Q: When a parent is giving a child an instruction, like "pick up your toys," should the parent use "please"? My wife says we should model the behavior we want from our kids, but I say it's unnecessary.
A: I was surprised to discover, searching back over thirty-five years of weekly newspaper columns (approximately 1750), that I've never answered this important question. I have said on several occasions that children should be taught fundamental manners -including proper use of "please," "thank you," and "you're welcome"-before they are taught their ABCs, but never have I looked at this issue from the flip side of the coin. So it's time that I did, and THANK YOU for asking.
Since there is no research on this matter, I must rely solely on personal experience and opinion, both of which lead to me answer "it depends." Specifically, it depends on the situation. Are you giving an instruction or are you making a request?
In many instances, tacking "please" onto the beginning or end of an instruction such as "pick up your toys" may well give the child the impression that the parent is asking the child to consider whether he'd like to pick up his toys or not. In that event, the use of "please" has confused the issue and the child is much less likely to pick up the toys.
I generally recommend, and especially with young children, that parents not introduce this potential confusion into their instructions. Authoritative parent speech (I also call it "leadership speech" and "alpha speech") greatly increases the likelihood of obedience, and all of the good research into parenting outcomes clearly finds that obedience and happiness go hand-in-glove. That's generally true, by the way, of adults as well as children. The employee who is constantly pushing against the boundaries, constantly questioning the authority of his or her boss, is not a happy camper.
When giving an instruction to a child, I recommend prefacing it with one of the following: "I need you to…," "I want you to…," "You're going to…," or "It's time for you to…." Parents who master that habit invariably report to me that obedience increases dramatically in a relatively short period of time. That's hardly surprising given that those prefaces make it perfectly clear that the instruction is not being thrown out there for the child to think about and/or do in his or her own sweet time.
But there are situations that merit exception. For example, I certainly think it's right and proper, when the family is seated at the dinner table, for parents to use "please" when asking a child to pass the salt shaker. "It's time for you to pass the salt shaker" just doesn't fit the occasion. In that instance, the parent uses good manners (saying "please" and not reaching across the table) in order to teach by example and cause the child to exhibit good manners in return. Good manners is not the issue when giving an instruction such as "pick up your toys."
So, I sorta kinda agree with you, and I sorta kinda agree with your wife. In so doing, I hope that I have contributed in some small way to a long and happy marriage.