“Can I sit in the front seat?”
“Can I drive?”
“I said a good word.”
“Yes, you did, and that was very nice of you. I appreciate it. But three-year-olds aren’t allowed to sit in the front seat or drive the car.”
Please is indeed a good word. It is a very polite and useful word. Also, I don’t blame the boy for dreaming big. If he’s going to ask to sit in the front seat, he might as well request to take the wheel.
We all want our kids to learn to use nice words like please and thank you. We want them to know when and how to say excuse me and I’m sorry. Speaking of dreaming big, I have pipe dreams about my son learning to say sentences along these lines: “Daddy, I am truly humbled by the sacrifices you and Mommy have made in the name of my happiness.” (This one might be a long shot.)
Of all the words and phrases we want our kids to learn the habit of using, please is the trickiest. Please is a trap. It baits us into presenting it as the universal door-opener. How often do we hear an adult ask a child for the magic word? I’m sure I’ve made that mistake myself and I regret it.
Please is not a magic word. It is nice word, but it holds no more power than any of the other nice words. It only works when used by a reasonable person, making a reasonable request upon another reasonable person. Please won’t get a little boy into the front seat of the car. It won’t get him behind the wheel. It won’t get him cupcakes for dinner, and it won’t allow him to live in my house until he’s 40. None of these are reasonable requests, and there really are no magic words to make them so.
My son doesn’t recognize please as a magic word when his parents use it. It is little more than the waste of a syllable when we use it on him in requests like these:
- “Please eat your dinner.”
- “Please don’t poke your baby brother to see if he’s asleep.”
- “Please stop asking if you can drive the car.”
If there is a silver lining in his declining our polite requests it is that maybe he really can understand that getting the things you want in life takes a little more patience and effort than throwing around some magic word. Getting him to finish his dinner certainly does.
I’m trying hard to get away from please as a magic word. Magic is fun, and there is a place for it in a child’s world, but it is no substitute for respect, character, or kindness. To anyone who will show my kids examples of these traits, I say please and thank you.