10

We taught our son really early on to say and sign, "Please" when he wants things. We've never responded to his demands when he wants something, and have him ask nicely first. We also encourage "thank you"s and give him "your welcome"s. He's better signing these than saying these, we accept signing just as we would speaking.

We'll usually have to prompt him, with a "How do you as nicely?", "Can you ask?", "Candy, what?". However, he's now doing it on his own increasingly often.

The problem we have is that sometimes he'll just absolutely refuse to ask for something, and start crying or exhibiting a (really cute) grumpy demeanor. We've never given in to him behaving this way, so we're not sure why he's trying these tactics. The only factor that seems to be at play is that he's usually less cooperative when he's very tired, but it's not consistent.

I know the title of this question mentions only asking nicely, but I'm sure there are similar behaviors (saying things consistently) that could be helpful.

So, how do you encourage a child to ask for things, when they usually have no issue with it but are currently in a grumpy mood?


I ask because of an incident the other night. Our son has found the see-through storage bin that has a rather sizable collection of unopened Hot Wheels cars. He continually tries to get into the closet to get some of them. He goes as far as clearing the closet door, opening the closet, and pulling bins off the top of the toy bin just to open it up! We don't have any problem with him having the cars, since they're technically his, but we do want him to ask because not only is it polite but it helps us track how many he's getting. We don't want him getting too many too often, as the supply isn't infinite.

Anyway, we stopped him from getting into the bin and told him he needed to ask nicely for the cars before he could have one. We were being quite sincere, and explained to him that he definitely could have one if he just asked (whereas sometimes he asks for things spontaneously, like cookies, and we say no). However, he cried and pouted at us. After 10-15 minutes, he ended up without a car simply because he wouldn't ask.

11

This is the sort of issue that happens all the time with toddlers and preschoolers: when sufficiently well rested and fed, they're polite and well behaved, but when something's amiss things go poorly.

When this happens with us, we address it by triaging the problem first, and then make a choice based on that result.

Why did he refuse to ask nicely?

  • Because he was tired
  • Because he is hungry
  • Because he is a bit sick
  • Because of a behavioral issue

If he's hungry, we definitely have a solution - food! Think about when he last ate. If it's several hours ago, he might be hungry for a snack. Redirection can accomplish this, and then when the snack is finished remind him about the cars.

Johnny, please ask nicely if you want to have a car.

Want car. Give me car.

Johnny, you know what, you look hungry. How about some watermelon?

Want apple.

Okay, an apple sounds like a good plan. Let's go do that now.

Here I don't insist on asking politely, because I know it's counterproductive. He isn't going to learn anything by insisting here - it's just going to produce a negative reaction and end up with a worse situation. That's worth the small loss, and you can reinforce the "ask nicely" with the car later.


If he's tired or sick, you may not be able to correct that right away - certainly suggesting a nap is probably going to fail utterly, at least for us. But what you can do is redirect for a while.

Redirection to a different toy/activity can help here; you get out of the situation, at least. I always try to tell him why we're doing this and why we should ask nicely, in the process.

As a side note, sometimes in these cases you end up in a fit and tears - but it actually helps him out, because it sets him up for sleep. That's not ideal, but it seems at least to me that it nonetheless is helpful.

Johnny, please ask nicely if you want to have a car.

Want car. Give me car.

Johnny, I'm sorry, but if you want a car you need to ask. They're not out where you can get to them, because you're not good enough at putting things away yet to have free access. Mommy and Daddy don't want to put away your toys for you all the time, and if there are cars on the floor we might step on them and hurt our feet! You also might lose your cars if they don't get put away.

Don't want lose car.

Maybe we should do some coloring instead. I bet I could find some paper and crayons for you to color with.

Want purple crayon.

Sounds like a good plan.

Again, I'm not going to push for "Ask nicely" when it's a small alteration to my suggestion, as I don't want to end up in a negative circle. Again, once the coloring is done, we'll circle back to this.

Johnny, we're all done coloring now. Would you like to play with cars now?

Yes, want car.

Okay. Then let's practice what we do when we want a car. What do you say to Daddy if you want a car?

Please can I have car.

Now you have your 'ask nicely' practice in, didn't give in to the misbehavior, but also avoided a major conflagration.


Finally, there are the behavioral issues - where your child knows he should be asking nicely and simply doesn't feel like it right now, despite not having any systemic problems making this difficult. This tends to crop up more as he gets older, 3 or 4.

Here my preference is to treat it similarly to tired/sick above (with redirection), except to try a bit harder at first to gain cooperation.

Johnny, please ask nicely if you want to have a car.

Want car. Give me car.

Johnny, I'm sorry, but if you want a car you need to ask. They're not out where you can get to them, because you're not good enough at putting things away yet to have free access. Mommy and Daddy don't want to put away your toys for you all the time, and if there are cars on the floor we might step on them and hurt our feet! You also might lose your cars if they don't get put away.

Don't want lose car. Want car.

Johnny, if you want a car, please ask Daddy politely. You say "please", because it is a nice thing to say to someone helping you with something. If you only say "I want", it sounds like you don't want to be nice to Daddy.

Want car. Get car.

I'm sorry Johnny, but we need to please use our nice words, or we'll have to do something else.

Want car.

Okay, Johnny, how about we do something else. How about a puzzle?

Daddy say please.

Good point Johnny - Daddy should definitely ask nicely! Please, Johnny, can we do a puzzle?

Okay daddy. Please puzzle.

And again, once the puzzle is done, you can circle back to the 'please-car' issue just like earlier.


One thing I inserted in all of this was to consistently model "please" during these conversations. In the parent-child relationship, it can be easy to get into the habit of "telling" instead of "asking", particularly when frustrated by behavior. This is a big problem - why after all will your child say "please" if you don't always do so? It's definitely something I have a lot of room for improvement on. I pointed it out in the last example of course, but even if your child doesn't call you on it, it's important to model as often as you can - that way it becomes automatic, and when you say "this is what we do as part of social behavior", your child understands what you mean and sees you doing it.

  • 3
    I can't believe how quickly you wrote this up after I asked the question, but still managed to address all the reasons for being uncooperative that I could thing of: tired, sick, hungry, misbehaving, etc. – user11394 May 7 '15 at 18:31
  • 2
    I have two little guys at home who do this a lot ;) It's actually something that we think about quite a lot, in large part because we have a very anti-authoritarian stance on discipline: in order to do that, you have to really be on top of managing conflicts, in particular when your little guys are not fully rational... – Joe May 7 '15 at 18:46
3

The problem we have is that sometimes he'll just absolutely refuse to ask for something, and start crying or exhibiting a (really cute) grumpy demeanor. We've never given in to him behaving this way, so we're not sure why he's trying these tactics.

He is doing them because he is only just learning how this "social thing" works. Do I always have to ask politely? What if I'm tired? What if I'm sick? What if dad just broke a promise? What if...?

Grant your child the right to explore this. A child needs to learn these. Make sure he learns that asking politely gets him what he wants more easily than not asking politely. In the long run, this will get him further than anything else.

Yes, sometimes this is hard. (No, you do not have to be perfect.)

2

With my own child, I will often just give her a suggested phrase to say.

"Car! Car! Give me car!"

"A more effective way to say that is 'May I please play with the car?'"

"Please may with car?" (She never gets the whole phrase right, of course, but that's not important, and I do think it's important that I model the whole phrase even though it's beyond her speech level at this point.)

"Sure! Thank you for asking so nicely."

It doesn't always work, of course. In which case I just tell her "No, not if you aren't going to ask nicely," and try to change her focus to something else. But I have a pretty stubborn and fiercely independent girl, and this tactic works very well with her. Probably because she loves speaking and acting like the 'big people.'

I will even find her modeling my 'suggested phrases' at other times when she is in a good mood.

0

My wife and I try to avoid digging ourselves into absolutes unless there's more to gain by it. Our fella (2.5y) is very good about tacking please onto things and saying thank you at this point so often if he omits it we'll just remind him while still complying. "Remember you're supposed to say please!" while still handing him the snack/toy/whatever. We'll goad him into saying it first if he's not clearly wound up. If it's just going to be a thing what's the payoff in a standoff?

We'll make an exception on things like eating enough dinner to get a small treat. If he wants to dig in on that and refuse to eat the just one more bite we set as a condition... shrug. We don't really want to engage in the ultimatum but there's a habit/perception there about what he consumes as a percentage of his diet as much as there is trying to develop the habit of eating the healthy options.

I think in the example like your car request it might be worth showing progress towards getting what he wants while you goad for an answer. They're not so great at patience at this age. So you start getting it out while goading for the please. Hopefully the excitement makes him a little more content and more inclined to play along/mimic. Alternately you could have waited through a bit of crying and then offered the car, with a goad to say thank you - subbing one polite behavior for another.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy