BOSTON — As a young child, I used to squirm in my shoes whenever an adult would say something like, "Now dear, what do you say to the nice lady for giving you such a nice gift?"
Rather than feeling grateful for being "saved" from "bad manners," I felt only acute embarrassment.
As a young mother, I discovered how daunting the challenge can be to help children remember their good manners. Our children learned at an early age the importance of expressing gratitude. But caught up in the excitement of a birthday party or other gathering, it was so easy for them to forget their thank-yous. I wanted to avoid embarrassing my children with reminders, yet I could not ignore their forgetfulness.
Before one event, we held a family discussion and I asked for their advice; what should I do if they forgot their thank-yous?
Lots of ideas were suggested. The one we settled on was this: Whenever a situation occurred that required a thank you, I would let the child initiate the response. If it appeared to me that he/she would need a reminder, I would rest my hand on the child's shoulder or on the head and give a little tap with my finger. A tap on the head meant a simple "thank you" was enough. A tap on the shoulder meant much more of a response was required.
A simple thank you was enough for being offered a Popsicle, for instance. A longer response might be: "Thank you for inviting me to your birthday party" or "Thank you for a delicious lunch and for taking me to the movies."
With a tap, our children gained stature by their politeness - without being subject to embarrassing public reminders. Their sense of self-esteem blossomed.
During the later elementary school years, we faced another family challenge. When the children were tired after a day at school, their conversations often ended in quarrels.
As I watched this day after day, I became aware of the point when the conversations turned from being friendly to being annoying and antagonistic. When we discussed this, we agreed that we each knew that precise moment when someone was about to "push our buttons" or in other words, would say something that would incite an argument.
What if, I asked, the person feeling "defensive" were able to stop everyone from speaking at that very moment? Would we be able to diffuse the quarrels? We agreed that we would try. Whenever any of us sensed that a quarrel was imminent, he or she would simply say "moonbeam." All conversation would instantly stop. We would each go into a separate room for at least five minutes. We agreed to use the "moonbeam" signal only when absolutely necessary. Harmony reigned!
"Moonbeam" became a tool by which anyone could let an "aggressor" know a breaking point was imminent. Within a short time, we learned how to sense not only when an argument was brewing but also how to stop fueling it. We all became more sensitive to the effects of our language on others, and by controlling our words, we created a more loving home environment. This tool didn't put an end to disagreements but it taught us that a quarrel didn't "just happen" and that we each had the ability and responsibility to diffuse it.
At the time, the gentle tap and "moonbeam" provided immediate solutions to vexing childhood problems. But these simple signals have become a positive influence for lifetime behavior. The taps developed a positive sense of responsibility and dignity. And "moonbeam" taught our children how to maintain constructive communications in their personal, social, civic, academic and business environments.