A couple of weeks ago, I took Annie shopping with me at Trader Joe’s. Although I typically avoid taking her to the grocery store (despite her “helping,” things are just much faster when she’s not trundling along beside me), Trader Joe’s is the exception because I don’t do our regular shopping there. When you’re only picking up pumpkin cream cheese, Peanut Butter Tracks ice cream, and Sea Salt Butterscotch Caramels, you can be in and out in a jiffy.
Annie loves coming with me to TJ’s because a) free samples, b) she can find a stuffed animal bee and receive a lollipop or an apple (guess which one she chooses every single time), and c) stickers. Each visit, the checkout person pulls out a roll of Trader Joe’s stickers and tears off five or six for my girl and she just thinks this is the best thing ever. (I, on the other hand, do not think always think that this is the best thing ever because, despite having heard the WHERE DO STICKERS BELONG? mantra for her entire life, my almost seven year-old continues to adhere stickers to the car windows. Curse you, Trader Joe’s stickers! Maybe I’ll speak with the management.)
Anyway, we were at the checkout and the conversation went like this:
“Would you like some stickers?”
(barely looking up from her lollipop; did you guess correctly earlier?) “Yes, please.”
“Here you go!”
“Wow, you’re very polite!”
“Since you used such nice manners, here are a few more stickers!”
Annie left the store with 18 stickers from three different sticker rolls and thought it might have been the greatest day of her life.
It got me to thinking, though. When on earth did simply saying please and thank you amount to being “so polite” or “such nice manners”? Not that I’m complaining; Annie did speak politely (although we still need to work on eye contact, especially when lollipops are involved) and she did use nice manners, but it’s not like she composed a sonnet on the spot about what a lovely store Trader Joe’s is, nor did she compliment the checkout lady on her stunning eyes… She just did the very basics – but still the checkout person was genuinely taken aback.
This was far from an isolated incident. Annie and Ella, both, are actually informed quite frequently that they have awesome manners. Once, we went out to eat and were surprised when the manager suddenly appeared at our table. Turned out, he happened to overhear the girls order their own meals from the server (saying please) and then, when the plates were presented, saying thank you, unprompted… and he (the manager) just wanted to let us know how much he appreciated their good manners, and how very rarely he hears kids using them. It was really cool having him come and talk to us like that (until the girls started walking around with their chests puffed out like maybe they’d rescued a litter of kittens from a burning building), but we were also like, Dude. They hardly spoke. This really called for accolades?
Last year, when we were in Disney World, Ella and I stopped into a candy store on our way out of The Magic Kingdom. It was after dinner and the park itself had closed, so we had the store to ourselves. We also were a bit hard to miss because I was pushing Ella in a wheelchair, her recently un-casted broken foot not yet being strong enough to take on the parks. She got some Jelly Bellies for herself and Annie, and I was ordering a ridiculous caramel-peanut-butter-cup-chocolate-covered apple concoction at the checkout counter when we had the following conversation with a Cast Member:
I’d like that one, please. (I point to the monstrosity that supposedly has an apple at its center.)
“All right. And the Jelly Bellies?
(The Cast Member rings up both and hands back the Jelly Bellies, putting the apple into a bag.)
“Thank you!” (Ella takes the Jelly Bellies.)
“Mommy, may I please have some of these now?”
Sure. That would be fine.
(Cast Member stops what she’s doing and actually reaches out to touch my hand.)
“Do you have any idea how rare that is?”
Um, pardon me?
“Do you have any idea how rare it is, what your daughter just did?”
I’m not sure what… (No, seriously, WTF is happening here…?)
“She not only said ‘thank you’ to me without you reminding her, but she also politely asked you if she could have some of her candy instead of demanding it… and then she thanked you too!”
Oh, that! Uhhh, yes, she did. She uses really good manners.
“Yes, she does! I hope you appreciate how unusual and wonderful that is. You must have taught her well.”
Considering that I’m stammering my reply, I’m not sure that that’s really the case…
“We have so many extra cookies, and they make us throw them away every night. I’d really love it if you took them with you to your hotel.”
And that is how we wound up with two dozen delicious cookies that were passed around our group and enjoyed all night long. FREE COOKIES. IN DISNEY WORLD. All because Ella said thank you and asked me if she could have candy.
THAT WAS IT.
No, “My greatest appreciation to you, fine Cast Member, for your truly incredible service tonight” or a letter written in golden ink… Just the absolute bare bones in terms of respectful, polite conversation — and for that, we got free cookies. !!!
When on earth did using the very most basic manners go from being the rule to being the (apparently exceedingly rare) exception? What the heck are other kids saying — or not saying — to make my kids’ simplest manners seem so amazing?
Now, lest you think that I’m writing this to toot my girls’ horn, please let me be the first to tell you that isn’t the case. While I’m not at all above writing something to showcase how fantabulous my offspring are, I promise I’ll let you know I think it’s super and that I’m bragging. Sometimes a proud mama just needs to brag.
But this time? Not the case. I’m just thinking this through.
It’s not that I’m not proud of my girls for being polite and using good manners. Quite the contrary; some of my proudest moments as their mom have come when other people have commented on their manners. But I kinda don’t get it. You see, not having good manners really isn’t a choice in our family — unless you ask nicely, things are absolutely not going to go your way – so when the girls do it when we’re out and about, I don’t even notice. Not saying please and thank you – unprompted – would be akin to deciding to pee on the floor instead of in the toilet or eating ice cream with your fingers. It just doesn’t fly.
Which isn’t to say that Annie and Ella are perfect and always deploy spectacular manners. Believe you me, they have their fair share of floor-peeing and ice-cream finger moments. Case in point: the reason Ella and I were leaving the Magic Kingdom, just the two of us, was that she’d thrown a full-on, all out tantrum earlier in the day (despite being the oldest kid in our group, she had a fit so terrible, she was escorted back to the hotel and missed out on the second half of our day at Animal Kingdom), and by dinner time, she was just done for the day, so we left alone. Considering her behavior that morning, I wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d thrown the Jelly Bellies on the floor – so I was particularly pleased that she managed to pull out her lovely manners for the Cast Member helping us.
In fact, the reason I’m writing this post today is to remind myself that my kids really do know how to be sweet, polite, and kind… because Sunday was bad, y’all. BAD. Horrendous, rude, disrespectful, eye-rolling, sobbing, Mommy-yells-till-her-throat-hurts bad, the kind of bad that results in skipping out on getting the Christmas tree, threats of canceling advent activities, and tear-stained letters written to Santa apologizing for their over-the-top nastiness.
So… yeah. My kids are hardly angels. They are not well-mannered and polite every minute of the day. They definitely have their moments. Many, many of them.
But usually, they’re pretty good about it. Maybe it’s because they know that if they don’t ask politely for a snack, there will be no snack, so they’re respectful out of self-preservation (hey, pretzels are a powerful motivator). Maybe it’s because they genuinely understand that speaking kindly to others is just the right thing to do. And, heck, maybe it’s because they know that if they’re rude when we’re out and about, they’ll be sent off to Azkaban for the night… I don’t know.
But I do know that they get complimented on their manners an awful lot, and that people are well and truly floored by the simplest of pleases and thank yous.
Which, on the one hand, is really kind of sad, you know? What Ella and Annie are doing is so freakin’ minimal in terms of being polite – to think that other kiddos encountered by store managers and check-out clerks and restaurant servers are falling short of a bar set that low is just plain depressing.
But on the other hand, it makes it pretty darn easy to blow people away. Super low expectations rock!
Unfortunately for the girls, we’re not really letting them get away with just pleases and thank yous anymore. No, we’re moving on to looking people in the eye when they speak, shaking hands with a firm grip, asking questions to show someone you’re interested in them, and holding the door for the person behind you. Annie and Ella are not terribly pleased with this development.
They are catching on, however. On Sunday, Annie held the door for me at church before throwing her jacket on the floor of the Great Hall and leaving her trash on the table after coffee hour. And Ella definitely looked me in the eye while rolling her own eyes at me as I was reading her the riot act.
This is a marathon, people, not a sprint. Thank God there are stickers and free cookies at the aid stations.