Should I Make my Child say ‘Thank You’?

It’s Christmas. For those of us celebrating, a combination of gifts and relatives may be more in evidence than usual. Perhaps it’s a good moment to consider what we want to do when we would love our child to say thank you and they don’t.

In the video (60 seconds)

2 strategies to try instead of ‘making’ your child say thank you. Follow on is in the article below.

This article is a fuller exploration leading on from the 60 second video above. I want to say immediately that I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer as to whether to make a child say ‘thank you’ or not. My aim in offering this article is to invite consciousness around the choices you make so that they are ones most likely to serve you, your child, and others around you.

Concerns about not insisting that our children say ‘thank you’

Digging beneath the desire for our children to have good manners, parents cite three reasons amongst others for ‘making’ children say thank you.

The first is that we want our children to thrive socially. Thank you is an important currency in our culture – from the reflex thank you in response to the salt being passed or a door being held open, to the more considered appreciation in response to a gift or a delicious meal. We may worry that if we don’t pick up on thank yous, our children will grow up being less accepted in the world.

The second is that we want others to experience appreciation for their efforts to give us something which enhances our lives. We make our children say ‘thank you’ to encourage them to focus on what the other has offered, and learn to express appreciation themselves.

The third motivator at play is our desire to be accepted amongst fellow parents and others. We want to belong, and to know that we are doing our best by our children.

As someone who has decided not to insist on ‘thank yous’, I am strongly aligned with each of those longings, and guess that most parents will be. I am concerned, though, that in making our children say ‘thank you’, we may not always be meeting those longings as well as we could. Further, there may be other needs of ours and our children’s which are not catered for when we act on those drivers alone.

Concerns about making our children say ‘thank you’

My first concern is that our focus on trying to get our child to say thank you is more about us than the other, and can mean that we lose touch with what might bring most pleasure. It’s the thank you given without a sense of duty, and with a delight and gratitude in the effort of the other, which can bring most joy. Getting our child to say ‘thank you’ might meet our desire for approval, but could be at the cost of the other hearing appreciation as we and they would most like.

A second consideration is whether an insistence on a thank you from interrupts our connection with our child. I don’t think that is the case where we remind our child about a thank you, and they say it without issue.  But when we are trying to get our child to say ‘thank you’ and they don’t want to, we are at risk of blocking our relationship in that moment as we override our child’s strong needs for autonomy and respect for his choices.

A third concern is that it may not be supportive of our child developing the kind of free, spontaneous appreciation that is the most precious to receive from either an adult or a child.  I wonder how many of us struggle with social norms at the cost of deeper relationships.

Again, I am guessing that many parents would relate to the longings here for uninterrupted connection with our children, and for helping our children to bring joy to others.

Deciding what is right for us

My suggestion then is to identify what is really going on for us when we insist on a ‘thank you’ from our child, and from that place to decide whether and how we want to do it. My experience is that we are likely to discover that we all want the same things for ourselves and our children – we just have a different emphasis on different needs. Once we have more clarity around that, we are more likely to find choiceful strategies that fit best for us and our unique relationship with our child.

To help focus on where you stand, I offer the following questions:

  • What is your experience of telling your child to say thank you, or not?
  • Does that ring any bells from your past experiences? Is it informed by how you say thank you yourself, or how you experience thank yous from others?
  • What is really driving you to make your child say thank you, or not?
  • Given those drivers, are you happy with what you are already doing?

If you would like some alternatives to insisting on thank you, I offer them below.  I have found making my daughter say thank you to be too costly in terms of my connection with her. I trust, and to some extent experience, that the way I am doing things will support her to manage well socially. On the other hand, it inevitably means that I experience judgments from many others who don’t know anything about my choices. I have chosen to find ways which work as best I can in terms of expressing my own appreciation for what they are doing, and to develop other relationships where I do experience a sense of belonging and community.

Alternatives to insisting on a ‘thank you’

I like to think of the strategies in 4 different groups.

Say something other than ‘What do you say?’

  • Ask your child out of earshot if they’d like to say thank you, and then respect their choice.  When their focus is on something else, this can be a reminder to them to see if they want to say thank you.  It doesn’t make them feel they are wrong not to say thank you.  It leaves them with the autonomy that is so precious to them.
  • As an alternative, ask whether they would be willing to say thank you.  The word ‘willing’ puts the focus on the fact that you’d like them to say thank you, and asks them to help you on that.  As in the first option, respect their choice and don’t make them wrong.
  • This is similar to the last one – but this time, include an explanation.  “Would you be willing to say ‘thank you’? – I’d love some appreciation.”  If this language feels all wrong, or your child is too young, try something else which works for you but keeps the energy of explanation and total choice for the child.  My current shorthand is a smiling, hammed up version along the lines of ‘Thank you most wonderful Mum in the world!’. My daughter responds to the lightness and the obvious choice she has to respond. I may or may not hear a thank you after it, and either is really fine with me.

Say your thank yous consciously… It’s an obvious point, but our children learn from our expressions of thanks to them and to others.

  • In all your interactions with your child, check that you are saying thank you where you want to be.  Play with different ways of saying thank you.  Explore giving long thank yous – ones where you name more clearly what it is that the other person has given you through their actions. “Thank you for that gift – I so appreciate the care you put into choosing it (even though I really can’t imagine I’d ever want to wear it).” “I loved when you offered to bring in the shopping – I’m so tired today.”
  • When you appreciate something someone has done for your child, you can express it whether or not your child says ‘thank you’.  Your child gets a gift that you know that the giver has gone to a lot of trouble with, and rolls straight into playing with it without a thank you.  You can say ‘He’s so delighted!  Thank you for taking such care in getting that for him.’.

Talk with other parents and your child about what you are doing and why:

  • If you possibly can, build a face to face or online community somewhere within your parenting life where others get how you are parenting, and are in alignment with you.  As with all parenting choices which are out of line with many you are around, it can be hard where everyone else is insisting on a ‘thank you’ if you aren’t.
  • With less close friends who are making different choices, is there a language that works for you to explain your choice? Along the lines that you want your child to be free to say thank you when she is really feeling gratitude? Or that you trust that with time she’ll come to the automatic reflex thank you and want to wait for her to do that without asking in the meantime?  Or whatever else it is that you want to say.
  • You can explore with your child how it is for her to say thank you, or to hear you ask her to say thank you.  You could talk about how she feels and how you feel, and see if you can find ways that work better for you both when situations around ‘thank yous’ arise.

When you are feeling pressure to conform, try to hold on to choices made out of the moment.

  • Get clear about what you would like to be doing ahead of ‘thank you’ situations. If you know that you want to avoid making your child say ‘thank you’, focus on the bigger gains you believe you are making by doing what is difficult in the moment.  There is more on the idea of holding on to our core values in pressure situations in some of the attached articles.

In closing… A fortnight ago her teacher, whom I love, told me that my 6 year old has ‘beautiful manners’ and treats her like the Queen.  Instead of being delighted, my reaction was concern that she’s too submissive to authority. I worry too much…

Reading around the subject:

Tripping Mom: A mum (mom!) talking about her journey away from making her child say thank you.

The Natural Child Project: Naomi Aldort expresses strong views on not making children say thank you.  I like a lot of what she says, although I wonder if I’m alone in feeling irritated by her style of talking about her own parenting.

In Culture Parent: Thank you for children in Britain and Kenya. Choosing not to insist on thank yous with the experience of two different cultures.

Baby Center: The opposite point of view: and if you take it, a short article with ideas for teaching your child, and developmental norms.

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