Richard Bohn loves it when his two-year-old son, Parker, says please and thank you. “I think to myself, ‘Yeah, he’s got it. I’m a great parent,’” says the Edmonton dad. “Then, a week later, he’s a little savage again. Teaching him manners is definitely an ongoing process, but I do think it’s important.”
Teaching your toddler manners is a good idea, says parenting expert Ann Douglas, author of The Mother of All Toddler Books, as long as you go in with patience. “Every child is unique,” she says. “Some will be aces at manners, and others are going to take a little longer to learn them.”
1. Mastering the basics Your toddler’s understanding of social niceties will first come from observing how you handle the world. Your child will notice when you take the time to say hello to the bus driver or to thank someone for opening a door.
Getting your toddler to acknowledge people properly and make eye contact is important—and a social skill that could easily disappear in a few generations, says Douglas. “How will your toddler learn that he’s supposed to make eye contact in conversations if you’re always looking at your smartphone?” she says. “If your child is colouring and mumbles a request for a drink, say, ‘Please look at me so I can see you and hear what you’re saying.’”
Being a tyrant about please and thank you is counterproductive though, says Douglas. “Start encouraging your toddler, but telling him ‘say please to Grandma or you can’t have juice’ isn’t particularly genuine or helpful,” she says. “True manners are all about respect and consideration for other people.” So look for teachable moments rather than constantly reminding. Point out to your child how happy he feels when someone thanks him for his kindness. He can start making the connection to how other people feel when he does the same, says Douglas. “The most powerful thing you can do is to teach and model empathy.”
2. Be realistic Victoria Lomond, of Londonderry, NS, really wants her two-year-old son, Isaac, to stay at the table while the family is having dinner. “I have to keep gathering him up and reinforcing that we all stay until everyone has finished eating,” she says. Sitting at the table with the family for dinner is a fairly reasonable expectation, says Douglas, whereas using cutlery instead of hands probably isn’t. “The best way to figure out what your child can handle is by observing him and experimenting a little to see what he can manage. You can always back off and try again another time,” says Douglas. “A few weeks or months can make a huge difference.”
3. (Too) great expectations There are some manners that are unrealistic to expect two-year-olds to master, such as being polite when they’re given a gift they don’t like. “Think about how difficult it can be for you to try to think of something nice to say in that situation,” says Douglas.
Expecting your toddler to be polite to strangers is also a tough one. “Some people are just scary,” says Lomond. “I don’t make my kids talk to strangers, though I model what I hope they’ll eventually learn to say back.” Being forced to kiss and hug relatives can also be pretty stressful for children. Douglas doesn’t like the idea of asking kids to override their hard-wired “stranger danger” signals: “Don’t ask them to ignore the feeling that is telling them they should keep a safe distance. We want them to trust their intuition. This is a safety issue more than a manners issue. It’s about starting the consent conversation early,” she says.
Don’t forget that learning manners is a process, and there are going to be days when your toddler is tired, sick or just having a bad day, and that is not a good time to push it. “Look for opportunities, go with the flow and be really encouraging when they do it right,” says Douglas.
Keep in mind Certain situations, such as birthday parties and family gatherings, may be stressful and lessen kids’ chances of remembering how you want them to behave, so it’s okay to cut them some slack, says parenting expert Ann Douglas.
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