Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Pushing Politeness, Creating Kindness

Practice Kindness, Compassion, Goodwill
by CreativeKismet on Etsy
I'm a polite person. Perhaps it's because I care about what others think of me, but I do like to think it's because I care about others. I want other people to know that I appreciate what they've done or that I appreciate who they are. Where did this come from? I don't actually remember my parents teaching me to be this way, but I suppose they modeled it for me. I recall how they treated the people they came in contact with; there was never a sense of hierarchy or snobbery. Actually, I joke that my parents are almost too non-judgmental! But I do think this ideal that was, perhaps, generated by their hippie years is a beautiful way to look at the world. And in a way, it's very childlike.

One of the things I love about my children is that they respond to everyone they meet in pretty much the same way; from the guy who scrubs our car at the car wash, to my husband's law firm partners, my kids will greet you with a wide smile and a cheerful conversation if given the opportunity. Although they notice skin color, when they mention it, it is the same as if they are pointing out the color of someone's eyes or shirt; just a way to describe someone. Last year's Newsweek cover story (an excerpt from the excellent book NurtureShock) that asked "Is Your Baby Racist" was an eyeopener for me. The point that stood out for me most was that if you avoid discussing skin color, instead of creating a "colorblind" child, you indirectly make race something that children think is not to be discussed and therefore something "bad". Additionally, the researchers found that children begin to automatically group things into categories of "like me" and "not like me" and classify these things with the ubiquitous "good" or "bad" labels. Thus, just being around people of different races without explicit discussion of it, does not lead to more interracial friendships or understanding. So even though it's slightly uncomfortable for me when our son loudly points out that someone is "brown", I do talk to him about it and remind him of all the "brown" friends he has and where their families are from and why people's skin comes in different colors. It's interesting for me to note my own discomfort in comparison to his natural ease, and I hope I am creating a world for him in which he does not sort his friends by the color of their skin, and where he is kind to others because of who they are, not because they resemble him. 

Our daughter was always the one with the ready smile for strangers while our son would hang back a bit to suss out the situation. They seem to have flip-flopped personalities now and she takes longer to warm up to someone new. I fend off people's desire to label her "the shy one", as I know she is not shy at all. Sometimes I feel caught between my own need to be regarded as a polite person, which requires that my children, too, are seen as well-behaved, and my desire to let them be true to themselves. For example, sometimes I'll ask my daughter if she wants to say goodbye to someone or give them a hug. Is this gentle prompt meant for her good or for my comfort? I don't believe in pushing children to engage in social niceties if they don't want to. Certainly a child should never be forced to hug Aunt Marge if they aren't comfortable doing so, whatever their reason for it. But it is interesting to become aware of one's own discomfort in such a situation, and how one may feel a need to apologize for one's child's behavior. Why do we do that? I recently read an excellent blog post on "A Beautiful Place of the World" called "What do you saay..." Nooo Thanks! in which the author, Nathan M. McTague, discusses prompting kids to be polite:
"I am also of the opinion that the prompting method is demeaning, both to the children and the parents. Have you ever seen this? Person gives child something, parent looks wistfully at gift-giver, then quickly to the kid and says robotically, “What do you saay?” then the kid says (just as robotically), “thnkue”. Then the parent looks back at the other person, with sort of an embarrassed, “hope-that-was-good-enough” look, mingled with a “see-we’re-all-compliant” demeanor and then tries to move on. Again, I’ll bet you anything, that even if the parent doesn’t feel uncomfortable with this scenario, the kid does. And more importantly, the child probably also feels sold down the river, embarrassed, disrespected, and (remember this one) resistant. You may want to tell yourself this isn’t true, especially if you learned the prompting method from your parents or other parents you know, but let me reassure you, kids don’t like to be reminded of things like this, and being publicly reminded is almost always embarrassing — to anyone. I am sure you can think of examples from your own life. Oh, and just so you know, there is no evidence out there that proves embarrassing children is a successful way to make them learn something (except maybe that their feelings don’t mean that much to you…)."
Remember, being polite is actually dictionary defined as "showing behavior that is respectful and considerate of others". After reading this post I thought about how I do this all the time with my kids. Is my need for them to meet adult expectations actually getting in the way of my being considerate of my own children? Was I doing it because I am nervous about what others think of me? Or about what they might think of my children if they didn't say "thank you" or "I'm sorry"? But am I really teaching the kids to be polite or are they, as McTague says, just answering robotically as opposed to coming from a place of true gratitude. I have seen the difference in their responses when they spontaneously are polite and truly grateful as opposed to when I remind them to be that way. But the question remains, are they learning this behavior because I am modeling it constantly or because I am reminding them constantly? What if I were to remove the prompting and let my own behavior be their principal guide? Actions speak louder than words. Do I remove the prompting in order to be more respectful of the children? Or will my attempt to respect them lead to their lack of respect towards others? Have I mentioned that I tend to over think things?

We've started adding "what were you grateful for today?" into our bedtime routine as a way of teaching our children about being thankful for all that they have. Usually they'll answer this question with something random like "I'm grateful for apples and trees". But now and then they'll say "I'm thankful for mommy's kisses" or "I'm thankful for daddy not working today" and then I realize they do get it. I know my parents' modeling taught me to be kind and respectful; I hope that my own modeling is doing the same for our children. I liked McTeague's description of his family's visit with his parents:
"So when we went to the science museum and IMAX theatre the next day, and our kids did not thank my dad directly for all the fun they had — though they did say they had a lot of fun — I got a little antsy about how my dad would feel about it. I came very close to actually whispering to the girls, “Hey do you want to let your Grandpa know how much you appreciated the fun outing?”. And I think that would have been all right, but I chose something else instead. I let my own appreciation be known, and in earshot of the girls I thanked my dad a couple times for all of us."
I think I may try this more. Less pushing politeness in the hope that by modeling it myself I may see more of their genuine and spontaneous bursts of gratitude and kindness; I think those feel better to receive as well.
Don't you?

Thanks for reading!
The Twin Coach

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