Being polite: Your secret weapon to motivating positive behavior in children

A recent post on our neighborhood’s “NextDoor” email group has stirred up a huge number of responses and controversy.

A woman parked at our local Starbucks returned to her car to find a sticker on the window informing her that she had “parked like an a******.” In the lengthy online discussion that followed, the most common theme was debate on whether she had, in fact, parked poorly or not, followed by opinions that the person who left the sticker is the real a******, followed by advice that she should shake it off and ignore it, with the fewest comments expressing sympathy that this happened to her and expressing a wish that people communicated more respectfully.

It struck me that so few of the people commenting understood how to make the world a happier place, how to get their own needs met or get others to do things as they wish they would.

Hopefully we don’t call our children a*******, parents often do scold their children, speak harshly to them, or try to make them feel bad. I heard a parent comment the other day that “since this behavior was serious, it was time to come down hard on the child.” This makes logical sense, and is what we instinctively do.

But reality is quite different

Here’s the thing: guess what happens when you speak in a way that hurts someone? She naturally wants to protect herself. And the usual way to do that is to argue, deny the point, respond with anger and blame others.

Let’s look at the Starbuck’s parking incident.

It did look like the woman’s car was not pulled fully forward into the parking space. That could well have been a problem for someone. But the woman’s immediate response to the rude sticker was to defend her parking.

Each time someone in the discussion criticized her parking, she defended it. The person who left the note achieved nothing; she is too defensive to consider a need to change her behavior.

It works the same way with our kids.

When they feel criticized, kids go into self-defense mode, and considering that they may be in the wrong is the last thing they’re likely to do. Their energy goes into denying us, not challenging themselves to do better.

What if the note on the woman’s car had instead said something like, “I have a really wide truck, and it’s easier for me when people pull as far forward into a parking space as possible. Thanks in advance, and I hope you enjoyed your coffee!” I’d bet that the woman’s response would have been very different. She would probably have smiled instead of being upset, and while she may have been a little embarrassed, she wouldn’t have gotten angry or offended. She might also be more likely to pay attention to her parking in the future.

When we approach our kids politely and kindly, they are free to hear our message because they don’t need to deny it to defend themselves.

They’re open to our message, and they feel good about trying harder to do it differently.

As a bonus, they’ll learn from our modeling to ask politely for what they want, so they’ll be more likely to get it, and so they’ll be less likely to ruin a woman’s whole day by putting a rude sticker on her car.

What do you think? 

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