Before my grandson William was one year old, his mother was already training him to say please. When William wanted something, she reminded him, “Say please,” and he responded by making a circular motion on his chest in the manner of American Sign Language. What can be the advantage in teaching a child who is still working on “Mama,” “Dada,” and “Nana” how to say please when he can’t even really “say” it?
All around the world parents devote much time and literally thousands of repetitions to teaching their children good manners. Politeness is the social grace and the slippery grease that lubricates our personal interactions. Without politeness the painful frictions of misunderstanding and hurt feelings can slow down the progress of our relationships or even cause them to blow up altogether. The tedious and painstaking repetitions involved in training a child in good manners are well worth the effort.
But the most valuable lessons that have their seeds in the social graces are not as obvious. Manners, after all, are all on the surface, all glitz and gloss and only for show. For people like my dear little grandson the real value in good manners begins not in just saying “please,” but in acknowledging his mother or father to whom he says it.
If the psychologists are to be believed, very young children are completely egocentric. It is impossible for them to see the world from another’s perspective. They first need to identify and understand that “others” even exist.
Saying please is an outward recognition of the “otherness” of the parent. It is the beginning of respect for others, which is the beginning of moral behavior toward others. It is the end of the notion of the child as the centre of the universe. In being polite to another person, I am acknowledging his or her value and not just my own. Of course, all this philosophizing is lost on the toddler. But without realising it, his horizons have been broadened to include the concept of others through the simple act of saying please and thank you.
All virtue begins with this type of discipline. We need what Emmanuel Kant calls this “external constraint” to teach us how to be good. This is not something we can manage on our own.
The French philosopher La Bruyère said that politeness makes a person “seem externally what he really should be.” La Bruyère’s compatriot André Comte-Sponville says in his book A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues that “morality is first artifice and then artefact.”
We train a child how to act before she can even understand why she should act this way. We teach a child what to say before he understands the full meaning of what he is saying. This important training plants the seeds that can later grow into the true virtues of compassion and mercy toward others.
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