Editors' note: Cynthia Gorney's children are now adults, but her remarkable articles about teaching them kindness, curiosity and respect for other people are timeless.
Are children this young capable of learning manners?
Sure, but you have to keep your goals realistic. You'll never get a 2-year-old to chew with her mouth closed. Focus instead on conveying the idea of manners, the concept that there are ways to behave and ways not to behave. If you get this idea across early and often, your child will catch on faster -- and resist less -- when you start adding specifics later. Also, never underestimate the power of setting an example. It may sound simplistic, but the best way to have polite kids is to be polite. If your child consistently hears courteous discourse around the house, that's the way she'll talk, too.
Where do I begin?
Trust your instincts. Saying "please" and "thank you" is usually the first bit of courtesy any parent tries to teach, and you can start as soon as your child is using some words to communicate, usually sometime after the first year. It's going to be a long time before she gets "please" and "thank you" down, but once your baby starts talking you'll probably find yourself automatically tacking on the polite words and pausing for her to repeat them. Parents have done this for generations: "What do you say?" "What's the magic word?" They were right.
Is there anything I can teach besides "please" and "thank you"?
Civilized behavior frequently calls for sitting still, and learning to sit without squirming for more than five minutes straight is a major achievement for a 2 or 3-year-old. Never put yourself in a situation where disaster will strike if your child wiggles or wails. (You know you always have to take an aisle seat at weddings so you and the small cranky one can slip out fast, right?) But family dinners or visits to relatives' homes can be terrific practice time. Make sure your goals are reasonable: Fifteen minutes at the dinner table, butt on the chair the whole time, can be terribly hard work for a squirmy toddler. You might want to set incrementally increasing goals, perhaps using a kitchen timer: five minutes at first and then another couple of minutes as she gets the hang of it. Expect backsliding. Try to stay cheerful about it.
What about social niceties with other people?
A 2-year-old can learn to say "hello" when arriving for visits or meeting new people and "goodbye" when it's time to go. She will be wildly unreliable about it, saying "hello" very sweetly on one occasion and then collapsing into shyness or bursting into tears on the next. But in general it's a good move to teach these salutations because they pave the way for the more advanced stuff, like "It's nice to meet you" and shaking hands. Some preparation helps here: "When we get to Grandpa's, we're going to say, 'Hi, Grandpa,' okay?" If this is the first visit with Grandpa and you think he might have forgotten what you were like when you were 2-years-old, you'll also need some advance work with him so his feelings aren't hurt when the grandbaby hides her face and refuses to speak to him. ("Remember, Dad, she's just 2 and might be shy at first.")
By the time she's 3, your child can also begin learning not to demand your attention when you're mid-sentence with somebody else. There's no point in getting mad at a child this small for expecting exclusivity with you, but you can say firmly, "That's called interrupting, and we try not to do it, okay? When Uncle John finishes what he's saying, I'll talk to you." (To a 3-year-old, "in a minute" or "in a little while" may seem like a vague and endless stretch of time.)
Telephone calls are another good opportunity to teach your child that there are times when she has to wait for your attention. As long as she's not in danger or discomfort, a 3-year-old can learn to wait for five to 10 minutes while you're talking. She'll see the cell phone as a personal affront and will insist that you get off or talk to her at the same time, but this is your chance to hold to one of those limits kids really need. Make sure your child knows she'll get you back when you're through talking, and don't let her bully you into abruptly ending your conversation -- though you'll have to keep it from going on too long. Remember that children need your undivided attention, too.
Can my child learn to use manners with other kids yet?
She can start. Toddlers' first quarrels are usually over sharing their toys, which from their perspective is an outrageous thing to ask of them. Don't expect sainthood, but you'll do your child a favor if you start teaching her now that when other kids are around she can't hog all the toys, whether at home or at daycare or preschool. Lay down some simple ground rules: If there's a favorite one-person toy, everybody takes a turn with it. Nobody gets to decide how somebody else plays with a toy, as long as the toy isn't being damaged. Nobody gets to hit, shove, or name-call. Respond to infractions first with a clear warning; if that doesn't take care of the problem, you can give a time-out to a child who's over 2. The last step, if necessary, is an immediate end to the play session. Finally, don't forget to praise your child -- specifically naming the swell thing she just did ("It was nice of you to let Tyler throw your ball") -- any time she behaves generously or thoughtfully around other kids.
Pantley, Elizabeth. Kid Cooperation: How to Stop Yelling, Nagging and Pleading and Get Kids to Cooperate. New Harbinger Publications.
Sears, William and Martha. The Discipline Book: How to Have a Better-Behaved Child From Birth to Age Ten. Little, Brown and Company.
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