The Pitfalls of “Please.”

In a recent article in the Washington Post’s On Parenting Blog, “PLEASE: the downside of teaching our kids manners,” writer Emily Flake points, with wry humor, to the downside of teaching her young daughter to use the word “please.”

By teaching her daughter that “please” was the magic word, Flake realized that she had made a strategic error: she always said “yes” in response.

Unwittingly, she had trained her daughter to equate a request with a demand, and that is the antithesis of good manners. And that is because Flake overlooked half of the equation.

A request involves the asking: “May I please….” or “Would you please…”

But that is only the first half. The second half involves the answer from the other party: some version of yes, no or maybe. Remember: “please” is short for “if you please.” If it pleases you, but not if it doesn’t.

Have you taught your child to have good manners in receiving their answer? A “no” should be accepted with as much grace as a “yes.” A request, by definition, must inherently include permission for and acceptance of a denial, regardless of how nicely you ask. If it doesn’t, the request is a demand wearing sheep’s clothing, which is most often the word “please.”

Yes. I am pushing back on our culture’s constant drive to push–hard, harder!– for yes: “Don’t take no for an answer!” There is a fine line between advocating and imposing. Does your child know it? Do you?

It is harder to parse out than you would think.

Most parents, admirably, try to teach their children good manners. And most know that modeling is one of their most powerful tools. The parent models good manners, and the child imitates the parent. It is a slow way of teaching, but an effective one, except for one hidden pitfall with that word, “please.”

In their laudable efforts to model good manners, and often in an attempt to soften the blow of an announcement or expectation, parents will add in the word “please: “Would you please ________ (fill in the blank: brush your teeth, pick up your toys, get out of the bathtub, etc.)

The problem with this is that the parent is not really requesting that their child get out of the tub. They expect their child to get out of the tub. The only acceptable answer is a “yes.” And that means that the request is not really a request. It has been worded like one to sound “nicer” and hopefully garner less resistance.

I have no problem with a parent deciding that it is time for the child to get out of the tub. (There are better ways to manage it than making a demand: a song, a rhyme, pulling the plug and holding out the towel to wrap her in– emphasis on actions, in other words.)

But if we parents “request” that our child do something when we really mean “do it,” we are sending mixed messages.

We need to have good manners in asking, but we need equally good if not better manners in accepting a no.

Please is conditional.

 

 

 

 

The One Thing You Need to Finish a First Draft, part 2

Here is the handout I made for my presentation last Tuesday for New Hampshire Writer’s Week. It includes a list of books that have been inspiring for me and some which have been practically useful, an interesting article about Zadie Smith and her analysis of the psychology of writers, and finally, Anne Friedman’s “Disapproval Matrix,” which is instructive for anyone, really, but writers in particular. And it is wickedly funny.

Click on this link: First Draft

 

 

Vacuuming: A Lesson in Devotion

Let me tell you about me and the vacuum. We’re not pals. We don’t get along. When the hose twists and makes that high-pitched whining sound, it takes all of my self-control to not yank it as I straighten it—OK, I do yank it. When the vacuum gets hung up behind the door, I take it as a personal affront.

For a while, I was granted a reprieve by my son, who vacuumed the house every weekend for years—with good cheer. I still haven’t figured out how he managed that. But he is off and away now, and I am back at it (I do the downstairs, my husband does the upstairs). And clearly, I have not developed a more mature approach. I open up the closet door, and I swear, that vacuum is leaning against the corner with a surly look in its eye.

I know this is nuts.

And that is what I told a group of parents recently, who had gathered to hear me talk about the crisis of will.

We were discussing chores—how important they are to the child’s developing will—and I had spoken about how the parent can set a good example by doing his or her own chores in the presence of the small child and by doing them with care, with joy, but mostly with devotion.

At one point in the discussion, I asked the parents what “devotion” meant to them: joy, attention, taking time to slow down, gratitude, love.

But I also wanted those parents to know that they didn’t have to set a perfect example, just a good one. And I always seem to have a ready anecdote to show them how that works: being imperfect. The vacuuming could be Exhibit A. Any other chore—no problem—I can find something to love about it. But the vacuuming is just a hurdle that I haven’t been able to jump. Yet.

But then it occurred to me that we had missed an important element of devotion, and the story about my utter disgust and admitted bad attitude about vacuuming held a little grain of important truth.

I hate vacuuming, but I still do it, and I do it reasonably well. I don’t pretend to not hate it—I’m not that good an actor. But I do it, nevertheless. And my kids know that.

And that is part of devotion, maybe the most basic part: showing up. Showing up every time, when you want to, but even when you don’t. And that is part of a healthy will: learning to balance want with need.

It is a true gift to be able to make the doing of mundane household tasks meaningful, to invite a young child to sink his hands into the soapy dishwater or to teach him to master the trick of folding a shirt. Done with devotion, those tasks can be nourishing instead of draining.

But showing up to do something necessary and important (I like a clean house, so vacuuming is therefore necessary and important to me) even when you don’t want to, is a sign of devotion, even if it is only in an infant stage.

So all is not lost for me and the vacuum. And not only because my son will be home for the summer and might be convinced to take up that chore again.

What do you show up for, even when you don’t feel like it? Are there any areas in your life where you haven’t really shown up? What about other people in your life? When/where have they shown up?

Why Won’t My Children Listen to Me?

“Kids. They just don’t listen.”

It really does seem that way, but only because we have a fundamental misunderstanding about how children listen.

Why don’t our children listen to us?

Because children don’t listen with their ears. At least not in an actionable way. Oh, the sound waves of our voices do enter their ear canals and the little bones in their middle ears vibrate and send the sensation of our words to their brains. But that is not the resonance we are really after—the actual hearing. We want—and need—our children to respond to what we say.

Most of the time, when parents complain that their children don’t listen, what they really mean is that their children don’t obey. They believe that their words and their children’s reactions should somehow be on the same sympathetic frequency. And to that end, there is a plethora of advice about how to say the right words in the right way in order to get our children to do what we reasonably expect them to do: clear their places after dinner, brush their teeth, stop hitting their little brothers, etc.

But this well-meaning advice misses the whole point.

Small children—those under age seven—are imitators. They learn by watching and imitating what others do. Oh, they are listening, too! That’s why, when they drop something, they blurt out, “Sh*t!” with just the same force and inflection we give it when we drop something. Similarly, our children will learn to greet the neighbors with a friendly wave and a “Hi, how are you?” if they see and hear us doing it that way consistently.

Children listen with their whole bodies, not just their ears. Their operating language is action. It is all about what we do, not what we say. Children need to be shown what to do—over and over and over—not told what to do.

So if you are rushing to send off a last email and wolf down a last bite of toast while calling out that it is time to get jackets and mittens on, your children will likely continue “their” play, until you get up and put on your own jacket and mittens.

And just as children learn by imitating what we do, they also learn that our words don’t really mean anything when we do not match our words with our actions. When a parent tells her child that it is time to leave the playground but then stands in the parking lot chatting with a friend for a few more minutes, her words may have said, “Go,” but her actions have said, resoundingly, “Stay.”

The real answer to the question, “Why don’t my children listen to me?” is: because you are talking.

If you want your child to hear what you say, by all means, speak. If you want your child to do what you say, act.

Four Obscure Children’s Books—And One Classic—That Every Adult Should Read

Great children’s literature captures the wisdom of human truth in a manner so simple, even grown-ups can understand. I started reading these aloud to my children over twenty years ago, and I have returned to them again and again. For maximum benefit, I suggest reading them aloud. To yourself, if you don’t have the benefit of a young listener.

  1. The Animal Family, by Randall Jarrell.

Except for this first, the books are not listed in order of importance, but if you can read only one, make it this one. Jarrell is a poet, and so every word in this story resonates with exquisite light and tone. If you want to understand grief and joy, longing and love, if you want to learn how to accept what comes into your life and what doesn’t, then you need seek no further than this beautiful and tiny—it quite literally fits into the palm of your hand—story. Or is it a poem? Or a song? A whisper on the breeze? No matter. Call it what you will, it will live in your heart forever.

  1. The Wheel on the School, by Meidert Dejong.

A question is born out of wonder. That seed is planted in the fertile imagination of those who are willing to consider possibilities—even impossibilities. With cultivation, a devotion to explore unfolds, where the known is sifted through for the overlooked and where the unknown is braved for the unexpected treasures it holds. Discovery leads to awe. This is a journey we all must take, at least once. Why not begin here, with storks and wagon wheels?

  1. Fox in Socks, by Dr. Seuss

Read this for the sheer joy of its hyper-kinetic velocity and its gleeful linguistic Dadaism. And because it features tweetle beetles. In a battle. With paddles. In a bottle.

  1. Wolf Story, by William McCleery.

It is always about the story. The story within the story, and the story within that story. The different permutations of the same story. The telling of the story and the listening to the story and way the one affects the other. Never doubt again the necessity of story or your ability to change the story.

  1. Walk When the Moon is Full, by Frances Hammerstrom.

As we all carry on with our days—and our nights—there are other lives being led right among us, but it is so easy—too easy—to not see. To not know. This gentle chronicle of twelve walks on twelve moonlit nights is a reminder to us all that we can travel to a whole new world without ever leaving our own. All we need do is make one small shift in our own perspective—in this case: change the time—and see with child’s eyes. In other words: look with curiosity at the people and the landscape that we encounter every day.

 

A Shot at Forgiveness

A few years ago, when I was struggling with forgiveness (and don’t get me wrong–I had struggled with it since long before then and will, it appears, continue to struggle–I am just fixing this particular moment in time) I picked up Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. It is a stunning and thought-provoking book that poses this question: “You are a prisoner in a concentration camp. A dying Nazi soldier asks for your forgiveness.  What would you do?”  The responses of over fifty people follow.

I was deeply moved.  And also a bit confused.

Because, for me, it was as if they were all driving the wrong way down a one-way street.

Do I have it backwards? I always thought that forgiveness was a process that the victim engages in to release him/herself, not the perpetrator. The perpetrator finds absolution– and self-forgiveness–by making amends, not in seeking forgiveness. Even if the amends can never erase the harm, the perpetrator puts the stone of his intention to make things right onto the balance– and he does so not to fix the victim, but to heal himself. As much as is possible.

This is one of the reasons why I spend so much time in my parenting book, Parenting in the Here and Now, encouraging parents to treat their children’s transgressions as mistakes, as signs that their children need more guidance. Mistakes need to be noticed and corrected without shaming. If harm has been done, amends can be made. By teaching our children to not fear their mistakes, but to be responsible for them and, when needed, to make amends for them, we teach them mercy–self-mercy.

And no, I am not equating childish mistakes with the Holocaust. I am just saying that we all need to be educated– practiced– at making amends and forgiving. Starting with the small stuff, so that we have a template for when the stakes are higher.

I am coming late to that class. I am still learning. I am humbled to acknowledge where I am in the process, but stating the truth is part of it. Here is one story of my journey: http://themanifeststation.net/2015/08/20/a-shot-at-forgiveness/

What is your understanding of forgiveness? I really want to know.

Safekeeping

I am slung back in an armchair in the living room, reading a memoir of sorts: Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas.  I laugh at one passage and turn the page and then am slammed—she does this, with the simplest of details—and glance into the study to see if my son and husband notice that I am crying.  They don’t.

Thomas is going to high school part-time this year.  He wanted to get out of the house, which makes sense to us.  We’d like to get out of it, too.  It is dark.  The whole state is dark.   But that is another story.

But my son wanted to keep doing math with his dad.  For the last few years, they have been working together through courses from “The Art of Problem-solving,” courses which are heinously and deliciously challenging.  They sit together at my husband’s desk in the study—I can see them from my chair—bent over their papers, murmuring to each other, scratching their chins, working to figure out the starred problems, which are designed to be nearly impossible.  They love this.  But every once in a while they both sit back after a particularly long wrestling match and sigh with frustration and chagrin.  It is often a simple matter of computation that gets them off track.  They can do the hard stuff.  It is that elementary multiplication that bites them on the butt.

Today, while I am sneaking in my tears, they do this again—sit back laughing and shaking their heads.

“The usual stumbling block?” I ask, smiling down the hall at them.

“Yeah, 8 times 7,” says Thomas.  They are grinning cheesey grins at me.  They are proud of themselves, thinking that these blind spots confirm their genius.

“Ooh.  That’s a rough one,” I say sarcastically. I have a role to play in this, too.

“Oh yeah… what is it?” says Thomas.

“56,” I say.

“Just checking,” says Ray.  And then he whispers loudly to Thomas, “write that down.”

He looks up at me, bouncing his eyebrows, enjoying his small coup. “There’s more than one way to get to the answer.”

Then they set their elbows on the desk and rest their chins in their hands, mirror images, and start on the next problem, their pleasure in themselves so absolute that it sheets off of them and sloshes up against the walls.

I hold my book up again, but instead of reading, I look past the pages at them and let those waves wash over me.

Having My Cake and Eating It, Too

We have been walking for hours along the lanes, boulevards and public squares of Toulouse, France, and as usual, I have to pee.  It is a cycle of sorts: in order to avoid the horrific public bathrooms, we must find a cafe, sit down and order something to drink.  Then, after an enjoyable hour of conversation and people-watching, we pay our bill and continue our walk, only to be slammed again an hour or so later by the imperative of a full bladder.  And so the search begins for another cafe and a clean bathroom.

My husband, my son and I trail after my daughter, who strides through the crowded maze of narrow, rose-colored streets in her high-heeled boots, and we dodge and side-step around the couples walking arm-in-arm, the dogs on and off leash, the trash cans and crowded cafe tables and miniature cars parked fully on the narrow sidewalks, all of which seem to weave and bob in my daughter’s wake.

After living here for nearly two semesters, Nina knows much of the city, and she navigates through unfamiliar parts with a combination of luck and intuition.  Toulouse is a university town and isn’t a usual destination for foreign tourists, although it seems chock full of French visitors this week.  The sights my daughter takes us to see would not make it into any guidebook.  They are only of interest to us: the Catholic University where she takes classes in philosophy, the art gallery where she had an internship, the fully automated metro that she is so proud of.

And her favorite restaurants.  We are on our way to find one now: the Lebanese sandwich place that she has been talking about all day.  After a week of rich, butter-laden French food, a freshly made pita stuffed with cucumbers and chickpeas sounds like heaven.

When we arrive, the metal grille is rolled up (all shops have one that can be rolled down and locked into place when the shop is closed for the night—  or the day—  or days—  regular business hours being more flexible than we are used to), but the tiny shop is dark inside, and there are no tables set out on the sidewalk, a sure sign that it is closed.  Still, we walk over to make sure, and it turns out that the owner is standing just inside, talking and cooking.

He lives upstairs, Nina tells us, and uses the shop kitchen to cook for his family.  The man, older, with a very un-French-like pot belly, sees Nina and greets her enthusiastically.  Clearly she is a regular.  They have a short, lively conversation in rapid French, and then he looks at me and asks Nina a question in which I can pick out the word “mama.”  She nods, and he disappears into the dark recess of the shop.

“He is going to give you some cake, Mom,” says Nina, grinning.

“Me?  Why?” I ask as he reappears a moment later with a piece of almond cake wrapped in a yellow paper napkin.  He holds it out to me and waves and disappears while I am stumbling through my “merci beau coup.”

“When the Lebanese want to show respect or esteem for someone, they give gifts to the mother,” Nina replies.

I bite into the cake.  It is simple and not overly sweet.  I will remember this cake long after I have forgotten the tarts and croissants and macaroons.

Trajectory and the Crab Man

After my daughter Nina had been in Cameroon for about a month, her college class took a trip to the northern-most part of the country, where they visited an old man who was a fortune teller.  This is the way it worked: he would put certain tiles into a basket that was filled with water and sand, place some crabs inside and put the lid on.  While the crabs were busy in the basket, the visitor would be  invited to ask three questions, after which the Crab Man would open the lid to the basket, remove the crabs and read whatever message they had left in the form of rearranged tiles.  My daughter was enchanted by him and was delighted with the answers that he gave her.

A few weeks before the semester ended and Nina came home, she and I were remarking on how unpredictable life could be, how we would never have guessed, back when she was a little girl growing up in rural Montana and using pancake scraps to train her chickens to do pirouettes, that she would end up in Cameroon, teaching dance, surviving cholera, attending dowry celebrations and frying plantains.  Things haven’t always turned out as she wished, and her path has not always been easy, but she said to me over the crackling phone, “You know, Mom, I have decided to think of my life in terms of trajectory instead of plans. It just makes more sense.”

Out of the mouths of babes, indeed.  We would all be wise to consider her comment, and parents more so than anyone else.   Plans tend to focus on the outcome or destination, such as attending a particular college or being a ballet dancer.  Success or failure often depends on reaching that very specific goal.   Trajectory has much more to do with the start than the finish.  There may be a direction or aim in mind, but with trajectory, our attention is concentrated on constructing a solid platform from which to launch our dreams—  or our children.   Trajectory feels riskier than plans: once we release our children, they are out of our hands and we have that heart-pounding opportunity to watch as the wind and the tide exert their influence.  But I suspect that this is what we parents should be all about.  We lay the groundwork; we sweat the small stuff; we build a foundation of love and trust, of respect and responsibility; we build it as solidly as we can so that the jump, when it comes, is clean and clear and steady, and most of all, is theirs.

The Crab Man spoke to my daughter of many things that day when she visited him, and coincidentally or not, his predictions mirrored her aspirations.  The crabs or the tiles indicated to him that she would complete a “work” and then embark on another that would take her around the globe, and that she would also return to Cameroon (something she already has in the works).  Did the crabs have special powers?  I am not all that familiar with crabs, so I can’t say.  But what about the Crab Man?  Was he prescient?  A con artist?  Or did he just see how comfortable my daughter was in his village?

He spoke his own local dialect and had another villager translating his words into French.   Nina was fluent enough to be able to then translate the translator’s words for the other students.  Did the Crab Man take note of this, of how carefully she tried to convey the words both ways?  Did he notice how she spoke with respect and listened with concentration?  Did he see the shadows and the intelligence in her eyes when she was playing with the little children and the baby goats that ran around the hut?  I am betting that he did, that he was a master of reading not just crabs and tiles, but trajectory.  I suspect that the Crab Man wasn’t predicting so much as he was just stating the obvious, at least what would be obvious to those who know to look at what IS in order to catch a glimpse of what will be.

What would change, do you suppose, if you were to shift your focus from plans to trajectory?

– – – – – – – – – – –

Postscript: I wrote this blog post last summer, but I decided to submit it to several magazines.  Most publications won’t consider work that has already been made public, so I had to wait until it was rejected (over and over, ouch) before I could post it here.  But the delay has not been without benefit.

The story continues: I just got word from my daughter that she has been accepted for a summer internship with—  you guessed it— the State Department in Cameroon.  I am thinking about making a trip to see the Crab Man myself.