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Does a 2-½-year-old understand what "nice" means?
Q: I noticed in one of the other questions that Dr. Condrell suggested that a parent tell their child, “That is not being nice.” My question is, can a 2-½-year-old child understand what the word "nice" means, as in the sentence “That was not nice”? When I say something like that to my daughter, she repeatedly asks, "What?" I then have to rephrase my question or comment so she understands. I do not think "nice" is a word she understands at her age. Is that normal?
A: I can see why you might be feeling confused by some of my statements on toddlers. Communicating with toddlers is a process. In other words, key words have to be repeated over a period of months so a toddler gradually comes to grasp what you mean. Of course, your facial expression, body posture and tone and intensity of voice all help communicate what you want the toddler to understand. It’s very much like when we talk to babies. We know they don’t completely understand all we are saying, but the words and attention stimulates them and helps them learn language in the long run. Your question is right on the mark. It’s easy to feel confused and discouraged as you tell a toddler for the 20th time, “Don’t hit.” However, all this repetition is necessary for your words to sink in. I find it helpful to combine a sharp “No!” with a soft “Be nice” when you are trying to show a toddler a better way of behaving.

Since your toddler often asks, “What?” when spoken to, consider asking your pediatrician to check her hearing, just to be on the safe side. It’s a little unusual for a toddler to ask that question.

Kenneth N. Condrell Ph.D Child Psychologist