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:
|(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.