The one time kids should not be saying ‘thank you’

I have always insisted upon good manners from children, both my own and the ones I look after. I prompt them to say “please,” “excuse me” and “thank you”… most of the time. There’s one scenario where I never expect my child or anyone else’s to say “thank you.”

Last year, my daughter won first place in her grade in the science fair. It was the definition of a Very Big Deal for her: She’d spent over a month chronicling the adventures of a cluster of venus flytraps, recording what they would eat, writing down how long it took, and taking pictures of withered traps and dead flies. Standard second-grade stuff, but it was all hers, and she was so proud when she found her work had paid off.

She was over the moon about winning, and though she was nervous about presenting her project at the school district’s STEAM fair, she still laid out a nice dress the night before, dressed carefully, and practiced saying “hypothesis” five times fast in front of the mirror before we hit the road.

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When we got to the high school where the fair was, she stood in front of her trifold, hands crossed primly, waiting to present. It wasn’t long before people started approaching.

“My goodness!” one lady said, “Don’t you look so cute?” My daughter quirked an uncomfortable smile but said nothing. The lady moved on. Next, a family of four approached.

“I love your dress!” The mom said, beaming. My kid twisted her fingers in her lap and said, “hmph,” a go-to move when she’s not sure what to say. The dad’s attention was elsewhere; the project next to my daughter’s was about air pressure in footballs, with a clever tie-in to “deflategate.” He wandered over to ask my daughter’s classmate about his project, and his wife lost interest in my kid.

Finally, after almost a half hour, one of the high school teachers swung by. “Wow, venus flytraps!” he enthused. “What did you find out?” My kid came alive, talking animatedly about her project, flipping through her dutifully kept journal. “I won first,” she finished shyly. “Congratulations,” he said.

“Thank you!” My daughter replied brightly.

See? She’s perfectly capable of using those two magic words, but when someone compliments the way she looks, I do not pressure her to thank them.

She knows how to take a compliment, and she loves them. She may not ever get enough of people complimenting her intellect, her hard work, and her imagination. Like most kids, she could listen to people rave about her better qualities all day. And when someone tells her that they’re impressed with the stories she writes, or how she’s perfected t-stops on her quad skates, I do expect that she will say “thank you,” and acknowledge that compliment.

But if someone likes her hair, or her dress, or her blue eyes, I let her decide how she responds. Usually, she just doesn’t.

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It wasn’t always like that. When she was a preschooler, I would snap at her to thank strangers for liking her hair or her bifocals or her favorite rainbow-striped leggings. Her unwillingness to chirp out gratitude for these unsolicited compliments made me anxious. What was I doing wrong? How could she be so rude?

I got my answer one day after a long day at work, a drop-in care center my daughter accompanied me to every day. On our way out the door, another parent coming in to pick up their child gushed theatrically over her mismatched skirt and tights, winking at me over her head. My kid said nothing, but we were in a hurry, so I blurted out a “thank you” and rushed us both out the door.

“When someone says something nice to you, you have to say ‘thank you’,” I told her meaningfully. “Don’t be rude!”

“But it’s not me,” she said. “It’s my tights.” She was genuinely perplexed. “Say thank you anyway,” I snapped. In true 5-year-old fashion, she asked, simply, “why?”

I explained that saying nothing had the tendency to make people feel uncomfortable, and it wasn’t nice to make people feel uncomfortable. That’s when she said something so obvious I wanted to kick myself. She told me that when people she didn’t know came up to her, and without even saying, “hi,” started in on how much they liked her shoes or her hair or her face, it made her uncomfortable.

“And that’s not nice, right?”

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I realized that up until this point I had been giving my child a lesson all girls get, some way or another: Be nice, no matter how you feel. Ignore that icky feeling in your gut so you don’t offend someone. Be glad someone notices you at all. Pretend that you like unsolicited attention, even when you don’t. Be acceptable. Be docile. Put everyone else’s feelings, even those of strangers, above your own.

So now I don’t do that.

At first it was really hard. It went against everything that I have ever been told, and is a perfect catalyst for awkward situations. I had to bite my lip and let her do her thing when I wanted nothing more than to soothe the perplexed strangers whose compliments were met with shy smiles and radio silence.

After a while, though, I learned a few things. The first is that most people open with compliments because they aren’t sure what to say to tiny humans. I know I’m guilty of this. I’m weird around other kids, and so when I’m watching a friend’s child or trying to be friendly, I used to greet little ones with an enthusiastic, “hey handsome!” or “wow, sweetie, I love your pretty curls!” Unsurprisingly, this makes other kids besides mine feel weird, so the reaction is a familiar one: a silent child and a blushing, stuttering mom.

The second thing I learned is that most people aren’t scandalized and shocked if your child doesn’t trip all over themselves thanking you for deigning to interrupt whatever they were doing to make hollow compliments about light-up shoes that frankly, aren’t all that. Instead, they’ll typically just move on. They just don’t have that much of their ego tied up in how a 9-year-old responds to their unsolicited attention so it doesn’t wound them overmuch.

The new “no thank-you” rule has caused a problem exactly one time. When she was 6, we were at a taco truck in Austin when a man of about 50 approached us to tell my daughter that she was “stunning” and then turned to me to do the ol’ schlocky “this one’s going to be trouble, better get a shotgun” routine. As the silence stretched on with neither one of us thanking him for his weird observation, he got more and more agitated, until finally he called both of us “bitches” and stomped off to the cupcake trailer.

That’s when I realized that he was exactly the type of person we’re hoping to protect by forcing our kids to thank strangers for their unsolicited attention — the type whose feelings are so easy wounded that they call 6-year-olds nasty names when they don’t get the “polite” response they were hoping for. And then I gave myself permission to stop.

Frankly, it felt f***ing amazing.


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