Teaching Manners to Toddlers

toddler practicing good manners at the dinner tableIt is never too early to start teaching good manners to youngsters. If children have a solid foundation from the beginning, they’ll consider manners as normal behavior, notes Donna Jones, author of Taming Your Family Zoo: Six Weeks to Raising a Well-Mannered Child.

When it comes to teaching manners to toddlers, follow these three c’s: consistency, caring, confidence.

Consistency

Toddlerhood is an age when children imitate other people’s behavior.

So explains Phyllis Magrab, Ph.D., director of the Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development, in Washington, D.C. Parents can capitalize on this instinct by demonstrating good manners. For example:

  • Consistently use the words “please” and “thank you” both with your family and in public, and encourage your toddler to do the same.
  • Don’t assume that young children aren’t watching you or don’t understand. Instead, through your own conduct, set clear expectations of polite behavior.
  • Point out to your child polite actions by other people, or ways in which you can demonstrate manners, such as: “It was so nice that Mr. Baker held the door open for us today. I really appreciated his help.”
  • Explain to your toddler the kinds of behavior that involve manners, such as sharing, patience and listening. Ultimately, practice makes perfect, so don’t just demonstrate and discuss right from wrong. Rather, give your toddler real-life opportunities to put lessons into action. Plan play dates, trips to public places, and other activities that require your toddler to interact politely with others in real-life settings.

Caring

It’s normal for children, including toddlers, to be self-centered.

In discussing this on parents.com, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia, notes that teaching manners to a child reminds the child that other people matter and deserve respect. It’s important for children to grasp this, she observes, and that manners equate to respect for themselves, for others, and for the world around them.

For example, respect is why we sit at the table in a restaurant, rather than climb under it, and why we ask if we can play with a toy in another child’s house, rather than just grabbing it off the shelf.

One of the best ways to help toddlers understand the concept of respect is to explore the alternatives with your child. You might say, “It’s not nice to grab the toy from your friend. How would you feel if he grabbed the toy from you?” Your toddler is likely to respond that he or she would not like that and be unhappy, which gives you the opportunity to reply, “We don’t want to be hurt or to hurt the feelings of our friends. Please give the toy back to your friend and ask him if you can take a turn when he is finished.”

By establishing how your toddler might feel in similar situations, you help to develop empathy for other people. Once your child becomes aware of other people’s feelings, he or she is more likely to be conscious and conscientious about his or her actions.

Confidence

Toddlers learn from doing and seeing the results of their actions, but adults often point out the child’s negative behaviors, not their positive ones. Support your toddler’s confidence by valuing his or her good manners.

One of the strongest motivators of behavior in children is positive reinforcement, says Ken Haller, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Saint Louis University School of Medicine in Missouri. For example, you can help your toddler to learn good manners by making him or her proud of good choices, using specific examples. Vague, general praise such as “I’m glad you were good at Auntie’s birthday dinner,” isn’t as effective as “You sat in your chair the entire time at Auntie’s birthday dinner – good job! You must be very proud you were so polite and well-behaved!”

Confidence comes not only from external words but also from internal feelings, so be sure to help your toddler articulate how he or she feels about himself or herself for the good choices made.

Toddlers learn manners best from polite role models, age-appropriate communication and positive reinforcement.  Don’t expect polite words to flow effortlessly from your child, however, especially in the throes of toddler frustration. Encourage your toddler to be mindful that polite behaviors are rewarded, and that rude actions are “against the rules” and lead to lost privileges or punishment.

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