I’m from New England. We don’t say “sir” or “ma’am”. We respect our elders, but those words were not part of our every day vernacular that I can recall. When I moved to Florida as a teenager, I remember my stepmother’s mostly silent disapproval of my inability to add a “ma’am” to the end of my answers to her. I just forgot. I was never rude, it just took me 20 years to adapt. But to the ears of a Southerner, the voice of a child answering, simply, “Yes”, sounds incredibly blunt, bordering on surly.
And now that I have a few pups of my own, and we are still living in the South, I find it necessary to teach them what is expected by the culture – by teachers, pastors, great aunts and such. But my boy is like me, never with bad intentions, but slow to learn.
My reminders to Nolan of this gesture, small but rife with tradition, have ranged from gentle…“Don’t you mean, ‘yes, ma’am’?” … to terse …”Yes, MA’AM!”. All for naught. He could never remember.
One day a few weeks ago, I called out to my boy, and was answered by his typical “Whut?” I turned on my heel, dug an empty mason jar out of a cabinet, and called him into the kitchen.
“This,” I told him, “is your ‘yes, ma’am’ jar. Every time you say ‘yes ma’am’ or ‘yes, sir’, I will put a quarter in the jar. Every time you don’t, I will take a quarter out. We will do this for one week.” And once I got him to acknowledge that arrangement with a “yes ma’am”, I placed a quarter in the jar.
Over the course of one week,, he earned some quarters, and lost a few. He doesn’t take kindly to losing. Upon losing a quarter, he would argue, and beg, and when all else failed, cry. But in the end, when he would resign himself to his situation with a melancholy “yes ma’am”, he would, do his delight, get a quarter back in his jar.
By the end of the week, he was several dollars richer. I tend to believe that reward systems undermine the satisfaction that a child feels from a job well done, but I felt that limiting the time that we used the system might make it fun to establish a new habit. The jar is now gone but the habit has stuck.
When I came home from work last Monday, I could see him excitedly calling to me and waiving his arms from the driveway. He ushered me inside to show me a comment that his teacher had written in his school notebook:
I’m proud. I’m happy to have chosen a gentler method. Nagging didn’t work. Getting irritated didn’t work. But working with him…that worked.