Can You Teach Manners to a Toddler?
Manners? To a toddler? Is that possible? Well ... that’s a qualified “maybe.” While we’d all like to raise little angels who say “please” and “thank you” without being prompted, say “I’m sorry” when they wrong someone (and mean it), it’s unlikely — no, it’s impossible — to expect that behavior consistently from a toddler. I cringed every time my little boy said something embarrassing like, "That lady has a big tummy!" Or demanded, "Get me a tissue!" Or was completely unrepentant when he made another child cry by grabbing a toy, for instance.
But that doesn't mean I was raising a sociopath. Toddlers simply don't understand the concepts of gratitude and empathy yet, so it's difficult for them to understand why it's so important to thank people or apologize. Still, toddlers are paying attention to what you're doing. The best way for us to start instilling good manners in our children at an early age is to model them ourselves.
Saying Please. Instead of punishing my son when he ordered, "Get me a tissue!" I'd remind him that it was nicer to ask for something by saying "please," and then I'd be sure to praise him and give him lots of hugs when he did. (Forget the "What's the magic word?" script. It just makes toddlers feel like they're being tested.) Most importantly, I was careful to say "please" every time I asked my son to do something for me, like put away a toy he'd finished playing with. And when he did, I was sure to say "thank you."
Saying Thank You. Keep your expectations reasonable. When a well-meaning friend gave my son something I could see he didn't like, I didn't prompt him to say "thank you." I simply thanked the giver myself. I kept the concept simple: You say "thank you" when someone does something nice for you.
Expect the Worst, Hope for the Best. No matter how polite your own behavior is, your toddler is inevitably going to embarrass you sometimes with his manners — or lack of them. He will say things long before he really understands the implications of them or recognizes that they might be rude or hurtful.
But trust me, it does get better. I was horrified by some of my son’s toddler manners. So imagine how surprised I was when he won a preschool award for politeness. Obviously some of these lessons were working all along.
Beth Weinhouse is an award-winning journalist who specializes in writing about parenting issues and women's health. She's been an editor at Ladies' Home Journal and Parenting magazines, and her work has appeared in dozens of consumer magazines and websites.
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.