I got a thrill the other day when I heard my four-year-old, in response to a request from one of his friends, say, "I would be glad to do that for you." I recognized my own words and intonation. He had learned that response from me!

It can be frightening sometimes to see how directly we can pass things on to our children--our less than rational or attractive fears, intolerances, body language, tones of voice. I've experienced this before with dismay, so it was wonderful to get such clear evidence that I'm passing on positive qualities as well. Overhearing that sentence also strengthened the case for my long-held belief that the only real way to teach "good manners" to children is to model them.

I believe in good manners. I think that "please" and "thank you" are like oil that lubricates the moving parts in people's interactions. We often don't interact smoothly, there's often friction--and a little oil can help a lot. Maybe it's because I see good manners this way--as an expression of thoughtfulness rather than a set of "do's and don't's" or an obligatory social code--that I'm skeptical of teaching manners as rules.

There's no question that children can learn rules, memorize when to apply them and have that behavior reinforced by praise or punishment. But if my goal is teaching thoughtfulness about other human beings, then a set of rules is not enough. They need to see thoughtfulness in action in thousands of different situations. And they need to experience thoughtfulness directed toward themselves.

When we think about good manners, we always think about children being polite to their elders. We may also think of adults treating each other with civility rather than rudeness. But how often do we think of adults being polite to children--making requests with a respectful "please," remembering each "thank you," prefacing each interruption with an "excuse me"?

What if all adults made a point of being polite, in the most thoughtful way they know how, not only with other adults, but with their children and the children around them as well? Would we still need to teach manners?

We can also help our children by letting them know how lack of thoughtfulness affects us. ("When that person acts that way, I just feel so ___! I wish instead that s/he would say ___. It seems like a little thing, but it makes such a big difference.") This may be hardest to communicate when the problem is their lack of thoughtfulness in our regard. When my children start issuing commands, without any semblance of politeness ("Give me a glass of water.") I am incensed. That is the point at which I want to drill good manners into their obnoxious little skulls. But before responding, I try to remember how many times they get commands issued at them. If that's the model they see of how powerful people get results, then it's not surprising that they copy it.

With this in mind, I'm more able to talk calmly about how much more willing I feel to respond to a request rather than to an order. My youngest can get very stubborn and I don't want to make a big issue out of it, so sometimes I just say, "Did I hear you say please pour me a glass of water?" He'll usually nod, and I'll smile and hug him and say, "That's what I thought I heard." The nod is all I need in order to feel thought about--and the machinery of human interaction moves smoothly again.