Please Teach Your Children Their ‘Magic Words’

teach your kids mannersI remember very distinctly the first time I got yelled at for asking a child to use their manners. It was at a childcare facility that I worked at, and the entire interaction lasted somewhere around four seconds:

Four-Year-Old Kid: Gimme goldfish.

Me: Say please, sweetheart.

FYOK: Gimme goldfish, please.

Me: Sure thing, big guy.

I gave the kid some goldfish crackers and a high five, and then suddenly I was being pulled into an office and chastised about how children that young can’t be expected to use manners and that I would be “on notice” if I tried to inhumanely force a child to use their “magic words” again.

Um, okay, but also: wut?

My biggest pet peeve when it comes to other people’s kids is when they can’t meet the baseline for human decency by saying, “excuse me”, “please”, “thank you”, and “you’re welcome”. Obviously I don’t expect your two-year-old to curtsy and address me using the Queen’s english, and honestly I’m pretty squicked out by parents who insist that their kids call them “ma’am” or “sir”. But the basic stuff? Come on.

I don’t know why it irritates me so much when one of my daughter’s friends comes up to me and demands stuff, other than the fact that it just feels really wrong. After all, if it was an adult, I would probably side eye them or mock them or else tell them to fuck off. My years as a server at Bennigan’s has given me an extremely low tolerance for bad manners. I guess I instilled these manners in my kid as a preventative measure: I didn’t want her to be only as polite as the shittiest four-top at a cheesily decorated family restaurant.

Another thing that keeps me annoyed at kids bereft of manners is that I feel a little ripped off. I taught my kid to be polite but not deferential, so why can’t you be arsed to do the same thing? It’s kind of like skipping the express lane at the grocery store because you have 20 items, only to find that some asshole mows you down to get there with five carts packed to the brim.

Like most things parenting-related, I am probably wrong; there is probably some study out there that says kids who demand goldfish crackers from day care workers on minimum wage without saying please grow up to be captains of industry or some shit, but I kind of don’t care.

I mean, we live in a world that goes absolutely bananas if you forget to send one measly thank you note, and yet, it is also a world in which I get written up for asking a kid to request his morning snack nicely. Why? Will it damage them somehow? Is it not positive enough? Is asking for a simple “excuse me” the equivalent of smacking a kid across their face or demanding a “please” on par with destroying your child’s creativity?

Either way, try teaching your kids manners, because unless they say “please”, I’m just going to pretend I don’t hear them, and they can get their own damn crackers.

(Image: Mikkel Bigandt /Shutterstock)

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  • lauramich

    My 21-month-old has been slow on speech and doesn’t have many words/phrases yet (our pediatrician and PAT educator are not worried yet; his receptive speech is excellent), but I’m ridiculously proud that one he’s already mastered is “Thank you.”

  • CanLeigh

    Glad I live in a place where a kid demanding something like that, especially from a friend’s parent would get a side eye from every mother in the room, and a swift correction from any woman near enough to do so.

  • Lilly
  • Anne

    I agree! We’re really working hard to teach my son to say “please” when he asks for things and we apparently remind him of this a lot because he will sometimes say “ask nicely” instead of please (as in “fruit. ask nicely”) I love it!

    • Snarktopus

      Bort (the toddler) will frequently say you’re welcome instead of thank you.

    • Lindsay

      My friend’s 15-month-old will take something right out of your hands and say “thank you!” as he grabs it. Polite and aggressive!

    • redzulu

      That is so cute. I try and change up my wording because I tend to say “ask nicely” or “what do you say” for both instances of reminding him to say please or thank you. So sometimes he says please, instead of thank you, because he knows he is supposed to use one.

    • KarenMS

      I work in a long term care facility for kids and we have one little boy who will exclaim “Thank you! Manners!”

  • Snarktopus

    We’re working on manners with the three year old. She KNOWS the words, she just doesn’t use them every time. It doesn’t help that she whispers everything, either….

  • Nichole

    When my daughter was 2 we were having Easter at my mom’s house and her “friend” (it’s strange to call a 60-something man her “boyfriend” even though I really like him) and his mother joined us. His mother is in her late-80′s (I think) and a former schoolteacher. She told me my daughter was “too young” to say please and thank you- um, no she’s not (she just did it) and I’m trying to teach her not to be an entitled brat.

  • jorgiemama

    THANK YOU!!! huge pet peeve of mine, those parents who want to wait til the child ‘feels the organic feelings’ of thanks, please and excuse me, etc. Give me a break.

    • Lilly

      that argument is so weird to me as it is obviously a learned behaviour not some innate skill

    • Fondue

      Didn’t Mayim Bialyk (aka Blossom, aka Amy Farrah Fowler) write an article about why she doesn’t force her children to say please or thank you? “Organic feelings” sounds like it came directly from her?

    • Elissa

      Ugh, ridiculous. I’ve heard about the “organic feeling” thing a lot in regards to children apologizing, and I guess it’s only logical that people would extend it to other social niceties.

      Not me though. I don’t want to raise a bunch of assholes.

  • LadyClodia the Modest Rat

    My boys have always been super good at saying please and thank you and excuse me. It’s not even something we focus on a lot, but I love that they do it. And we always make sure we’re very polite to service workers.

    Funny “magic words” story that happened last week between my mom (M) and my 5yo in a rare instance where he didn’t use his manners.
    M: What’s the magic word?
    5yo: Hocus Pocus.
    M: It starts with a “p”…
    5yo: Pocus Pocus. That starts with a “p.”
    Of course we all laughed, and he was right.

  • Elyne

    I was raised to be polite, say thank you… And if I didn’t say thanks than I was quickly corrected by my mom. Now a days I find that many kids aren’t just that polite or respectful anymore against parents/elders ,and that really bugs me.

  • K2

    As if 4 was too young to know.. ridiculous. The people who can’t/won’t teach their kids manners are probably the same ones who demand ridiculous things for their ‘amazing’ kids. Toddler twins I used to help care for were saying please and thank you from the moment they could speak them. I’m pretty sure they’re alright,

  • redzulu

    I think I would be more upset to find out my daycare wasn’t teaching them manners. Toddlers are smart, they know how to say please and thank you. My 2yr old still needs some help sometimes remembering to say please and thank you, but that doesn’t stop me from teaching him when to say those words. Plus when a 2 year old says “tank uo” to someone without prompting it melts my heart. 1. my parenting may actually be working, and 2. it’s just so darn cute.

    • joanne

      Let’s not forget the cuteness that is “pease” or “pweese”

    • redzulu

      Oh yes, so true. :) My sons first pronounced word was “pease”.

    • falcongirl

      A toddler saying “no sanks” like my daughter did (th is a hard sound, man) is just adorable.

  • Jayamama

    My daughter is only two, but we’ve been working on this since she could talk. She’s really good about excuse me (tee-tee) because she knows it’s the only way to get us to move that doesn’t get her in trouble. But she still needs to be reminded about please (deez) and thank you (dee doo). When I ask her what she’s supposed to say, she’s totally willing to say it. I just think she forgets. And when she has to say she’s sorry, she’s really genuine about it, usually including a kiss for good measure.

  • JenH1986

    I will tell strangers kids to say please (at the very least) when working in retail and they want their toy “Gimme my toy!” “I’ll give you your toy if you say please!” “Gimme my toy, please!” A couple of parents have given me side eye, but I usually say something like “Never too early to start!” Because I have zero tolerance for rude kids.

  • allisonjayne

    Aw, one of my favourite parenting moments so far was when my then-2.5 year old tried to get out of wearing sunscreen by shrieking “NO THANK YOU! NO THANK YOU!” at me.

    • Lilly

      yes, I love when they think the magic words will get them anything they want — I have had some funny ones regarding treats “please more cake, please!”

    • ted3553

      my niece used to think that if she said excuse me, it meant that you had to drop whatever you were doing or stop your conversation so she could talk.

    • auntiea

      That’s basically how my sister has raised my nephew. As long as he uses manners you are expected to drop everything to help him. He started kindergarten last year, and he learned this isn’t how life works.

    • ted3553

      thankfully, my sister didn’t feel that way and that it was jsut a phase in my niece’s learning. that would have been very frustrating

    • KarenMS

      I’m trying not to get in that habit but my 1 year old just learned ‘please’ and it’s so endearing I can’t help but oblige. Hopefully the cuteness wears off!

    • K.

      That’s hilarious!

    • K.

      PS–similar to when my own child, when he was still pre-verbal, learned to blow kisses to say goodbye to people.

      When we took him to the doctor to check his ears for infection, he screamed his head off while she had the scope in his ear, and then desperately blew kisses at her afterwards, as in “GO AWAY.”

    • Williwaw

      Haha, my kid also is not yet speaking more than a few words, but when he wants to leave a place, he just starts waving and saying “bye”.

    • Katherine Handcock

      My son would do that! He also was a big fan of suddenly going and getting his shoes and dropping them in front of me. “Well, look at the time! Better get our shoes on, Mommy.” ;-)

    • noodlestein’s danger tits
    • Alanna Jorgensen

      Haha, once my daughter understood please it was a little harder for her to understand that saying please does NOT ensure a second piece of candy.

    • ChickenKira

      My daughter is only 1 but she can now say “ta” only she thinks it means “If I say ta I will get the thing I am pointing at”.
      This idea works when I show her the fruit bowl and say “What would you like for morning tea?” and she picks up a banana and says “ta”. Or when she’s in her room and points at a toy on the shelf and says “ta” – I know she wants to play with that toy.
      This does not work in the children’s museum when she pointed at a dinosaur skeleton and said “ta” then starts kicking and screaming because I didn’t let her have a brontosaurus skeleton that was 200 times her size anyway.

  • chickadee

    I was so big on the use of the word “may” that my eldest, until she was 6 or so, would say things like “May you tie my shoes?” She thought it was more polite.

    The best one , though, was (instead of “Give me five”–high five, you know) it was “May I have five?” What a nerd.

    • falcongirl

      There was one night a few months ago where my toddler was being a bit of a pill. She said to my husband, “More snacks, Daddy!” He said: “Can you say ‘please’?” She said: “Yes.” They stared at each other expectantly for a few seconds and then he said, “Well, are you going to say ‘please’?” She said: “No.” And the language nerd in me died of joy.

    • GPMeg

      OK, I thought I was laughing at chickadee’s comment and then I read yours. That is SO the conversation that happened in my house when I was a child!

    • Katherine Handcock

      My daughter’s just started speech therapy, and the speech language pathologist joked that she was told in her program never to say, “Can you show me your ‘s’ sound?” because a lot of kids will just look at you and say, “Yep!” or “Nope!”

  • Lindsay

    I’m sorry, four is too young to use manners??? In our school, you start learning them in the toddler room, and my four-year-old students know they get nothing if they don’t ask politely. And that includes “May I,” “Please,” “Thank you,” “Excuse me” all in the same sentence. You want a classroom job? “I want to be line leader” is not understood. “May I please be line leader?” is the only way to get what you want.
    My personal favorite is the kid who is never sure if he should use “may I” or “can I” so he hedges his bets and says, “May I can I please play with that?”

    • Guest

      Exactly. There is NO reason a 4 year old should not know, and be expected to use, basic manners.

  • Véronique the Attachment Shark

    People always find it adorable when they give something to my daughter and she says “thankoo!” at 20 months old. She started doing it like 4 months ago, and I never asked her to say it – I just modelled it by always saying please and thank you to HER, so she kind of understood that that’s what you say when you’re handed something.

    I was at the water park the other day and this 9 or 10 year old told me to move my daughter over, and I asked her to say please and thank you if she wanted me to do her a favour. She kind of looked at me funny, but then said please :). lolz

  • K.

    Demand your child say “please” and “thank you”?? What are you, Hitler? What is this, Stalinist Russia?! Forcing them to say “please” and “thank you” will rob them of independence, agency, self-esteem, and creativity!!

    …say people who don’t realize that part of the reason you teach your kid to say “please” and “thank you” is also to help make them aware that they are making a request of someone else and that the other person is helping them–ie, the building blocks of not being a jerk.

  • Ana

    I really appreciate it when daycare reinforces manners. I want my daughter to know it is something society expects of her, not just something her mom makes her say. I’m pretty sure they taught her “I sowwy”, but she has been saying “Peash” and “Dank dou” since about 18 months (albeit, not every single time). Besides, a polite toddler is about the cutest thing ever.

  • SHM

    BS kids can be too you to be expected to use their manners… 15 month old knows how to appropriately use the sign for thank you. Give kids an expectation along with appropriately and consistently modeling the behavior and they can do it.

  • M.

    I don’t mind people telling my kid to use please and thank you…I tell him to use them so why shouldn’t other people? I was really irritated recently, though, we were at the kids museum and a lady handed my son a boat and he said thank you, quietly because he’s shy with strangers (he’s also a little hard to understand because he was a late talker and his articulation is still a lil iffy, thank you sounds like “ah oo”). The lady all bitchy like said “we say ‘thank you’ when someone hands us something.” I wanted to clock her.

    • quinn

      I hear you!! I can’t stand it when someone makes my very shy daughter feel stupid just because they couldn’t hear her say thank you. If I wasn’t trying to model good manners for my kids I would tell people like that to shove it.

  • Greta Young

    My daughter used to be really good with please/thank you. As her vocabulary has increased and she can communicate better, her manners have gotten way worse. Now when prompted, “How do you ask?” she just spits out “Pleaseandthankyou” as if saying “Yeah yeah yeah mom, I know the drill.” She’s also started saying “got” instead of “have” and ending sentences with “at,” (“Where my swimsuit at?”) which drives me nuts. Grrr. Patience. Haha.

    • Williwaw

      “Please and thank you” is one of my pet peeves, and my mom says it all the time. I guess I hate it because it presupposes that you will do whatever is asked, i.e. “Will you wash the dishes, please and thank you?” Note to self: don’t use that on my own kid. (Of course, I’ll probably drive him nuts in some other way that I don’t see coming.)

  • emilyg25

    My brother and I were taught to say, “May I please have some goldfish?” Otherwise, it’s still a command, just with “please” tacked on at the end.

  • noodlestein’s danger tits

    Too young? 4? My ass! I ran into this with my goddaughter. I love her mom, my best friend, but she is NOT good about reinforcing please and thank you at all. I think that it’s just easier for her to get suff for her kids without the whole ‘what do you say” rigamarole, but it’s really important. Believe you me, my goddaughter says please and thank you to me, or she doesn’t get what she asked for. BFF couldn’t figure out why the baby would say it to me and not her, and when I explained to her that I *made* her do it, she seemed baffled. I think it’s probably easy to let a lot of the little things slide when you’re so busy doing the big stuff, but luckily, that’s what godmothers are for. :)

  • Lackadaisical

    I am mean, I now insist that my kids put please in a proper sentence and never at the end as if it has been tacked on as an afterthought. My kids are no nicer than anybody else’s kids but manners create a wonderful illusion of good behaviour.

  • Ashie

    Thank you for writing this!!! I always try to teach my children their manners, and it really bothers me when kids can’t say please or thank you. My nieces and nephews are the worse, they just demand and will not say please, ever. I think it’s rude and disrespectful. I think when kids learn to say simple things like please, thank you, excuse me it helps them become more decent people when they are older.

  • falcongirl

    A four year old can’t be expected to say “please” and “thank you”? Really? Because my two year old does just fine. (And I die of pride a little when she says it to the ladies at the library or servers at restaurants, etc.)

    Here’s a thing that I’ve noticed: in our case, it was seriously influenced by how my husband and I speak to her and to each other. She got “thank you” and “you’re welcome” before her second birthday, but “please” she seemed to struggle with. Then I realized that my husband and I aren’t nearly as consistent in saying “please” to each other when we make requests to each other as we are in saying “thank you” and “you’re welcome”. We decided to try harder and even though it felt sort of funny for a few days, we got used to it and within a couple of weeks she was saying “please” pretty consistently, too.

  • ILoveJellybeans

    I expect “please” and “thank you” as soon as they are reasonably able to say it. For a toddler it can be as little as “Milk please” but a kid who is able to talk in full sentences needs to ask “Please can I have some milk?”.
    My 2 and a half year old has excellent manners and I think its awesome :)

  • GPMeg

    You can come work for me! I’m constantly putting a “hold on please” finger in some kid’s face and saying, “Grown ups are talking and you didn’t say excuse me. Walk away and try that again.” Then, they walk up and say, “Excuse me, Ms. Meg…” and I turn around and say, “Why, YES, Myckenzie, what can I do for you?”

    (I have older kids, for the record, I’m not doing this to two year olds!)

    • quinn

      My kids drove me crazy with that, and I read something about instead of just interrupting they can come up and gently put a hand on your wrist or shoulder so you know they have something to say, and they know that they are the next to talk. I’m going to try it out now, I think it could work!

  • ChickenKira

    I’m a children’s librarian and this happens on a daily basis
    “Gimme a stamp”
    “Gimme a stamp”
    “I only give my stamps out to people who use manners”
    “Oh. Can I please have a stamp?”

    99% of the time the parent just smiles at me, or gives me a nod, but every so often, maybe once or twice a year I come across the “MY CHILD WANTS A STAMP MY POOR LITTLE 6YR OLD SHOULDN’T HAVE TO BEG” person.

    Fortunately my branch manager is also a stickler for manners, so she stands by me.

    On another note, I unfortunately have had to say “You want to try that one again?” many times to adult customers, such as the ones who walk in, throw their card at me and say “Computer”.
    Computer what?

    • KarenMS

      Do you really correct adults?

    • Katherine Handcock

      I don’t think she’s implying she corrects adults the same way she does kids, but if someone tosses a library card at you and says “computer”, she probably does need clarification. “I want to use the computer”? “Look me up on the computer to see if I have late fees”? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying to another adult, “Sorry, what were you looking for?”

    • KarenMS

      I see. That’s fine. I was thinking more along the lines of saying “what do we say?” to an adult (which I would not think was fine :)

    • Katherine Handcock

      While I would personally find that hilarious if someone said it to me, I think responding to an adult with “what do we say” would probably get ANYONE who works in customer service way more grief than they want ;-)

    • ChickenKira

      Our regular customers who are known for being rude, in a way, yes.

  • Rachel Sea

    Worst daycare ever? Should the administration know that tiny children can have great manners? A one year old can sign please if you teach them how.

    • Katherine Handcock

      I was going to say, if I were a parent of a child at that daycare I’d want to know about this so I could remove my child. Honestly? Daycare is a HUGE part of a child’s life if they attend, and that was about the most gentle “say please” conversation I’ve ever heard. Heck, at that age for both my kids, I was past using “say please” and had moved on to “what do you say when you want something?”

      People underestimate what kids are capable of all the time, and it drives me batty.

  • Katie L.

    Yeah, my kid says “please”, “thank you”, and “excuse me”. In fact (and I’m pretty proud of this parenting accomplishment), when she comes up to me and requests something (usually a snack) and forgets the “please” all I have to do is give her this one look and she quickly amends her request to “May I please have some pretzels, please?” For some reason she throws in two. Cracks me up.

  • Katherine Handcock

    It shocks me how many people, even people who work with children daily, don’t understand what kids are actually capable of. I’m not a crack-the-whip, drill sergeant parent, but I do believe that if you set an attainable expectation (and learning please, thank you, etc. is definitely attainable for most kids who are verbal), the vast majority of kids will get pretty darned close.

  • Kelly

    So last night I’m at the Zoo with my kid (2) and my in-laws. Someone sneezes, and she says “Bessyoo!” and everyone laughs and says it’s cute. Okay, fine. Than later she says, “Gimme my nuk Mama”. And I say, “how do we ask for things?” And she says “Nuk pease Mama” and I give it to her, and then she says “Shanks, Mama”. And again, everyone fusses for like 10 minutes. And then my MIL says, HOW ON EARTH did you teach her to do that? My husband shrugs and says, “We speak nicely to each other in our house. It’s not like we taught her to recite poetry in Russian, MOTHER. FFS, stop making such a big deal out of it. ” Cue stunned silence, and then the silent treatment for the rest of the night. And then a passive-aggressive conversation with my SIL about how babies should just get to be babies.

  • quinn

    My daughter is 5 and she is still learning, even though I have tried to drill it into her since she was about 1. Most of the time she says the magic words, but my pet peeve is when we are out at a restaurant and a server corrects her if she doesn’t say please or thank you right away. I try to give her a few seconds to say it herself, and then I always correct her, but I don’t need some server butting in and making her feel bad if she doesn’t say it fast enough for them.
    I’ve got this, I will do the parenting if she isn’t being polite. Give kids a chance to respond appropriately. Some kids like mine feel a bit timid when speaking with strangers, but she’s learning. However if they never say it and the parent carries on like it’s no big deal, then feel free to judge the hell out of those assholes!!

  • wmdkitty

    Thank you so much for writing this!

    (Also, I’m dying of the cute & funny in this conversation — you guys are making my night!)