Raising Kids With Character: Does ‘Thank You’ Really Matter?

Politeness is important to me. Politeness is a way of treating people with respect. Politeness shows that you have character, as you are willing to be appreciative and kind to those who can’t necessarily offer you anything in return. Politeness is the kind of oil that greases the wheels of society and makes living together on this big, crowded planet go all that much more smoothly.

When my kids were younger, I often cringed when I caught myself prompting them with “what do you say…?” when I wanted to hear “please” or “thank you”. The preprogrammed call-and-response ritual makes an impression on children that lasts only as long as it takes for them to respond with the correct answer – an answer that is rote and memorized, without meaning or an understanding of why it is being requested.

As an adult, I make an effort to say Please and Thank You to everyone. To the cashier at the store. To the person holding the door. I wave a thank you when a car lets me pass. It may be a small gesture but it says, “Hey, I respect that you are helping me with something. Your time and attention matter, and I’m acknowledging that you, and what you’re doing for me, matters”.

Sometimes the responses are ambivalent, but I usually get a smile and acknowledgment in return. It’s my theory that a person’s day feels just a little bit better when they feel appreciated, and if I have it in my power to provide that, I will. What’s the downside?

I have been gratified to learn that over the years my actions have resonated with my children. They see me treating people with acknowledgment and respect, and they realize it’s just what you do. They don’t say “thank you” because they think they might get in trouble if they don’t; they do it because they love and respect me and if this is something that I find important enough to do on a daily basis – with everyone – then it must be worthwhile. It has become intrinsic to their behavior, as opposed to extrinsically motivated by fear of parental recrimination. Somehow, despite the craziness and disorganization of raising 3 children as a single mother, I have had a positive impact on the development of their characters. Baffling.

If you want to instill kindness and respect in your children, you have to lead by example. No amount of prodding for required responses will build character. Politeness is a skill that has to be learned, but cannot necessarily be taught in the same way that lines can be memorized.

Be the person you want your kids to become.

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