Today's Polite Child, Tomorrow's Lonely Sociopath

If your child forgets their manners, don't remind them of their Ps and Qs

A man wags his finger at a child standing before him.
Building a monster. Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels

If you have children, which approach do you favour when they forget to say thank you?

  1. Condescension. Works well no matter what your underlying emotional state. Happy, sad or suicidal is masked by the nauseatingly sing-song, and only semi-rhetorical, "What do you say?".

  2. Echoing. Commonly seen in schools, the approach requires you to over-enunciate every syllable of "Thank. You. Uncle. Arnie". Then wait for it to be repeated back to Uncle Arnie, note for note, and just as devoid of feeling.

  3. Formality. Especially popular on birthdays and Christmases. This requires the majority of the money any one person has gifted to be spent on a card and postage containing written thanks for said money.

For most people I imagine it is probably a mixture. Different horses for different courses and all. Maybe make a mental note next time little Johnny does nothing when an elderly relative passes little him a shiny pound coin, except stuff it into the pocket of his Hollister hoodie.


Keep doing that and you can make a tally. Every time you say one or the other, you can equate it to the chip chip chipping away you are doing to Johnny's level of emotional intelligence and his understanding of empathy.


One day, maybe 20 or 30 years from now, you can look at little Johnny - probably calling him big Johnny by then - and see how he sits in bitter resentment of how lonely and empty his life has turned out to be. And you can sit back and think, "I helped create that, I did."

 

Ok, maybe I am being a wee bit unfair.


But when is the last time you had to 'remind' your child to say thank you.


Saying or writing thank you – including, but not limited to, its brethren, thanks, cheers, ta, appreciated and the wordless simultaneous smile-and-nod-and-eye-raise – is something of a British tradition. It is as common as Eggs and Bacon, Roast Beef and Yorkshire puddings, and 5 pints of Stella and a fistfight.


To the British, remembering your Ps (pleases) and Qs (thankyous) is a way of showing you deserve your place on the moral high ground.


It shows we have been 'brung up good', as my dear old parents used to say. Dear people who were better at correcting the grammar of others than they were at using it themselves. As a child, I knew that the use of bad grammar would result in punishment – a telling off, a withdrawal of some privilege like dinner or hot water, or a punch in the face. That's not to imply that my parents were particularly strict. It was just the North. In the 1980s.


It was only as I grew up that I came to realise parental punishment was, in fact, the only negative impact of - and reason to avoid using - bad grammar. Sure, if you misplace an apostrophe here and there in a work document that nobody will ever really read, it may look a little sloppy. But if an employer is going to punish you for such a misdemeanour, is that really an employer you would aspire to have?


Some may say that with work, you take what you can, and you do what you can. I appreciate that beggars can’t be choosers in the employment market. But does your boss carry a metaphorical red pen with them? Do you feel they are constantly marking down your homework and adding the occasional See Me?


If the answer is yes to either of those questions, it is a warning. If it were me, I wouldn’t pay too much heed to posters around the office advocating support for mental health, or certificates awarded by various Investors in Staff certificate awarders (I swear that is all some of them do).

Mistakes children make with the accepted rules of grammar can be endearing. Even at a young age, it is rare for the meaning to be misunderstood. Not using correct grammar is not the same as pointing, grunting, and hoping, but in many circles, it says something about the parents and their failure at parenthood.


This is why you still see many parents barking at their child to "SAY THANK YOU" with a tone of aggression that seems to juxtapose the display of manners they wish to encourage.


Allow me to illustrate with a particular memory from my own childhood that may resonate.


 

Thank you, driver

A bus driver.
This wasn't my school bus. Photo by Alexander Schimmeck at Unsplash.

I used to get a bus home from school. This was back in the day when the streets were bleached so hard that those dirty paedophiles kept well away. And anyway, I always sat next to my best friend and bus buddy Brian, so nobody was ever going to dare approach TWO nine-year-old boys, were they?


Societal naivete aside, it was a well-worn routine that was valued for its regularity. I would meet Brian at the bus stop – our friendship based less on common interests or classes and more to do with the fact that our Mums were mates, and that he lived next-door-but-one – we would nod, grunt, ‘all right’ and hope we got the front seat at the raised section at the back of the bus. We would then sit in silence until we reached our stop, jumped off the bus and raced to our respective doors, yelling ‘see you tomorrow’.


One day, Brian was running late.


He had been asked to stay behind by Mrs Sullivan, a teacher who played a very special part in my childhood as you can can find out here. Mrs Sullivan had a often had to ask Brian to stay behind to discuss a problem. This time it was an with his spelling. Or his handwriting. Or his PE kit. Or his farting. It’s a detail I don’t recall.


When the bus arrived, there was no sign of Brian. I silently wished it were 20 years in the future and mobile phones had been invented so I could text him to hurry up. But it wasn’t. So, I couldn’t. Instead, I alternated between checking the seconds on my digital watch and banging my feet on the pavement, silently willing him to hurry up. Both fruitless and pointless exercises.


As everyone jostled and elbowed each other out of the way to get the ‘best seats’, the mélange that we took for a queue was thinning out and I was getting ever nearer to the point of embarkation. That’s when Brian appeared at the school doors. I could see him awkwardly walk-running, dishevelled, as he put more effort than was necessary into looking fast rather than actually moving forward.


Staring between him and the ever-shortening queue, I edged forward, until all too quickly I was at the bus door, my foot on the bottom step. There was nobody left behind me. I had no chance of getting any seat now, let alone the favoured one. More pressing at that moment though, Brian still had around 200 metres to go. It was going to be tight, but it wasn’t impossible.


“Cermmonnnn” I pleaded at Brian, half-on, half-off the bus, reaching toward him as though trying to pull him onto a lifeboat from a sinking Titanic.

"My friend's just coming," I said to the driver.

He looked at me, uncaring. Though that may have been just the distortion caused by the light on the plastic screen that protected him from God knows what.

“Sorry. It’s 3.15 precisely. If he can’t be on time…”

His words faded away as the swoosh behind me that signified the doors had been shut. The bus gently pulled away. Brian was alone on the wrong side of the doors.


Holding on to the bus rail, I stared back. I had never felt this helpless. I was a ball of emotions that were unrecognisable to my nine-year-old self. Anger. Fear. Desperation. Panic. Hunger. (It was that snacking time between lunch and tea). I felt nauseous. The feeling was one I had no experience with and no way of knowing how to process.


Apart from the hunger. I quickly ate half a KitKat I found in my lunch box.


I felt like I was going to erupt.


I needed to avenge the wrongdoing.


I stared through teary eyes at the officious bus driver – now happily whistling along to Yazz’s ‘The Only Way is Up’ playing through the tinny radio. I felt compelled to attack in the harshest way known to man (or woman of course, but this was the 80s and I was in the North, so thoughts of gender equality were some way off).


An idea suddenly came to me. I gasped at my own wickedness. I knew it was extreme. I knew if I was found out, I may have meal ‘privileges’ removed for the rest of the week. But at that precise moment, the red mist had fallen, and I didn’t care.


It helped that I had just polished off the KitKat. Plus, it was a Thursday so not too much of the week was left for me to starve.


I readied myself. As the bus arrived at the stop at the end of my road, I gritted my teeth, took a deep breath, and pulled my Puma schoolbag – don't judge, I had PE on a Thursday – tightly to my chest.


Swoosh.


The doors opened and I stepped off, slowly and deliberately.


Bi-bi-beep, bi-bi-beep, bi-bi-beep, bi-bi-beep.


The shrill warning indicating the doors were about to close again for the bus to continue its journey around my northern suburban home.


At that moment, I stopped where I was on the pavement. I turned back and stared right at the driver through the warped Perspex. As the sw- sounded, but before the -oosh, I yelled,


“Thank you driver


…but I don’t mean it.”

The bus pulled away. I don’t know if the driver had heard me – I don’t think he had been looking at me – but I was sure he would have felt my wrath. My breath was short, and I could feel dampness under my armpits.


Revenge had been served.


The thought never entered my nine-year-old mind that I could disembark without thanking the bus driver. You just had to thank bus drivers for doing the thing they were being paid to do. For driving the bus.

Not saying thank you wasn’t even on the long list of revenge thoughts I had considered at that moment. And I think one or two of those thoughts included causing actual real and physical harm to him, his family and/or his pets.


The sense of imperative I had to give thanks was wholly ingrained in me. Like breathing. So, the very worst thing I could do was to duly say thank you. But to show my ire by vocalising the lack of meaning behind it. Withdrawing the empty sentiment of the words.


I slept well that night.


 

Of course, we may laugh at my naïve, sweet, and somewhat stupid childhood self. We may say that children are much ruder these days. Every generation says the same about the one that follows.


What would happen if it were possible to create a parallel situation of the same impact today – and I am not sure it is, but go with it for sake of metaphor?


The years have passed, and my parents no longer control my food intake. I am more independent in my thinking and possess a wide vocabulary of insults from which I can draw.


The truth is, my conditioning means I would still be more likely to say thank you than the more emotionally representative fuck you.


And I think many of you reading this would be too.


I suggest we are teaching our children the wrong thing. We are drilling into them some odd law about saying a word. Instead of teaching them about the spirit of gratitude, of appreciation, and of care for others.

It’s little wonder we go on in our lives, oblivious to this. And when we may think we are showing how grateful we are for their kindness, we are so often using The Wrong Kind of Thank You.


 
1 Extra Word writes copy and develops content that humanises businesses to thank, help, reward — and generally flirt with — their customers, prospects and employees.
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