“What Do You Say to Julia?” – how to squeeze manners out of your kids

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A very busy city street divides our triangle of homes in our neighbourhood to our son’s junior school. All our kids have attended this school at some point over the last 10 years and we are currently veterans on our last run. We have also had several crossing guards to help over the years and our current guard, Julia, is truly remarkable. Thank you, Toronto Police. Our daily walks to and from school, 5 days a week, 10 crossing connections, 10 years plus have been paramount in teaching our kids some valuable life lessons. I am adamant about making sure our kids use their manners. Respect for others, especially those who do us a service like keeping us safe, deserve the highest order.

A little about Julia… Originally from Bosnia, Julia and her husband moved to Canada when she was 41. She has two grown daughters and two grandsons, with a third grandson on the way. On very rare occasions when we are chatting, she shares the odd flashback of tough times she had growing up in Bosnia. I have no doubt that her upbringing has helped shape her outlook on life. It does not matter what you say to Julia, she has a positive spin. She has to be one of the most grateful people I know.

If I shrug and say something arbitrary to Julia like, “rainy day”, with my hands facing up, she will say,

“Every day is a blessing” with the biggest smile on her face as she holds the STOP sign, glowing in her neon orange trench coat.

If I barrel across the street in a hurry to pick up my son and look at Julia saying something self explanatory like, “late again today”, she will chuckle and say,

“You are a busy Mum, you are allowed”, smiling with her STOP sign.

If it is wet or snowy or windy and I say to Julia, “What a day!”, she will say,

“It is this time of year. Tomorrow will be better” Again with the sign in hand.

Sometimes I just want to STOP and hug her! I don’t exactly know what it is about Julia, but I absolutely love her outlook on daily life. It is simple and beautiful. It is as though Julia’s STOP sign is not only for the cars but for all of us to stop and appreciate the fact that living in Canada, we have a good life.

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When I reflect on my years growing up in Barbados, one thing that was instilled  into me and my siblings by our Mum was the belief that we must all use our manners. All it took was one simple question: “What do you say to […]?” Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. I mean, our Mum would say this to each one of us if we delayed in her estimation by mere seconds. It did not matter if we were teenagers, she would politely interject in the conversation with a simple reminder. Having been raised this way, I never really minded the intrusion, or felt embarrassed by the reminder. It is always polite to use your manners. As a result, saying pleases and thank yous has been etched into my psyche.

As I became a mother, this legacy of fostering good manners continues. Since the walk across the street takes mere seconds, I know from past experience with our older kids that it was not always easy to ask the question if they do not volunteer. So this is when I added another element to this principle. I discovered the trick accidentally and would like to share it with you here. It is a type of classical conditioning in psychology terms. I call it the squeeze. It’s the same idea behind Pavlov’s Dogs experiment that anyone who has ever taken a psychology class may remember. And no, I’m not a psychologist, nor have any credentials behind my name other than the three letters M.U.M. As such, I won’t tell you all about it, you can Google Ivan Pavlov if you are so inclined.

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Here is how my little classical conditioning trick works. The whole objective is that my children remember to use their manners. All it takes is four simple steps (even though the street takes about 19 to cross). I counted. I say upfront before we get to the crossing that I expect them to say thank you when they cross the street. If they forget, I will give them a gentle squeeze as I hold their hand. Not a bone crushing handshake. I phrase it like a game in my best parent happy voice… “Let’s play a game to see if you can cross the street and say Thank You without me having to squeeze your hand? OK?” So a typical morning crossing might look like this…

4 steps to squeeze manners out of your kids

pavlov[Image credit: sciography]

  1. Begin by doing nothing more than to have a friendly chat (“Morning”, “Lovely day”, “how are you?”…) while holding your child’s hand.
  2. Wait a few seconds for your child to voluntarily say: “Thank you…!” by the time you reach the other side of the street. If they do, awesome. Congratulations, you are a proud parent!
  3. If you do not hear a thank you, then you give a gentle hand squeeze. This signals to them that they forgot their manners.
  4. Child then says, “Thank you, [Julia]!”

And Bingo was his name, oh! No questions asked. No complaining. Works like a charm. Every time. And while we are on the subject of dogs, I never forget watching an episode of “The Dog Whisperer” with Caesar Milan and thinking to myself, I am the pack leader, therefore it is my role to show my kids who’s in charge. I’m the Mama. Train them well.

One morning, after a late start, when I got to the other side of the street with our six year old who was clearly not in the mood to talk to anyone, I said: “What do you say to Julia?” With his head bowed, he hesitated. Slowly, head still looking down, he said: “Thank you” in a quiet, sullen voice. To this, Julia looked at me with a smile and said, “It’s OK, he doesn’t have to say thank you”. I stopped and leaned in with my head tilted and said with my same parent voice so my son could hear:

“It’s not OK if he does not say thank you to you, Julia. I make him say it every time because manners are important and if I do not remind him every time, he will grow up to be a teenager and then what will happen? By then it will be too late.”

Julia bowed her head, smiled and said, “You are right. You’re a good Mum. Have a good day”.

Thank you, Julia. Thank you, Mum. And Thank you, Mr. Pavlov.

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