“Jennifer, how do you ask
“Now what do you say to Uncle Marty?”
“What’s the magic word?”
A child who’s questioned like this may mumble a faint “please” or
“thank you,” and her parents may feel somewhat reassured. But they
also may wonder why they have to constantly remind her to use polite
When children say “please” and “thank you” without being prompted or
coerced, parents feel a sense of satisfaction. They’re proud when
their child is polite in public, and they feel good when she’s
polite at home. Children make so many requests throughout the day:
“Get me a drink!” “Give me a napkin!” “Tie my shoe!” If a child
prefaces these statements with “please” and remembers to say “thank
you,” her parents will not feel so overwhelmed and will have an
easier time responding to her constant needs.
So why don’t most young children say “please” and “thank you”
spontaneously? And why do many parents find themselves in situations
such as this: a mother preparing to leave a neighborhood party tells
her three-year-old daughter, “Say ‘good-bye’ and ‘thank you’ to Mrs.
Miller.” The daughter turns away and refuses to speak as seven
mothers stare at her. The mother tries again, then thanks the
hostess herself and leaves, feeling defeated and embarrassed by her
Yet, when children forget or refuse to say “please” and “thank you,”
they’re usually not being impolite. There are several explanations
for their behavior. First, they have a difficult time grasping
general rules, including ones about responding in socially
appropriate ways. A child who’s told to say “thank you” when given
something at Grandma’s house may not connect that experience to a
similar one that happens later at a neighbor’s house. Although she
is again being given something, she’s too young to understand that
she should respond as she did earlier.
Another reason children may not use polite words is shyness. While
some children respond to prompting, others are just too
self-conscious, especially when adult attention is focused on them.
A shy child may refuse to say “please” or “thank you,” and this can
lead to a struggle if her parents try to force the issue.
Finally, a child may be too preoccupied to say “please” and “thank
you,” especially if she’s just been given a new toy or has an urgent
request. She has a difficult time thinking about and considering
other people’s wishes, and saying what her parents want her to say
may be the furthest thing from her mind when she’s excited.
Sometimes parents who constantly remind their child to say “please”
put themselves in a bind. They may inadvertently convince her that
all her wishes will be granted if she uses what, for her, may
actually seem like a magic word. For example, in a toy store she may
say. “Please, Mom, please. Will you buy this for me?” When her
parents explain why she can’t have the toy she just politely asked
for, she may not understand (or not want to hear) their reasoning:
“But I said please!” Since her parents want to encourage politeness,
they may be reluctant to say “no.” Inevitably, she will receive a
confusing mixed message—saying “please” sometimes gets her what
she’s asks for and sometimes doesn’t.
If your child does not often say “please” and “thank you” on her
own, there are a number of things you can try. Watch for the times
when she does use polite words and reinforce that behavior by
saying, “I really like the way you asked for that.” If you know that
your child is too shy to say “thank you,” you can do the thanking
for her, which may make you both more comfortable, and let you model
polite behavior for her. And if you’re unhappy with the way she’s
asked for something, say, “When you ask me that way, it doesn’t make
me want to give you the juice,” or, “You’ll have to find another way
of asking.” Such statements give her an opportunity to say “please”
or to change her tone of voice.
Tone can be very important. As adults, we’re usually more concerned
about using a polite tone than about always attaching “please” to
our requests. When your child makes frequent demands (“Zip my
jacket!”) you may be so frustrated with her tone that you find
yourself harshly demanding politeness (“PLEASE!”). If she mimics
that harsh “please,” you still won’t like the way she sounds. But if
instead of demanding a “please” you model the right tone, she may
understand what you want and respond more pleasantly.
Finally, remember to say “please” and “thank you” when you ask your
child for something or when she’s done what you’ve requested. All
too often we make demands of children without ever saying “please”
and “thank you” to them. When your child hears you speaking politely
to her and to other children and adults, she’ll begin to do as you
do, and increasingly say “please” and “thank you” on her own.