“Say please.” “What’s the magic word?” “Tell Joshua you’re sorry.” Most parents of toddlers and preschoolers have said these phrases more times than they can count. Manners are an important part of social functioning, and everyone wants to raise a well-behaved child, but are we defeating the purpose when we insist that our early talkers use these words?
For children with hearing loss who are learning to combine words to form sentences, we know that one plus one does not always equal two. It’s a huge leap to go from single words to short phrases. If your two-year-old is working on asking for “More milk,” requiring him to ask using, “More milk please” may be enough to derail you altogether. You’re adding another word to the auditory working memory load. Like juggling, we can all only hold so many thoughts (or words, or balls) in the air at one time. Sometimes adding one more word can throw the child for such a loop that they lose the original two-word phrase, even if they would have been able to say it on its own.
If we’re really pushing to expand utterance length, let’s work hard for words that actually have some weight. Adding that courtesy word (“please”) is very nice, but please doesn’t carry much linguistic meaning. For example “open [the] door” is an action + object sentence. Each word has meaning and purpose. Making it “Open [the] door please” sure sounds nice, but it’s just action + object + courtesy word. Of course, asking with please is important, but at the beginning, when we work so hard for every word, let’s choose words that really count. Once the child has built the skills to use phrases spontaneously and with ease, adding “please” and “thank you” will come naturally and without much effort. Choose your battles! Fight for words that are important for grammar and completeness. A child who has gained skill with those words will have no problem adding courtesy words later on.
So do we throw out manners entirely? Absolutely not! Politeness is essential for getting along with others, and well-mannered child is a joy to be around. So how can we encourage the development of manners without sacrificing children’s listening and spoken language development with fights over saying “please”?
Model it yourself. Just as we model complete sentences even for babies who are using just one word, we can also model using polite words like “please” or “thank you” when we speak. For example, if you are encouraging your child to ask for “More milk” and he says that, you can model back, “That’s right! I heard you say “more milk”! More milk please, Mama” as you pour some into his cup. You are acknowledging what he said and giving him a great example of how he will can say it in a more advanced way in the future as he continues to grow and develop.
Model the WHY. “Please” is not a “magic word.” It doesn’t mean that you always get what you want. (How many children do you know who think saying “Candy please!” at midnight guarantees them a snack?) Instead, make your thought process clear to your child by saying things like, “I’m going to say thank you to Daddy because he cooked us such a good dinner tonight.”
Make apologies count. Even adults who routinely say “I’m sorry” know that those words can be pretty hollow unless they’re followed up by real action and change. Instead of insisting that your child parrot “sorry,” help her to understand how her actions made others feel and take steps to fix it. For example, saying, “You knocked down Sam’s tower and that made him sad. How can you fix it?” leads to much better social behavior than forcing an insincere “Sorry.”
Think about tone. When we focus so much on getting children to imitate those polite words, we can forget that how you say something is as, or sometimes even more, important than what you say. A child can say “More milk” in a way that sounds very demanding or very polite, depending on intonation. Help your child understand that there are many ways to say the same sentence and convey very different meanings. Model using intonation that is gentle and kind. Even if a child can only manage “more” instead of “I’d like some more cookies, please” you can make that “more” sound very polite indeed with the right tone of voice.