6-month old (or even a 2-year old) knows how to make the connection between actions and consequences, between getting enough sleep and being in a good mood the next day, is kind of absurd.

    For us, reading the Babywise book, and more importantly, seeing how some friends of ours that we respect adopted and adapted it for their kids, gave us the permission to actually be the adults in the parenting relationship, rather than letting our little bundle of stinky joy go completely haywire on her own accord.

  6. corey

    [quote comment="90756"]

    Beth (reader / commenter on the blog) said something a while back that makes a lot of sense to me. She said that parent’s should reason with kids, because kids aren’t yet reasonable people.

    correction: parents shouldn’t reason with their kids.

  7. Chad

    I think the Ezzo / Babywise thing is great in metered doses, just to echo what’s been said here. We did pretty much the same thing, cherry-picking principles that made sense to us.

    I think some of the issues stem from the fact that the original book Ezzo wrote was called, “Growing Kids God’s Way.” If you read some of the original material, and if you like to use your thinker, you’ll extrapolate that the folks who wrote and use a book called, “Growing Kids God’s Way,” are pretty confident that people not using their techniques are, “Growing Kids Satan’s Way.”

    I mean… the Ezzo crowd was uninvited from John MacArthur’s church for being too hardcore.

    Wow. Now… that’s hardcore.

    Oh, also, I’ll see if I can get Paul to stop practicing medicine long enough to get off his lazy, recovering-from-knee-surgery ass and write that post.

  8. Karen

    So cute! Kids with manners rock.
    Are you teaching her “Sir” and Ma’am”? That is a staple here in the south. I got in trouble in 1st grade in San Diego for saying Ma’am because the teacher thought I was being a smart aleck.
    We did the same with Babywise, kind of took what we thought would work for us and threw out the rest. Although we were a little more on the attachment parenting side than the super structured.

  9. Paul

    Wow, you guys have a long memory. I actually started writing a post about the Ezzites vs. the Searszites in March, then got sidetracked by a few things. I figured the subject was too far in the rearview mirror to bring back at this point, but I stand corrected. As Dick Tracy used to say to his two-way wrist radio in every one of the cheap cartoons they made in the 60s, “Okay, Chief, I’ll get on it right away!”

  10. Carrie

    Get Chad started on the whole “Sir-ma’am” southern thing. Really. C’mon. Double-dog-dare ya.

    BTW, I was once perusing a series of young lady’s manners pamplets published in the 1950s. They suggested that one should treat all people with good manners — not because all people deserve to treated with respect, but because you never know who might be powerful and mighty someday and help you get stuff. I mean, that’s a nice BENEFIT to being nice (see: the moral of many a fairy tale), but it shouldn’t be the sole REASON.

  11. Carrie

    What’s funny is, right after I read this post, I dealt with some students who are (how shall we say) lacking in the basic manners department, so much that I’ve had to establish new rules about “polite points.” Lose two points, you get detention. That’s it. I’ve got two girls who, literally, are going to come to blows one of these days. I’m putting my money on the scrappy, angry brunette 9-year-old.

  12. grammy

    Oh, Mike, you have hit one of my hot buttons: spouses treating each other at LEAST as politely as they would their favorite customer/student/client. I could rant about this issue for the next 45 minutes without a sentence break. Why do we reserve our worst manners for the one person in the world we should be investing in the most heavily???

  13. Pingback: A Grateful Heart | Addison Road

Comments are closed.