Let me explain: while I was raised in the Northeast, I am of Southern extraction; I blame this sudden affinity for politesse on an epigenetic holdover from the land of honeyed voices (and veiled threats, but that’s another article entirely). Awhile back, we brought our daughter, then 1-year-old, to visit family in Texas. We stayed with my cousin, who has two older kids. My cousin is the last person you’d expect to put much stock in “correct” behavior – she’s a wonderful free-wheeling bohemian of a lady, a ghost-whisperer, a fairy-tale spinner. She does reiki, for crying out loud. And yet, when helping her son do the washing up after dinner, I asked him: “So, do you have school tomorrow?” “No ma’am,” he replied, earnestly, turning to look me in the face, “it’s a holiday.” I was surprised at the little thrill that “ma’am” gave me – here was a kid talking right (I complimented my cousin later on her children’s manners – “Oh,” she said, “you gotta get that in early. We don’t let that slide ‘round here.”).
I get that same little thrill, now, when I hear my daughter Tug give an unprompted “thank you” or “I’m sorry” (and I am sorrowfully aware that, owing to celestial laws I don’t pretend to understand, bragging about this behavior is certain to make it disappear. I bragged about what a good eater she was; she promptly stopped eating anything but cheddar bunnies. If my kid seems feral next time you see her, you’ll know why). The third leg of that holy trinity, of course is “please” – and that’s where we’ve hit a little sticking point.
The problem with calling something the “magic word” is that kids, it seems, expect it to be just that – an incantation that brings them whatever it is they desire. An example:
Her: “I can have a cookie please?”
Me: “No you may not. Those are for after dinner.”
Her: “PLEASE. I SAID PLEASE! PLEEEEEEASE!!!!!!!”
A drama, I’m sure, that plays out all across the cookie-having world (for the record, she did not get the cookie. Because THAT WAY LIES MADNESS). And an irritating one, but nothing compared to the scene when her father and I showed up at her preschool at the invitation of her (very awesome) teacher, bearing a cake for her birthday. Have you ever brought a cake to a bunch of kids who were not expecting cake? It’s like they’ve been living in a clammy box in a dungeon and you brought them a key, and sunshine, and maybe a puppy. The cake was fine; what happened after was not. John and I wiped our daughter’s chocolate-smeared mug, gave her a little kiss, and prepared to leave. So did Tug. “No honey, mama and daddy have to go back to work; you have to stay here in school.” “Please I can come with you? PLEASE I CAN COME???? PLEASE I WANNA WORK TOO PLEASE PLEEEEEASE!!!!!”
What we’d done, I realize, was not playing entirely fair with her. Never have we shown up in a place where she was and then not taken her with us when we left. What on earth is this confusing and painful turn of events? There was cake but now they are abandoning me! But you can’t take a kid home from school when the kid cries and wants to come home, because then that kid will never ever go to school and unless you’re willing to commit to homeschooling, which I am not, then you’re doomed.
“I’m sorry, honey,” I said, trying gently to extract myself from her drowning-man grip, “we’ll see you so soon. We have to do our jobs, and your job is to go to school, but –”
It was awful. But these things have to be done. We beat it out of there and I burst into tears in the hallway, surrounded by construction paper outlines of hands and the smell of industrial floor cleaner. I know I wasn’t leaving her in the desert to die – she likes school! – but those “PLEASE”-s nearly broke me. “Please,” like all polite words, is a tool to get along in the world, a way to grease the social skids a little, to make others around you feel valued and comfortable. But, dangit, she’d found a way to weaponize it.
In instances such as these, it’s tempting to wish we had never taught her “please” in the first place. It’s much easier to dismiss a child’s demands when they’re being, you know, rude about them. But that bomb-grade “please” – well, all kids figure out how to do this. It’s just the first step in a long road of language-based warfare. I’m certain that in time, she’ll learn to add “But I love you!!!!” to her pleading, just to really twist the knife.
Emily Flake is a cartoonist for The New Yorker and other publications. Her memoir Mama Tried: Dispatches from the Seamy Underbelly of Modern Parenting was released in October. Check out more of her work at EmilyFlake.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @EmilyFlake.
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