Teaching your toddler manners

How to turn your tot into a perfectly polite little person with dazzling social skills

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  • No one expects your little one to enter toddlerhood with finishing-school manners, but teaching your tot to be polite and respectful at an early age will stand her in good stead as she grows up.

    “Knowing how to be sociable is important for making friends and starting school,” says child development and health psychologist Dr Maggie Redshaw. “We live in a social world so your toddler needs to learn what’s acceptable and what’s not.” Here’s how to get your little one to…

  • …watch their ‘ps and ‘qs

    “Saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ is something that can be expected from around 2 years of age when your toddler’s speech develops that little bit more,” explains Maggie.

    “However, even before this point you need to lead by example. Children are fantastic imitators and like to copy adults, especially mum and dad, so make sure you’re polite at all times.” Even if it’s something as basic as offering a drink, say ‘Would you like a drink?’ and when she’s old enough to speak relatively well, wait for her to say ‘Yes please’ or ‘No thank you’ back. With frequent reminders each day, your little one will learn.

  • …share

    “Teaching this can be difficult as young children don’t have a lot of self-control to enable them to wait or share,” explains Maggie. “To help, always make sure you’re fair to your child and others around her, so she starts to understand everyone needs to have equal time with toys and with mummy and daddy.”

    Children’s life coach, Naomi Richards (www.thekidscoach.org.uk), suggests parents show how it’s done: “Share something of yours with your tot and ask her how it makes her feel. If it makes her feel special, she’ll learn it’s a kind and generous thing to do.”

  • …not interrupt

    As a mum you’ll have had countless instances of your toddler interrupting you with demands for this, that or the other at the very minute you strike up conversation with someone or try to answer the phone. How do you get past it?

    “Explain to your toddler that if she wants to talk to you when you’re chatting to someone else, you won’t be able to listen clearly,” says Naomi. “A good game to play is to both talk at the same time and see if you can hear what the other person is saying. Then talk one at a time so she can see how different the two are.”

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  • …say sorry

    Apologising doesn’t come naturally to tots. “Toddlers do a lot of things accidentally, not realising they shouldn’t,” says Maggie. “At a young age yours might be able to say ‘sorry’ but probably won’t know what it means. Talk to your little one about what she should and shouldn’t do, and how she should behave if she does do something that isn’t acceptable.”

    If your toddler has behaved badly because she’s angry or upset, acknowledge this so she knows you understand how she feels but don’t condone her attitude. “Instead, reward good behaviour with smiles, praise and hugs so she knows what she’s done is correct and that you’re pleased with her,” says Maggie.

  • …control the volume

    “Teach your toddler the three types of voices – the whisper, the normal talking voice and the shout,” advises Naomi. “The shout is only to be used outside of the house, the whisper first thing in the morning, or when others are resting, and the normal voice everywhere else in the house and out and about. Remind her which voice she should be using by asking her when she’s using the wrong one, ‘Is that the right voice we use for.... ?’.”

    “If you’ve reminded her about her noise levels, don’t dwell on it so she gets annoyed or embarrassed,” adds Maggie. “Be factual and tell her why she shouldn’t be so loud and then move on and start another conversation.”

  • …learn to wait

    Waiting their turn can be difficult for young children as they don’t have a very good concept of time. “Distract her with a toy or game so she’s not bored and irritable,” says Maggie. “If you say you’ll speak to her in a minute then keep your promise and don’t keep saying it again and again so she gets grumpy. This way she’ll learn that sometimes she needs to wait, but when she does, you do always get to her in the end.”

    Thank her for waiting quietly for you and if she asks you to wait a few moments, do this without fuss so she learns it works both ways.

  • …think of others

    “Explain to your tot it’s important to think about other people and what they want,” says Naomi. “For example, ask her what she’d like to do and then say what you would like to do. You can then explain you can do both activities so the both of you are happy and enjoy the day together.” Always praise her when she’s nice to others, too.

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  • …lessen aggression

    “While you can’t accept aggressive behaviour, you also shouldn’t overreact to it either,” says Maggie. “It might be the case that your tot hasn’t even realised she’s done something wrong. Stop her and tell her why she can’t hit out as it might hurt someone else.

    If she’s aggressive with other children, remove her from the room or situation to cool off and let the other children get on with things.” Explain to her she must say sorry for hurting someone else so they know she won’t do it to them again.

  • …have table manners

    “When you’re eating, set the table out so your toddler can’t grab out at anything and disrupt the meal,” suggests Maggie. “Always sit with her and interact as she eats, as bad behaviour – like being difficult at the dinner table – is sometimes down to craving attention from you.” Keep meal times short and relaxed so she doesn’t get bored and act up, and try and give her a varied diet at home so she’s interested in the meal.

  • Mums’ stories

    “If I’m playing with Marcus and he’s hoarding toys or says there’s something I’m not allowed to play with, I say that I won’t play with him unless he shares. Being an only child he doesn’t get to share much with other children, so I always make sure he does with the family.”

    Sophie Mitchell, 24, from Cornwall, mum to Marcus, 4

    “I always say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to Isla so she can follow my lead, and if she forgets to say ‘please’ I just wait with a raised eyebrow until she says it. 
I’ve also taught her to say ‘Excuse me Mummy’ if I’m talking to someone else. She used to just bounce up and down, shrieking ‘Mummy – stop talking!’”

    Anna Hargreaves, 34, from London, mum to Isla, 2, and Niamh, 8 months

  • 5 easy ways to encourage the art of politeness:

    1. Lead by example. Toddlers love to copy you, so make sure you and your partner keep each other’s manners in check around your little one.

    2. Give feedback. Always big up or reward good behaviour and underplay negative behaviour.

    3. Give it time. Your toddler isn’t going to suddenly learn every social skill overnight – it takes time to perfect beautiful manners. So don’t get stressed if she doesn’t remember to say ‘sorry’ or ‘please’ when she needs to, just give her gentle reminders each time she forgets and she’ll soon learn.

    4. Use role-play. Practice manners at home. If you’re playing shops and she’s the customer, make sure she says ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ when she communicates.

    5. Get out and about. Involve your toddler in various different social situations so she can practice her manners.


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