If you are like me, you probably spend a chunk of your time and energy trying to teach your children to be respectful. We all know the importance of raising considerate people. We rate kindness as one of our top priorities. The world has enough selfish jerks, so we try our darnedest to pull their hearts towards others.
The MVP of my family’s rude kid all-star line-up can put any feral child to shame. At age 2, he was “politely asked to leave” the church nursery SIX SUNDAYS IN A ROW. Those mean church ladies must have really had it out for him. All he did was kiss his friends. With his teeth.
At age 3, he was suspended from daycare for an afternoon because, as hard as he tried, he just couldn’t not tackle the nearest toddler when excitement struck.
At age 4, his preschool teacher had to call me in for a conference to discuss some disturbing events that took place on the playground. My little Monet had taken a red marker to the white canvas that is his body. When asked if he really colored his entire body, he said no, and pulled his pants (Batman undies and all) down to show his precious Methodist school classmates that he had, indeed, not colored his whole body.
All this before Kindergarten. We have tried all the punishments and read all the books. He's a real special case.
He is now 7, and gross stuff is hilarious. Poop jokes, the height of comedy. He is the most precious and caring boy in the whole-wide-world. He deeply loves everyone he knows, but he just can't help but get in trouble. Even his subconscious has a natural propensity towards being naughty. He mutters potty words in his sleep. What is a mother to do? Wake him for a midnight timeout, or just check-in to a monastery for 24/7 prayer?
All of our kids seem to struggle with being polite from time to time. We push manners until our heads hurt:
Make eye contact when you speak.
Consider leaving the Olive Garden before you start a burping competition with your siblings.
Say please and thank-you.
Maybe, squeeze in an “excuse me” towards the Target cashier after you pass gas like you just placed first in a bean eating competition.
Offer help when you see someone who could use a hand.
...Basic stuff all humans do.
So then, why do my kids act like they have zero home-training when they go out in public?
We correct and remind them how to act in the moment. At home, we consistently preach the importance of putting others first. Nothing changes. They shove their way to the front of the cake line at their classmates birthday party. They let the door shut in the face of an older lady behind them at the store. They answer adult’s questions with “yeah” while staring at the ceiling. They know better.
A while back, I was sharing my struggle with a parent whose children are now older. I was confiding in her, that we are working so hard with our kids. We are doing everything we know to do in order to not raise horrible humans. It seems that the behavior gets worse when we leave the house. It is embarrassing when they act a fool in public. This little version of me, this family ambassador that we are sending out in the community can make me feel like a failing mom so fast my head spins.
As I complained about my impolite offspring, she got a sparkle in her eye and a smile came across her face. As she opened her mouth to speak, I knew she was about to hit me with some golden parenting advice.
“Give them a quarter” she said.
She could tell I was confused, and she laughed. She then shared with me that she had the same concerns when her boys were young. Being from the South, it was important to her that she raised little gentlemen. Her boys, however, didn’t share her priorities. When they got out of the house their minds went in a thousand different directions, and none of those directions included interacting with adults. Why would they? There are bugs and dirt outside. There are interesting sights and new things to explore. There could possibly be paperclips and broken toy pieces to find on the ground. They aren’t necessarily trying to be rude, but interacting with adults is the last thing on a child’s mind.
So, she told me to make it worth their time. Make it into a game.
Every time an adult complemented one of her children, she would give that child a quarter. She guaranteed that it worked wonders for her sons, and that they soon grew to be respectful and well-mannered young men.
Sometimes, you just have to jump-start the behaviors until the heart matures. The quarters won’t be necessary for long, but the habit of considering others and being kind will be ingrained in them forever.
So, I gave it a go. We packed up the minivan and headed to the mall for new shoes, and manners boot camp. I couldn’t believe it! It was like a charm! When my son would normally be playing hide-and-seek in clothing racks, he was offering to help a lady with her bags. Instead of whining from boredom, my daughter threw away a piece of trash she saw on the floor. Eye contact was made. Kind words were spoken. Smiles were exchanged. Potty jokes were at an all-time low. Did you know there are candy machines by the food court? My kids most certainly did, and they were working hard for that good manners commission.
We have used the quarter incentive for about a year now, and it still works like magic. Sometimes, it works a bit too well.
My 7 year-old quickly turns into a 1950’s lady charmer out of nowhere:
“Weeelll helllooo ma’am! Let me help you with that! It’s a beautiful day out, and you look mighty lovely.”
Okay Bing Crosby, turn it down a couple of notches. You were just trying to squirt milk out of your nose and kicking your sister at the breakfast table. I am not buying this whole casanova act! But, the sweet old lady at Target sure is!
“What a precious young man!” She then looked at me and said, “You are doing a great job with him. You just don’t see children who are raised so well nowadays.”
I put on my best fake parenting genius smile and say, “Thank you! It all starts at home!”
As we leave, I slide my son a quarter and remind him, “If you ever tell an adult we are paying you to not be an embarrassing little jerk, these coins disappear forever.”
I am confident that one day all of our hard work and prayers will lead to grown-ups who sincerely want to do the right thing. I am hopeful that my kids will become cheerful people, who genuinely want to help others. People who feel better about themselves when they perform a random act of kindness. But today, they are immature children who live for themselves.
I know their hearts will be molded with time, but while we wait, if 25 cents can make the process of taking my little monsters out in public a little easier, you better believe I’m carrying around a Ziploc bag full of quarters everywhere we go.