Manners makes any child delightful. Manners are the actions that show we are thinking of the other person. The key manners for a toddler to learn are Please and thankyou, hello and goodbye, and sorry.
A toddler doesn’t get the idea of loving another person, that other people are precious – they are inherently selfish (as we all are). As we model and teach how to respond to other people we are establishing in them a habit. A habit that will lay the foundation for other character based responses we will teach them as they grow older.
Around 6-9months we can start modelling good manners. Though the child starts to hear the words which may or may not benefit them, the real benefit is that we are training ourselves. Once you start teaching a toddler to say please and thankyou you realise how little you use those polite words yourself! It may well be time to teach and train yourself before you start expecting it of your toddler! When we start saying these words to a pre-toddler we are also teaching ourselves to be aware of our child’s responses in certain situations – this will make us more aware when the time comes for the toddler to start responding.
Toddlers love actions and we make the most of this by teaching them rhyming songs and games with actions – it is fun. We can take this idea of actions and teach them ‘sign language’ for these key phrases we want them to use. So when it comes time to start teaching them to say please, thankyou, hello, goodbye, sorry we can take their little hand and as we say the word – prompting them that now is the time to say such a word – we take their hand through the motions.
In teaching sign language to your kids you can use the standard sign for the deaf and hearing impaired, or you can make up your own – we’ve done a mixture of Auslan, ASL, and whatever creative signs works with toddler. Just recently Toddler started saying thankyou (thankyou is a concept/word that comes a while after please) and in her exuberance she took what we were trying to teach her into a raising of her armwith a quick fling along with a singsong sound that kinda-sounded like ‘thankyou’. Her little circle of friends and carers will start to recognise this as a thankyou – but she is also close to verbalising it as well.
We are all familiar with the ‘what’s the magic word’ and this prompts them to say what you want them to say. This is ingrained in us and quick. But it also teaches our kids to either parrot what we want them to say, or mindlessly say what they know is expected. So though we need to prompt our kids to use their manners there does come a time where we need to simply wait until they ask properly – no verbal clue, simply inaction on our part will make them wonder why mum and dad aren’t giving it to them. Of course this too can become a prompt, but the idea is that we want them to have to think. The next step is to actually get them to try again. You can say “I’m sorry – can you try that again?” And the last step is to say no, I’m sorry I can’t give it to you, but you can come back in 5 minutes and ask again. Everything we do is really a prompt, but we are to keep them as gentle reminders to think. These different strategies will be gradual learning process from toddler years to preschool years.
We can prompt much the same for every polite word we want our children to use, gently encouraging them to take ownership of showing respect and love to the other person. But saying hello, goodbye and sorry are a bit more complex because they aren’t as concrete. With saying please and thankyou the child wants something – you have an immediate object lesson. But these other words are relationship words and they are more abstract. So in these situations, when the child won’t do it we can simply pick up their hand and go through the actions and say the words for them.
One of the saddest things I saw when my kids were little was a mum who demanded good manners from their toddler. This involved reminding and then removing them and giving them a ‘lecture’ and then expecting them to go through the motions and then when they didn’t whisked them home as a consequence (cancelled their playdate). This is no way to teach manners. Teaching to say the right words comes with time, and it comes with understanding. Our kids don’t understand that all people need to be shown respect until they are older – in the meantime we are helping them learn habits. We need to be gracious and see the long term picture.
One of the anomalies with parenting is that we tend to teach a little baby to wave goodbye. It is cute and we get very excited with that first wave they do on their own. But saying hello is the very same action – it is the same physical action (a wave) and it is the same moral choice. We need to teach our little ones to say hello and goodbye.
Much in the same way we teach please, thankyou, hello and goodbye, we can teach our little ones to say sorry. They may not fully understand the implications of their actions but they do understand love. When we teach them to end their tantrum, or their meanness (like hitting or biting) with a sorry – we are, once again, teaching their heart. I have seen a toddler soften when they are challenged to say sorry. They want to be friends again and this is what sorry does in any relationship – it mends. So verbalising, practicing, prompting, and encouraging our little ones to say sorry will lay the foundation for a fully apology when they are older, but for now they are valuing relationship.
Manners are an issue of the heart – we either want to love another person and show them respect or we don’t really care. Our job as a parent is to teach our children, starting with our toddlers, what this looks like, what does respect look like. As they get older we teach them why it is important to show respect and consideration. But we can never demand love and respect. This is why it is important for us to model, to teach, to practice, to encourage our children in these ways – we are establishing a habit of the heart that will be the foundation for their future choices.
You can see the rest of my Living with a Toddler for 31 days series here.
Or find more 31 day series here.