I was reflecting the other day on some of the social niceties that we teach out kids – out of habit more than anything – for instance, saying “please” when we ask for something. Alfie Kohn, a well known writer on issues of parenting, education, and human behavior, has pointed out that in most cases saying please is simply a meaningless ritual, an automatic trained response, and that the only reason to teach kids to say it is because others expect and will think you rude if you don’t. In other words, there is no intrinsic reason to say please. It doesn’t mean anything anymore.
I was thinking about this and basically Kohn is right. In today’s world “please” doesn’t mean anything. In fact, if anything, we teach it to kids simply as a way of adding emphasis – “pleeeeaaase, mommy” – that it’s the “magic word” which, if they say it, automatically makes it more likely that the adult will have to give in and give them what they want.
However, it wasn’t always like this. At one time saying please had a very specific meaning, and it’s purpose was actually the opposite of manipulating others into doing what you want. Consider the original phrase: “If you please” (from the French, si vous plait) or “if it pleases you”. What does it mean to put an “if you please” on the end of a request? Well, quite literally you are acknowledging the free will of the giver and respecting their right to say no. Rather than simply demanding that another person bend to your will and give you what you (which is how most children have learned to use the word “please”), “if you please” is a way of saying “Listen, only if you want to. You don’t have to and I recognize that I don’t have the right to command you.” In other words, in its original form saying “please” is a sign of respect for the equality and freedom of other people, and a way of recognizing their actions towards you as a gift and not an obligation.
But I doubt that many children these days would understand it as such, and that is our fault as parents as much as anything. How many of us instruct our children on why we say “please” beyond simply telling them that it’s “polite” or that it’s the “magic word”? I know that I hadn’t thought of it in that way before nor presented it that way to my daughter either. But imagine how formative it could be to teach our children to respect others as equals and free agents, and not simply as servants intended to fulfill our every whim. Imagine what it would be like to teach our children to treat receive everything in life as a gift and not simply as an entitlement. Hopefully some of us already are. I know it’s something I want to do better and more consistently. Perhaps explaining the true meaning of “please” is a good place to start.