The roar of a crowd-filled basketball arena blares from the den as my 7-year-old son and a friend crouch over my iPad. They’ve cajoled me into a half-hour of screen time playing NBA 2K, a popular video game. Soon, a frustrated rumble erupts from the sofa. “It’s my turn!”
A simple enough scenario. And yet I am paralyzed by conflicting thoughts: Do I intervene or let them sort it out? My raised-in-Georgia instincts say “Grab that iPad away faster than you can say ‘Stephen Curry’ and give it to the guest.” But is that the best call?
I want both of my children — my son and his 9-year-old sister — to be warm and generous friends as well as gracious hosts. But how do I teach them that politeness doesn’t mean a lack of self-respect?
Is there such a thing as too polite?
We talked to parenting and etiquette experts and asked them about manners expectations for girls vs. boys, how to raise kids who are gracious but self-assured, and how to avoid pleasing that has gone too far.
There’s a misperception that being well-mannered means you can’t have an opinion, says Elaine Swann, an etiquette expert. The real focus instead should be how we communicate: phrasing, tone and body language. “You can say anything to anybody — it’s all about your tone,” Swann says. It’s a trickier nuance to learn today as kids increasingly communicate in the digital world, where facial expression and tone are absent.
Children should learn that it is entirely okay for them to finish their turn. Teach them how to say, “I’d be happy to let you go when I’m done,” in a friendly tone. This statement values both parties’ needs. Healthy politeness is rooted in graciousness, and it should feel good. Pleasing, on the other hand, usually comes from a place of fear or anxiety, and often feels draining.
Of course, raising vocal kids can make things a bit more challenging for parents. But it’s our job to teach them how to voice their desires in a tone that is a bit more classical symphony than punk rock.
In our culture, girls are (still) typically rewarded for practicing good manners and taking care of others, whereas boys get high-fives for being brave or taking a risk, says Simone Marean, co-founder and executive director of Girls Leadership, an organization based in Oakland, Calif., that teaches girls tools for self-advocacy and self-expression.
Although it is possible for boys to gain overly pleasing behaviors, it is usually girls who feel pressure to be excessively polite, and they often have a harder time communicating their preferences, Marean says. Middle-school-aged girls in particular start to shy away from expressing their authentic preferences to fit in. Girls often need help recognizing that self-assertion is not rude or aggressive, and they also often need explicit instruction on how to speak up for themselves, how to claim their strengths and how to accept a compliment.
How do we teach that?
It starts by considering how we, ourselves, act. Marean says she works with people of all ages, especially women who don’t know how to ask for what they need. She sees them place Post-it notes on their cellphones with the word “No” written on it, as a reminder that it is always an option to politely decline.
What we model for our kids is far more important than what we tell them to do. It is also much more challenging. “It means really looking at ourselves before we look at our kids,” Marean says, “and who wants to do that?”
First, it’s important to model authentic communication. Do you squeal in delight upon seeing an acquaintance but then roll your eyes after she walks away because you disagree with her about something? It is critical for parents to show kids how to disagree politely and be true to their feelings, and how to ask for help. Show your children that disagreement does not have to mean disconnection. Try saying something like: “That’s so interesting that you like the mountains. I’ve always been more of a beach person.”
Or say to your partner in a gentle voice: “I need you to help me in the kitchen right now. Can you do that?” instead of waiting for the help until your head explodes. Neither children nor adults know what we need unless we tell them.
Another key point: Watch how often you intervene when your kids run into conflicts with friends. In the video-game scenario above, parenting experts recommend just letting them be — even if someone might get his feelings hurt. When you jump in, Marean says, your child learns that he or she is not able to handle that situation without you. “The only way they are going to get these skills is if we step back and let them practice.”
Genuine graciousness comes from self-awareness, and parents can do quite a bit to develop this skill. First, turn off technology and spend time in nature so you know exactly how you’re feeling beyond emoji. Your children will then know as well.
Also remember that mealtimes together are essential. So says Stephen Hinshaw, co-chair of the Scientific Research Council at the Child Mind Institute, professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and author of several books, including “The Triple Bind: Saving Our Teenage Girls From Today’s Pressures and Conflicting Expectations.” Not only are you modeling respectful table manners (your phone is off, right?), but it is also a perfect time to ask questions. He recommends asking things like, “What is the difference between fake polite versus authentic polite?”
This distinction is important. It is possible to go too far and become more connected with other people’s needs than your own — and this kind of pleasing behavior is dangerous, especially for girls. Teenage girls today are more at risk than ever before for developing self-destructive behaviors such as cutting, binge-eating and even suicide, Hinshaw says. Having an empowered and healthy sense of self at this age is critical.
Hinshaw says that parent-to-child communication is the real antidote for unhealthy pleasing. When you have a real dialogue with your kids, you show them that you are genuinely interested in their perspective. Ask them to problem-solve something from your life to boost their critical-thinking skills: “My co-worker didn’t hold up her end of the deal; I’m frustrated and need to tell her in a respectful way. What should I say to her?”
So, as the kids are navigating whose turn it is, stay out of it. But after the play date is over, Marean says, take time to reflect and practice: “How did that go with the video game?” Don’t criticize them for getting it wrong. Instead, cheer their imperfections: “That was a great mistake. What can we learn from it?”
When things don’t go well, role-play a similar scenario so your child will have a script of what to say next time. And when saying “I’m sorry” is in order, teach your child how to give — and receive — authentic apologies.
Saying “No, it’s not your turn on the iPad yet” is a lot easier than saying no to alcohol, an unhealthy relationship or a terrible job. Although saying no is often punished in preschool and elementary school, we need to raise self-reliant kids who are comfortable saying no politely in a thousand different ways.
When kids practice this early on, it becomes second nature. Which is important for later, so they can say no when another teen pressures your teen to sext, for instance. Children are more likely to pause and check in with their true feelings, Marean says, if they practiced saying no for years leading to that point.
We should feel confident that our kids are self-aware and know what they want, or don’t want, in that moment — and that they know just how to say it.