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We try to stress the importance of using please and thank you with kids, and one of the ways we do that is by demonstrating the use of good manners ourselves by always using please and thank you when talking with them.

However, I was thinking lately it's kind of misleading to say please when I'm 'asking' a kid to do something I expect them to do. It's not as if they have a say in the manner when I tell them that I want them to please finish their vegetables if they want to get up from the table. Thus I was wondering if there are any situations where it's best not to use please if the thing I'm asking isn't a request?

For me many times I don't really know rather something is a request or an order until a child refuses the request. Sometimes I'll accept the refusal and sometimes I'll decide it's something I need to force the child to do, and sometimes what response the child gets from me is largely dependent on how they refused me, for instance a rude response or a lie claiming they already did something they didn't is far more likely to result in my ordering them do something then a polite "no thank you" or their giving a valid reason they wouldn't want to do something or offering to do a different task instead. So for the most part I don't feel defaulting to please is a bad thing as it shows I'm still only requesting, and if I decide to demand something I may drop the please to make it clear that it's now an order.

Still, has there been any advice or suggestions for situations where it really is best not to say please and be clear that something is an order expected to be followed for young children?

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    I use "please" and "thank you" with my dogs. Force of habit. I don't think they consider my "requests" optional. – anongoodnurse Dec 23 '20 at 6:24
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    @anongoodnurse I understand what you mean, but when I told my sister that teaching/disciplining kids used all the same operant conditioning tricks Pavlov was studying in dogs she didn't approve of my comparing her kids to dogs :P Still I'd say your fine until your dogs stat saying "your welcome" back, that's when you know you have a problem. – dsollen Dec 23 '20 at 14:57
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    If only kids were as easy to train as dogs. This site might not exist ;-) – Jax Dec 24 '20 at 15:48
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    @dsollen - There was a terrifficly great study using clickers (like dogs are clicker trained) to teach medical students and residents to do procedures. They learned much more quickly using clickers than encouraging words. The same goes for gymnasts. When I suggested to my DIL teaching a troublesome muscle memory task to my granddaughter using a clicker, I got the most negative response I ever heard from my very gentle DIL in all the years I've known her! Lol! :D Yeah, people don't like their kids to be compared to dogs. In any way whatsoever! Lol @ "You're welcome"!!! – anongoodnurse Dec 24 '20 at 20:27
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To me this depends to some extent on whether you are raising the child in an authoritarian household, where the expectation is that the child quickly and without question follows the instruction of the parent, or an authoritative household, where the expectation is that the parent is correcting the child's behavior as needed, but relies on bidirectional communication to establish the norms and explicitly permits the child to "talk back".

If you are partially authoritarian, then please can be used to distinguish between orders you expect the child to follow, and things you'd permit some negotiation. "Please come down for dinner" invites "I'll be down in a minute", but "Come down for dinner right now" expects the child to come down (more or less) immediately.

If you are authoritative, then please is entirely appropriate. The expectation is that if you say, "Please eat your vegetables", that the child either do so, or have a reason not to, and provide that reason. "I'm not hungry" might be the counter, in which case you might either say "Remember, vegetables are important so your body can grow strong and stay healthy", or my favorite, "If you don't eat your vegetables, you'll have trouble going #2 tomorrow!"; or you might come back with "Okay, if you're not hungry that's okay; but then there's no room for ice cream either, I suppose".

(This is a bit more work for the parent of course than authoritarian, but the goal is typically to not only modify the immediate behavior, but to teach the child why and thus have them make the desired choice on their own in the future.)

Even in the case of an entirely authoritarian parent, you might use "please" to take some of the edge off of the order. Emails from my boss regularly come with "please respond by 4pm today" or similar, and there's no disguising the fact that I'm expected to comply, no questions asked; but adding "please" is intended to make it seem a bit nicer. The important bit though is that I am aware of this distinction: consistency and well defined expectations are key here. If your child is used to "please" implying something is optional, then that's what they will think; if they're used to it just being a "polite" modifier to a command, then that's what they will think. But it's harder to be consistent here I think; if I were to be an authoritarian parent, I would probably not use "please" for commands I expected followed.

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Despite the name, words like this don't have to be magic. Unless you use the strategy Joe mentioned and consistently distinguish orders from requests based on the inclusion of "please" — or the traditional using someone's full name! — the kid is rarely hanging everything on the words.1 Based on my experience, you can make requests without it and give orders with it, and you can be respectful without it and disrespectful with it.

Instead, I find kids tend to use a variety of cues to determine whether your request must be obeyed:

  • Your tone, volume, and body language
  • Your insistence and repetition of the request
  • Your apparent coolness or anger in the moment
  • Their experience of you giving in vs. digging in your heels in the past
  • The request's reasonableness, and their experience of your requests as reasonable
  • Finally, the wording of the request (higher priority if explicitly trained as mentioned above)

many times I don't really know rather something is a request or an order until a child refuses the request

Now that's a problem. The child is interpreting your signals but you're not sure what signals you're giving off. Young children tend to assume that adults' behaviour and signalling is intentional, and only later realize that we often do things by mistake too. So you have to look at the above list, including but far from limited to "please", and ask yourself what you're communicating and how you can communicate it better.

It might sound as though I'm talking academically. I'm actually thinking of the struggle to maintain classroom control as a teacher (ages 13-18) and a Sunday school teacher (ages 6-10). It's been a long, continuous lesson and I'm still learning. But I've realized that there are better and worse ways to issue requests/orders:

Less effective More effective Remarks
(rising intonation, falling volume) Nate, can you sit in your desk, please? (falling intonation, steady volume) Nate, please sit in your desk. Question vs. sentence is a major factor in how they take it
(exasperated) Please don't talk while I'm talking, Nate. (calmly) We're not able to learn well when two people are talking at the same time. I need you to save it for after class, or raise your hand to share. Justification and alternatives for the desired behaviour
(too loud, trying to be heard from the front of the room) Nate! Stop talking and sit down in your desk till break! (walking up to student so I don't have to shout; waiting for him to notice my presence and grow quiet) Thank you. You need to focus now, not talk. Please return to your desk. Break is in 15 minutes. Controlled, not fighting volume, physical presence, 15-minute boundary on my authoritative request
Nate. We do not play with our phones in class. I said put it away. Nate, I've asked you to put your phone away once already. This is the second time. If I see you on it again, I'll keep it on my desk till the end of the day. Is that fair? Giving context, stating clear outline of behaviour → consequence, double-checking that they recognize the need for a consequence and I'm not missing something

Notice how neither side has all the nice guy wording. It can be helpful or not helpful depending on the other factors at play.

Of course, for these kinds of things to work, you need to have certain things in order. You need to be capable of issuing requests firmly, of not getting frustrated and resorting to volume or letting exasperation creep into your tone, of being mentally aware of behaviours and stated consequences so you can keep your promises, and so forth. I did't do a good job of this during my first year as a teacher while trying to keep my head above water, and I imagine it takes time as a parent too.

The takeaway is that requests and orders are part of a whole overall approach, not a matter of saying "please" or not, or other magic words.


1 Note that we often train kids to use these words magically when it's their turn. For example, we won't honour their request unless they use the word "please". This is an interesting reverse power dynamic. Adults have the choice whether to say "please" or not, but kids must do so if they want to be listened to, at least in polite company.

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  • This is the right answer. – zugzwang Dec 29 '20 at 5:13

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