"What's The Magic Word?"
Why kids struggle to be polite and what you can do about it.
I’m writing today’s newsletter with both my kids home from camp with some kind of sniffly virus (hopefully just a cold and not THAT OTHER THING), and honestly, I’m not feeling so great myself. So please bear with me.
A few weeks ago, my family traveled to San Diego to visit extended family, and one moment in particular has stuck with me. We were on the plane to JFK, sitting a few rows from the back of a Boeing 737. A flight attendant walked from the front to the back of the plane and gave out snacks. When he handed pretzels to my 8-year-old, she said “thank you!” I was thrilled, because let me tell you, it has taken YEARS to get her to say “please” and “thank you” without a prompt from my end. (Sometimes, I still have to give one.)
The flight attendant crouched down and quietly said to me, “I want you to know that your children are the first kids — and in fact, among the first people at all — to say thank you to me out of the 150 people I served before you. Thank you for raising them well.” He then handed me a few kids’ snack packs, the ones you usually pay for, and said he hoped that we enjoyed them.
I was, as you can imagine, floored. At first, sure, I felt a pang of pride — yay, my kids did good! (I know this anecdote could come across as a humble-brag — Look how awesome my kids are! — so I want to emphasize to you again that my kids have NOT said “please” and “thank you” in about 4 million other situations in which they should have.) Then, however, I felt sad. Why was it that so few people thanked him? Including the adults? What does this say about the state of our country? Why is it so damned hard for kids (nay, all of us) to be polite?
As I often do when I start pondering a topic, I hunted for some science. That’s when I discovered the research of Boston University psycholinguist Jean Berko Gleason, who has studied these exact questions. (She is delightful; watch this 4-minute interview with her on PBS.) Berko Gleason’s work sheds light on why it’s so hard for kids to learn to be polite — and what we should be doing to nudge our kids in the right direction.
First, I think it’s important to remember that politeness rituals are 100% learned and 0% innate. Sure, altruism might be hard-wired, but the details of what to say and do in specific social situations is not. And learning any new skill takes practice.
But politeness is especially tough — and there are a few reasons why. Consider how parents (and adults in general) typically teach kids language: We usually give them clues to help them grasp a word’s meaning. We see a dog while we’re walking outside and point to it and say “Look at that dog! Isn’t he a cute dog? What a nice dog!” We use visual prompts, and we use the word we’re trying to teach in multiple ways in different kinds of sentences. This is what’s called “referential language,” because it’s language that refers to something. (In this case, the dog.)
This is not the approach we typically take when we teach kids to say “please” and “thank you.” When we teach kids these phrases, we don’t usually help them understand what they mean with context, nor explain why we are asking them to say them — we just say things like “Say please,” “What do you say?” or “What’s the magic word?” As Berko Gleason and her colleagues explained in a 1984 paper:
While the acquisition of referential speech may involve children's producing words only after they have gained some concept of their referents, the acquisition of politeness routines usually involves an intervening adult who insists the child produce a form even if the child does not yet recognize the requirements of the social situation and may not be able to analyze the formula linguistically.
In other words, when we encourage kids to say polite things, we often do not give them the context or meaning they need to grasp why they are being asked to say it. We usually don’t sit them down and say, “Hey, sweetie, let me teach you about the word please.” We just prompt them to say it in various situations and hope, one day, they will learn to understand why and generalize our expectations.
Further evidence that young kids don’t really know what “please” and “thank you” mean comes from a small study conducted by Berko Gleason and her colleague Esther Blank Greif in 1980. (Yes, these studies are old, but they are the seminal studies on the topic.) They invited 22 children between the ages of two and five into their lab and videotaped them as they each played with their parents. At the end of the session, a researcher came into the room and gave the child a gift. The researchers recorded and analyzed what the children said to the gift-giver, if anything, as well as what the parents said to their kids.
They found that the kids spontaneously said “thank you” to the gift-giver only 7 percent of the time (see? Your kids aren’t the only ones), but that 51 percent of the parents then prompted them to do so, usually by saying something like “What do you say?” or “Say thank you.” The researchers observed, too, that the kids rarely said “thank you” in their own words, which was a sign that the kids probably had little grasp of what the words meant. As they wrote in the paper:
None of the children varied the adults' form or attempted to express their appreciation in their own words. No child said, for instance, “thanks a lot,” and there was no evidence of the children adding to their expressions of appreciation such things as “Thank you, it was really nice of you to give me this toy.” In general, the children performed the routine without elaboration in the form presented to them, without giving evidence that they knew, in any sense, what the routine meant.
Kids also have a hard time knowing when to say “please” and “thank you” because the cues for saying them are abstract and vary from situation to situation. Berko Gleason explained to me that some of the first phrases kids learn are “hi” and “goodbye,” and that’s largely because there’s a very simple cue for saying “hi” and “goodbye”: When someone else says it to you first. (In the study mentioned above, kids said “hi” or “goodbye” about 25 percent of the time, always in response to the gift-giver saying it first.) The cues for saying “please” and “thank you” are much more abstract, stemming from the kind of situation you’re in and what has just transpired, and those are much harder for kids to recognize.
Another reason kids struggle with politeness words is that, typically, children don’t have any desire to say them. When you say “my foot hurts,” it’s because your foot hurts and you want to tell someone, Berko Gleason said. When you say “This book was so good,” it’s because you loved the book and you want to share the sentiment. But usually, kids do not have an overwhelming feeling of thankfulness that drives them to want to say “thank you,” Berko Gleason told me. “You don't want to say ‘thank you’ because thankfulness is welling up in you,” she explained. “It's performative — it's something that you have to do at a certain occasion.” And it’s much harder to get kids to say things because you want them said than if they really want to say them. (Yes, sometimes, we can feel thankful and want to say “thank you.” But I’d venture that 99 percent of the time we say “thank you,” we are not doing it because we feel overwhelmed with gratitude.)
To summarize, kids have trouble learning polite phrases for a number of reasons: We don’t do a good job of teaching kids their meaning; it’s hard for kids to predict when to say them; and the phrases don’t reflect any kind of inner desire to say them. (By the way, these same factors are at play when kids are learning — or shall I say failing to learn? — to say “I’m sorry.”) No wonder my kids needed prompts every day at the dinner table FOR YEARS before they started saying “please” and “thank you” on their own.
With any conversation about politeness, I also think it’s crucial to address gender stereotypes. I encourage both my son and daughter to be polite — to say “please” and “thank you” when it’s appropriate, because I think it’s respectful. But I’m also sensitive to the fact that our culture sends messages to girls that they are supposed to be sweet and docile and overly polite, and I push hard against those expectations. Among other things, I think it’s important to tell kids that politeness is different from assertiveness. You can be respectful of others while also being a leader and holding your ground and fighting for what you want and need and believe in. These things can absolutely co-exist.
On that note, in her research, Berko Gleason did not find that parents prompt girls to be polite more than they prompt boys to be polite. So there is no evidence of a difference in socialization practices on that front, at least not in her research. But she does find that fathers tend to be less polite than mothers — perhaps an unsurprising finding given the gender stereotypes, but an important difference that kids notice and learn from. If a girls sees her mom being more polite than her dad, she might infer that girls are expected to be more polite than boys are. Likewise, a boy will infer from this observation that boys don’t need to be as polite as girls.
So what can we do to help kids — both boys and girls — learn to be polite? Berko Gleason said that prompting — which is what many of us already do — is important. It helps in the long run to say things like “What’s the magic word?” and “What do you say?”. Eventually, kids figure out what we want and why, and the phrases become automatic with practice. Modeling politeness as parents is important, too — and especially for dads, so that they can help to shatter the stereotype that there should be sex differences in politeness.
It may also help, Berko Gleason said, to talk to kids about the meaning behind polite phrases. Explain to them why we say “please” and what it means, and why we say “thank you” and what that means. You could say something like, When someone says or does something kind for us, we say “thank you” to show them that we appreciate what they did. It’s a way of showing them that we noticed and are grateful for their kindness.
I couldn’t help but also ask Berko Gleason if she thinks that people have become less polite in recent years. “It is clear that our public figures have become less polite, and when people are role models, and they are rude and horrible, then other people are going to follow suit,” she explained. (This is rooted in social learning theory, which I talked about in my book — people learn how to behave based on the behavior of others in power, and Trump and others have not set a good example.) On the other hand, she also pointed out that “every generation thinks this next generation is falling apart,” so our fears that everything is going to hell in a hand basket are probably overblown. The next time I fail to hear a “thank you” when I expect one from my kid, or other kids, or an entire plane full of passengers, I’ll try to remember that politeness is a learned skill — and that we are all works in progress.
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I loved reporting last week’s New York Times Well newsletter on the benefits of daydreaming and mind wandering, and how to do it to boost joy and creativity. Read it here.