Curb your toddler’s bad habits

Bodies are like an adventure playground to little ones. Here’s why they do the embarrassing (and sometimes disgusting) things they do, and how to cope


Manners and social decorum aren’t qualities that come naturally to toddlers – usually the opposite in fact. If there’s something to pick or play with, they’ll be right on to it.


“Toddlers don’t have any of the hangs-ups or the sense of decency older people have. For them, modesty doesn’t come into things,” says consultant clinical psychologist Emma Citron.

Whether it’s pulling down their pants or publicly examining their bogies, much of what we find embarrassing behaviour is actually, for your toddler, about exploring himself and his world.” Toddlers are at the stage where a lot of learning is still about exploring through touch,” explains child psychologist Ruth Coppard, ( what do you do when your little one’s at it, especially in public?


Getting naked

“Lots of children hate wearing clothes and many are allowed to walk around in just underwear at home,” says Ruth. “It doesn’t matter if he goes naked if it doesn’t matter to you, but there’s usually a time and a place for it. This is an instance where you have to let your child know there are some things you can do at home that you don’t perhaps do in public.” How you decide to react will probably depend on the context.

What to do:

  • If you’re at the park, decide if it’s OK for your child to be topless (don’t forget sunscreen) and just play it down.
  • “If you feel uncomfortable, perhaps because your daughter’s naked and there are adult men around, take her aside and gently explain that you think it’s better if she pop her pants back on,” says Emma Citron.
  • “If your child asks ‘why’, say ‘Because I feel more comfortable that way and would prefer you to do it’,” adds Ruth Coppard. “As a parent, you make the rules. And it’s what’s OK for you and your family that counts here.”

Touching privates

“Most children spend a lot of their time clothed. When they get the opportunity to touch their privates, it can be quite exciting,” says Ruth. “And as far as a toddler’s concerned, why shouldn’t he? After all, nobody shouts if he touches his toes or rubs his tummy.” Your toddler may also touch himself out of habit, or even boredom. “There’s something reassuring about consistency, and your body’s consistent,” explains Ruth. “That’s why children suck their thumb. In the same way, touching himself is also a reassuring activity.”

 What to do:

  • Whether you’re at home or in public, distraction, like quickly offering your toddler a toy to play with, can be a good tactic.
  • If it happens in public, don’t overreact. “Calmly explain ‘You don’t do that here, in front of people’,” says Ruth.

Nose picking

Nose picking (and eating the bogies) is mainly to do with a natural fascination we all have with our bodies. “It probably tastes quite interesting and is OK to do when you’re very small,” says Ruth. “But later it can mark you out with your peers. Classmates maybe won’t want to hold hands with you or be your friend, for example.”

 What to do:

  • If a finger goes up a nose, always have a tissue to hand.
  • “Then say, ‘That’s not very nice’,” says Emma Citron. “And instead, suggest your tot does it alone in a private place.”
  • “If he asks ‘why’, keep things simple and explain because it’s not good manners.”

Farts and burps

Breaking wind isn’t something your toddler does on purpose and the same goes for burping – usually. Toddlers can’t fart on purpose, but they still need to get into the habit of knowing it’s not always polite to do it.

What to do:

  • “When he burps, teach your child to say, ‘Pardon me’ and put a hand over his mouth,” says Ruth Coppard. If he finds it funny, let him know it’s a ‘whoops’ kind of funny, not a laugh out loud moment.
  • With farting, ignoring it is probably the best policy. “You might say, ‘Excuse me’ if it’s very loud, but otherwise I wouldn’t laugh or pass comment.”
Is swearing an appropriate form of expression for children?

Steps to curb swearing:

  • Make a call on whether your tot’s using a swear word on purpose.
  • Gloss over it if you think he’s said it by accident or without intent.
  • Walk away. If your child’s swearing deliberately, walk away and take no notice, or resort to the naughty chair, says Ruth Coppard.
  •  Make it clear that it’s not acceptable by saying ‘I don’t like that language. Don’t use it with me please’.
  • Stay calm. “The telling-off doesn’t have to be any more than that,” says Ruth Coppard. “You want to give your child the idea that swearing’s just another of the things you don’t do, like not eating pudding before main course.”
Expect some ‘accidents’ when potty training.

Mums’ stories

“I was holding my son Charlie as we said goodbye to one of my friends, when he leaned forward and grabbed her boob and said, ‘Beep beep, boobies!’. I was mortified, but luckily my friend just laughed. Thankfully she works in childcare so she’s seen it all before.”

Zoe Ellis-Martin, 27, from Plymouth, mum to Charlie, 3

“When Tom was 2 he went through a stage of taking off his pull-ups and pooing on his bedroom floor. We told him firmly he shouldn’t do this, but a few days later I went upstairs and saw a little ‘pebble’ on the floor. “What did we tell you, Tom? Not on the floor,” I said. “I didn’t,” he replied and pointed to the window. He’d climbed onto the windowsill and pooed there instead. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry!”

Helen Graph, 28, from Newcastle, mum to Tom, 4

“When we were toilet training Isaac, he was caught short a few times which led to me finding secluded spots behind trees and parked cars to avoid him wetting himself. He started to take this rather literally though and thought he could poo outside in the wild whenever he wanted. I’ve since bought some toilet training books and now he knows the importance of going before you leave the house. He even checks I’ve been too.”


Hannah Page, 33, from Brighton, mum to Isaac, 3

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