To set the tone for this discussion, I want to invite you to think of the last time that you had a strong reaction or opinion about something you witnessed or experienced. Maybe it was a response to another driver’s actions, maybe it was something you witnessed on a playground, or maybe it was a bite of food that was just off.
I’m that person who will answer honestly if I’m not enjoying my meal at a restaurant. I’ve gotten to the point where I can determine something that’s just not right versus something that’s just not right for me. I try to be as nice as I can about it, but I’m also not going to sacrifice my dining experience (and the money I’m paying to have it) by continuing to eat something that missed the mark. (At one favourite restaurant, an attempt to bring some acidity to a porcetta sandwich was so overpowering and unbalanced that I had to have several sips of water for each bite of sandwich.) I’m polite about it and never insist on sending something back, but I’ve had more than my share of shocked responses — I am Canadian, after all. There is something about being honest about a negative experience that some people just cannot accept as anything other than rude. And, unfortunately, we project that mentality onto our kids.
Once children are old enough to make observations about anything and everything, they start sharing them! These unfiltered comments are sometimes hushed by well-meaning parents wanting to establish a sense of manners in their children when we worry that they cross a line into rudeness or ignorance; however, young children lack the perspective awareness to understand how their comment is (1) perhaps an opinion and not factual; and (2) potentially hurtful.
Preschoolers are incapable of truly understanding another’s perspective, it is a skill that is acquired with brain development, time, and social experience. Even when trying to get children to understand basic kindness and manners, a preschooler can only go so far as their own experience allows them to and they are incapable of separating their personal preferences from their attempts at projecting. For example, a preschooler who does not enjoy broccoli cannot conceptually understand that giving a serving of broccoli to a friend might be a nice thing to do because they cannot conceive that broccoli is anything other than bad-tasting (there are studies that suggest that children will carry out actions like this that receive positive feedback, such as Repacholi & Gopnik 1997, but their understanding of their actions is limited). A child who comes to understand that the friend likes broccoli is apt to generalize this “like” as “my friend likes bad-tasting things.” Only with brain development and more exposure to friends who have different food preferences will the children begin to develop an understanding of the nuances of food preferences.
This relates to manners very directly: if a child thinks something, they have no notion that their thought is anything other than pure fact, and to imagine that someone might not accept this fact and, further, be offended by this fact is beyond comprehension. Even the gentlest reminders to be polite are going to fall on deaf ears because the child doesn’t see their perspective as a perspective, or something that could be refuted.
For example, Johnny says Amy’s art is ugly. To try to explain that such a statement might hurt Amy’s feelings will be confusing because Johnny cannot comprehend how Amy’s ugly art is his fault and might think that just commenting on another person’s art is the “problem.” An attempt to appeal to Johnny’s empathy by asking if he would like someone to say that about his art will be similarly moot, because Johnny knows his art is good and so no one could say that it wasn’t.
So, this is not to say that we need to accept rudeness out of the mouths of babes, but we need to understand that politeness (as we see it) does not occur simply with practice and correction; it is a sophisticated thought process to understand that our own perspective is not the only one available. Things that can be done to encourage children towards more polite comments in the meantime include:
Accentuate the Positive
Ask children to look for one nice thing that they like about anything that they are discussing — keep in mind what the child likes might seem a rude comment to us (“I like that your witch looks ugly” is actually something I once said as an intended compliment to a friend for having created a realistic “haggard” depiction)
Stop relating to their comments as rude or mean; they are just questions. I might point out that a certain word choice is not very kind, but I would never suggest that a (preschooler) question is unkind. Further, when a question or comment can be considered racist, sexist, etc, don’t imbue the child’s statement with that adult interpretation — take their comment at face value.
Answer their Questions
If a child asks a seemingly impolite question or makes an observation, get to the root of their question and leave the excess. We might think that a child pointing out how “weird” someone looks is rude, but we can look past the “weird” word and explain the difference to the child in a way that gives them understanding. I try to also acknowledge what the child is not saying — i.e., by pointing out that someone looks weird, they may be indirectly asking if they should be afraid of that person, so picking up on and addressing that helps.
Sometimes we just don’t need to respond or comment. Ella is terrified of wheelchairs, despite constant exposure to one (and a miniature one in her dollhouse) but doesn’t actually comment, she just clings onto me and looks in fear. Other people often don’t notice so I leave it, as commenting would have them notice and potentially be hurt unnecessarily; her exposure to them and my casual response to their presence will eventually allow her fear to subside and leave the way for her to feel safe to ask questions. When we are out of the situation I often remind her that wheelchairs help people and leave it for her to eventually figure out her questions about them (by “suggesting” concerns to her, she is more apt to accept and believe these new concerns).
What would you do to help a child learn how to be polite in a developmentally appropriate way?