Con Quest

One of the great mysteries of modern time is this: Why doesn’t my little boy use the word “please” voluntarily? It’s not as if we don’t teach the kids manners. As a 1-year-old, Maddux was so frequently admonished to “ask nicely” that she began saying, “Pleeeeeease? Please nice?” whenever she wanted something. (Unfortunately, it is very difficult to turn down such an adorable request and to this day, in the unlikely event her adorable requests are declined, Maddux becomes decidedly less adorable.)

We expected the same irresistibly cute wheedling from James, but he has decided to go for a different approach. Many, many times per day, instead of saying “May I please have some more juice, Mommy?” our dear son stands bolt upright in his high chair, as if he has been stabbed with a hot poker, and screams in the most urgent yelp he can muster. “Juice! Juice! Juice! Jooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooose!!!!!!” His mouth is contorted into this panicky frown and his eyes bulge as if they are going to pop out. It would be hilarious, were it not The Very Height of Rudeness. (He is nearly 3, so things that were funny before — like his “see-food” display — are becoming less amusing, if not downright maddening.)

Naturally, for the past year since the inception of the Juice Freakout, I have told him he cannot have juice unless he asks nicely. For months, that just resulted in him throwing his empty cup against the wall and barking “Juice! Juice!” with a hurt and puzzled expression, not connecting “Ask nicely” with the prompt to “Say please” that came right afterward straight from the source.

But recently, James has not only begun to understand that “Ask nicely” means “Say please,” he’s somehow come to the conclusion that his good manners are the ultimate con. As he commences his ritual Juice Freakout, I will prompt him, “James, what do we say when we would like something?”

“Chweee???” he will respond sweetly, with a huge toothy smile. And then, as soon as I say “Yes, of course you may have some juice. Thank you for using your good manners!” he throws back his head and lets out this outrageous mad-scientist laugh and says “Ja!!!!!!” (Who knew the kid knew German?) His triumph over tricking us simple folk into doing his bidding by employing manners kind of mitigates my pride over getting him to say “please.”

I mean, of course manners are a con game. Instead of ordering someone to give you something, you show them a (sometimes insincere) display of respect and deference, and they feel obligated to do as you ask. It’s not as if you’re doing anything in return for the favor, other than ego-stroking. But it’s a little disturbing that a toddler has that all figured out and points out to me daily how pointless and superficial these longstanding social conventions are. And frankly, I worry about him going out in the world thinking that people (and manners) are little more than a means to an end.

But in the meantime, I congratulate him for using his manners and pour his juice, and try to ignore the crazy, cackling Frau Farbissina impression.

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