by Wayne Ren-Cheng
Growing up with a Canadian mother and a father born and raised in America’s deep south, and who was in the U.S. Air Force, I learned early the power of the magic words . . . please, thank you, excuse me, and sorry. My parents came from different countries and different cultures but had the same worldview when it came to showing respect to other people by being polite. You say “please” when asking for something. You say “thank you” when given something or when something is done for you. You say “excuse me” or “sorry” when appropriate. For a child these words do have a sense of magic about them. “Please” was more likely to lead to getting what you wanted and “thank you”, while meant to convey appreciation was sometimes viewed as a way to get more later. You said “excuse me” when you wanted attention or bumped into someone. After a burp or fart “excuse me” was usually followed by a smile and a giggle. “Sorry” was meant to convey regret or repentance whenever you did something wrong. For me these words did seem magical, did seem to have power when they defused anger in adults or gave me access to something I wasn’t sure I’d get.
These words don’t hold their magical power for long though. Most children quickly learn that just because they say “please, please, please” it doesn’t always lead to satisfaction of desires and wants. “Thank you” becomes a rote phrase that is a cultural expectation after receiving something and so may become insincere. Saying “excuse me” wasn’t a license to interrupt other people’s conversations or to fart in a room full of people. Of them all the word “sorry”, which for many kids held the most magical power, no longer absolved them of responsibility.
Mother: “Did you hit your sister?”