Toddlers are capable of a lot more than babies – for one thing, they can hold their own bodies upright – but they’re not quite ready for a lot of the social norms that adults take for granted. What they are ready for, though, is learning some of the basics, with their parents and caregivers as their first teachers.
Learning by example and memorization
Memorization has a bad reputation when it comes to toddlers and learning – people say not to force “sorry”s because they’ll just be memorized, not heartfelt. But when it comes to manners, a little memorization can actually be ideal. When you teach a toddler to say “please” it’s not because you really want them to focus on pleading for their dinner, it’s just that you want them to use the language that they might be expected to use in the future, and to instill a sense of graciousness.
The same thing is true for saying hello and waving goodbye – you can start off by gently preparing your child (“We’re going to wave and say ‘bye-bye,’ okay?”) before each time they need to show off their brand new manners. Before you know it, there’s a good chance they will be waving (or saying please) all on their own, just out of habit.
More than that, though, children learn by example, and the way you and their other caregivers talk to them, other people, or each other is going to have a big impact on their manners as they grow. Now that they have a few more language skills than they did when they were younger, you can do some gentle prompting about their pleases and thank yous, but it’s the way they see you acting that may have the most of an impact on them. Positive reinforcement can be a good accompaniment to leading by example. Reprimands, on the other hand, are unlikely to help out, and could get in the way.
Please and thank you, and hello and goodbye, might seem like pretty small places to start when introducing your child to the world of good manners, but they’re important building blocks, and do you remember how long it took your little one to get the hang of stacking actual blocks? These things take time and energy: yours as well as Baby‘s.
Another early area of manners that parents like to work on is table manners, possibly because, without a little parental intervention, toddlers’ table manners often aren’t that different from the manners of a hungry lion cub.
Just like when you’re introducing your parents to a piece of baffling new technology, though, introducing a toddler to table manners can take a few repeat-explanations, and maybe a bit of simplification. Toddlers are limited in what they can learn for table manners right away by two important things: their physical coordination, and their attention spans. Both are things that will develop more every day, but it’s also important to remember that they might be limited starting out. This might mean a toddler who’s ready to run off before their parents are finished with their full meal, making chewing with their mouth closed a lesson that may have to wait for another day. What’s important at this point, though, is to introduce the idea of manners, so that when you work on teaching them new ones, they already have a framework to think about them in. Again, setting a good example goes a long way, and so can positive reinforcement.
Just like when you teach them to speak, or teach them to think about their own feelings, the best way to teach your little one about good manners is to set a good example yourself. Baby will internalize what you do as the “right way” to act, so if your pleases and thank yous come regularly, they might just come regularly to them, too.
Table manners are also great to teach by doing, which is why eating together can be an important step, even if your squirmy toddler won’t stick around for the entire meal. As your toddler’s etiquette lessons go on, you can also start to point out when other people have good manners, to show your toddler that it’s a behavior expected from everybody, and not just them. This is especially true of things they might especially not want to do, like sharing, or waiting their turn.
Teaching toddlers the basic rules of politeness is one thing, but they’ll have to develop a greater sense of empathy before being polite becomes second nature. The next step as far as politeness goes might include teaching Baby not to talk when others are talking, but they will be holding doors and making sure not to block the gas station entrance at a red light before you know it.
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Andrew Madigan. “May I Have Your Attention Please, Toddlers? The Attention Spans of Children.” WashingtonParent. Washington Parent, November 2012. Web.
Laura Markham. “Getting Toddlers to Sit at the Table for Dinner.” AhaParenting. Dr. Laura Markham, 2016. Web.
“Does my toddler have a short attention span because she won’t sit still for a story?” ZeroToThree. ZERO TO THREE: National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families, February 25 2016. Web.
“How to Shape and Manage Your Young Child’s Behavior.” HealthyChildren. American Academy of Pediatrics, November 21 2015. Web.
- “Table Manners.” New Beginnings. La Leche League International, 20(5): 187. Web. 187.