Good manners are simply a way of making the people around you feel noticed and at ease. Good manners aren’t about the correct way to eat peas, however much some people might obsess about these social niceties, but how to think about others and treat them with kindness and respect. By having good manners almost as second nature, your child will have a happier relationship with the world around them. As the old saying goes, “Smile and the world smiles with you!” Why wouldn’t you want smiles for your child, rather than disapproval and tutting?
But my child’s only a toddler!
Absolutely, but it’s never too early to show your child good manners. From when they were a baby, you’ve been modelling good manners by being patient and gentle with them. Your child will already be beginning to understand that there are ways to behave, for which he receives praise from you, and equally that there are ways not to behave that disappoint you.
“Good manners are about teaching social behaviour,” says clinical child psychologist and mother of three, Dr Elizabeth Kilbey. “Manners are the bedrock of putting someone else first. Toddlers are essentially bad at that because they think they’re the centre of the universe, but you can teach good manners as they learn to rein in impulses and by drilling manners into them in an habitual way, for example that every transition comes with a please and thank you.”
How you can teach manners to a toddler
DO start with the basics
Saying “please” and “thank you” is the first element of good manners you can teach, with the eventual aim that these important words become an ingrained habit. You can begin as soon as your child starts talking, usually sometime after their first birthday.
But don’t be obsessive about it. Gradually, through your prompts and repeating the phrases, they will remember to say please and thank you more often. To help it become an automatic response, always give your toddler specific praise when they do remember: “I was so proud of you when you said thank you to Granny because that made her happy.”
By the time they are two years old, you can teach your toddler to say “hello” when arriving for visits, meeting new people or having a play date. They can also learn to say “goodbye” when it’s time to leave. But it will be hit and miss - sometimes they’ll greet people with a confident “hello”, other times they’ll hide behind your legs in stubborn silence. Don’t force them to speak when they are feeling unsure of themselves.
DO be a good role model
Your child won’t be polite, unless she sees you being polite - to your partner, to other parents, to sales assistants. Everyone. Every time. If your child is brought up hearing polite speech - “please”, “thank you”, “excuse me”, “I’m sorry” - she’ll want to copy you.
“This isn’t just when you’re playing tea parties, but in every transition so they learn the habit,” says Dr Kilbey.
DO teach generosity and sharing
“Be realistic; for a lot of toddlers sharing is outside their ability. Until they’re about three they won’t understand it,” says Dr Kilbey. “Your child will get there so stay calm, model sharing yourself and reinforce your child’s willingness to share with positive praise every time he does.”
DO encourage good table manners
Don’t be too ambitious too young. Sitting in one place for any length of time can be tough for an energetic toddler who wants to squirm away. Sit down with your child so you can chat and eat together. Why should they sit still if you’re bustling around the kitchen?
Moving from finger food to using a fork and spoon will happen naturally; simply give your child ample opportunity and praise as their manual dexterity improves.
When you’re eating out, as with all manners in public, explain that this is the time to show how good they are at sitting still. Compliment them afterwards for their polite, grown-up behaviour but don’t go OTT because you want them to learn that this is a normal expectation.
DON’T expect too much too soon
We all know that embarrassment when our toddler is rude at a playgroup or play date, especially when other kids appear to be behaving perfectly. But remember they are still too young to control all of their impulses all of the time.
Make sure you take every opportunity - reading, watching TV together, chatting, play acting - to talk about feelings and increase their vocabulary.
Without dwelling on the past incident, be clear about what you’d like them to do next time and why: “When you are rude and shout at X it makes her sad, and that makes me sad too. Can you think of a polite way to ask for the toy next time?” Be calm and firm and don’t lose your temper which sends all sorts of mixed messages.
DON’T expect “sorry” too soon
The word sorry comes with empathy. And until your child understands that their actions affect other people’s feelings, it’s just a word they are parroting. Again, modelling is key here.