Do my children have to share? No.
Do my children have to apologize? Nope.
Do I suggest that they say the “magic” word? Again, no.
But before you pass me off as a passive parent, stick with me here. I can assure you that I am not mothering disrespectful maniacs. As parents, we are conditioned to believe that we must raise good humans (the pressure to do so is immeasurable) and in order to do so, we must coerce our children to say please and thank you, share with others and offer an apology after undesirable behavior.
Don’t get me wrong, manners and empathy are important skills. I emphasize the word skills. They develop over time as our child’s prefrontal cortex develops. And while we can’t force our child’s brain to mature quicker, we can guide it toward optimal functioning.
This means that we have two choices: We can choose to push manners, sharing and apologies so that our children provide the responses that help us feel comfortable about whatever is happening or we can teach and guide, mirroring what we hope to see in our children.
Forcing our children to regurgitate words that don’t have meaning for them may appease you in the short-term, but it may lack the long-term efficacy of your child embodying these skills.
If we want our children to respect us as an authority, we must respect them as humans.
If we want our children to be kind, we must be empathetic ourselves.
If we want our children to embrace mistakes and apologize, we must do the same.
You get the point here. It isn’t about making our children do anything like puppets on a string, but rather leading them back to themselves, where they can learn to listen to their bodies, choose what is best for them and then do it and be it. That starts with us, their sturdy leaders.
Why punishment and bribes don’t work to teach skills
When it comes to manners, sharing and apologizing; punishing, isolating, or shaming your child can lead them to hold on tightly to their authenticity—their desires, wants and needs—and fight for them, thus leading to power struggles as the parent and child tug two different ends of the rope.
Bribing and rewarding what we consider desirable behavior only teaches our children to look outside of themselves for motivation and validation.
And forcing our children to regurgitate words that don’t have meaning for them may appease you in the short-term, but it may lack the long-term efficacy of your child embodying these skills.
So let’s take a look at how to teach our children the skills of sharing, apologizing and manners so that they actually want to do them.
What to say to encourage sharing
Sharing is hard at any age, especially for our children who have an immature cortex. Again, these are skills, and the best way to get your child to want to share is to teach them that it is OK not to.
For the child who doesn’t want to share, validate them. Say something like: “I see that your sister wants to play with that toy and I hear you saying you aren’t finished with it. Thank you for using your powerful voice.” This teaches your child it is OK (and safe) to set a boundary.
For the child who wants the toy, validate them. Try saying: “I see you really want that toy. It is so hard to wait and I am here to help you. What will we do together while we wait?” This indicates to your child that they are seen and supported and primes the know-how of respecting others’ boundaries, as well as impulse control and problem-solving among other valuable skills.
In a moment when your children are not squabbling for the same toy, get creative with a playful skill-building exercise. Teach them how to ask for what they want with their words. Role-play and model these questions.
1. “May I have that toy?” If the answer is no then…
2. “Can we play with the toy together?” If the answer is no then…
3. “Please let me know when you are done so I can play with that toy.”
This has gone over huge in our home. It isn’t a magic cure, but remember, those brains aren’t ripe until the mid to late twenties, so it will take time and consistent practice.
How to teach kids to apologize without forcing it
When we tell kids to utter a forced, “I am sorry,” it gives the illusion that our children are learning the skills of relationship repair; however, if they don’t actually want to apologize, then they may be more likely to repeat the offensive behavior in the future.
With your help in a practice called co-regulation, children feel seen and safe and can then process the impact of their words and actions. You can prompt an apology, but if your child declines, accept it. Discuss what they could have done differently or tools for the next time something similar occurs. It is also important to remember that repair comes in many forms. Maybe it is with words, or maybe a hand-drawn picture, a hug or some other unique expression from your child.
How to teach manners without forcing them
We often think our kids are being disrespectful when they fail to say please, thank you or some other polite expression. But the thing is, our children are experiencing everything for the first time and they often become swept away in their enthusiasm. For children to be manipulative and downright disrespectful, it requires the development of a part of their brain that is still highly immature.
Children are naturally egocentric, which is a survival mechanism necessary for development from day one on this planet. It takes time for them to shift toward a more altruistic nature. Forcing manners for superficial reasons of appearance doesn’t get them there any quicker.
In my opinion, coerced politeness teaches children that manners are empty and their feelings and words have low worth. The true origin of manners is the byproduct of gratitude, responsibility, empathy and respect. It is a mindset, not submission.
Often what we witness in our children is development, not defiance or disrespect. And it doesn’t mean they are going to grow up to be challenging, irreverent adults. When we show them the way, they absorb what they see. And even more than that, they remember how it feels to have a parent who shares, sets boundaries, apologizes and is kind.