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Everything You Need to Know About Toddlers and Manners
Updated on
September 14, 2023

Everything You Need to Know About Toddlers and Manners

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Everything You Need to Know About Toddlers and Manners .
Everything You Need to Know About Toddlers and Manners

Toddlers tend to operate in a “me” mindset. They don’t follow social norms and are unabashedly open with their thoughts and feelings. While it can be overwhelming, this isn’t a sign of them being rude or selfish; it’s actually totally normal toddler behavior. They are in what’s called an egocentric phase of development, which means they aren’t cognitively able to see things from another person’s perspective.

But it won’t always be that way. In addition to learning shapes, colors and which farm animal makes what sound, toddlers are busy soaking up all kinds of social skills through the everyday interactions they have with parents, family and friends. This is good news since that means you can help nudge them toward being polite, considerate and respectful of others. And it’s never too early to start!

Here’s what to know about teaching toddlers manners.

When Should I Start Teaching My Toddler Manners?

First things first—when should you begin lessons on minding their Ps and Qs? Before you start, it’s important to consider where your toddler is developmentally.

“I actually recommend starting once your child is talking well because toddlers develop receptive language before expressive language,” says Devon Kuntzman, founder of Transforming Toddlerhood. This means that they understand what you’re saying to them before they can say it themselves.

Around three and a half to four years old, Kuntzman says you can expect to see more consistency since this is when “the part of the brain responsible for impulse control starts to mature at a faster rate.”

But you can also start introducing polite behavior before then by narrating interactions. This is something as simple as saying “up please” if they’re reaching for you or thanking them when they pass you a toy. This is essentially prepping them for learning manners later by, “giving [them] the words they need.”

How to Teach Toddlers Manners

The number one way to teach your little one manners is to practice what you preach. The old adage, “actions speak louder than words” definitely applies here—toddlers are always watching and learning from everything we do. You are your child’s first (and most important) teacher and if you want them to have manners, they need to see you modeling them. “Modeling manners [goes] a long way because you are normalizing this behavior as part of the culture of your family,” Kuntzman says. “It also helps us make sure that we aren’t expecting something from our child that we are not willing to do ourselves.”

You want to be sure you’re not forcing it either; making your toddler say sorry or greet a relative, “usually backfires because it triggers a toddler’s developmental drive to have a sense of control and exert their will,” Kuntzman says. It’ll also lead to power struggles.

As your toddler gets older, it may also be helpful to “explain to them why these specific social behaviors matter and what they communicate,” says Dorsa Amir, a behavioral scientist and clinical researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. “Kids are deeply causal thinkers, and giving them causal explanations to things (as opposed to ‘because you have to’) may be more successful.”

Here are a few more tips for teaching your toddlers manners:

Act it out: “Another great way to teach manners is to make it fun using play or role-playing in the calm moments,” says Kuntzman, “toddlers do better when we practice skills in low-stakes situations (without all of the pressure).” Grab their favorite dolls and incorporate stories that introduce manners when you’re playing with your toddler.

Stick to the basics: When choosing which manners you want to teach your toddler, make sure you’re expectations are age-appropriate. For example, if your toddler is slow to warm up, they probably won’t rush to say hello to people they aren’t familiar with. Next, you’ll want to consider which manners are most valuable to your family and start simple.

Acknowledge polite behavior: Whenever you see your toddler being polite or exhibiting good behavior, let them know! Praising the behaviors you want to see goes much further at reinforcing them than telling them what not to do.

Check your expectations: Toddlers aren’t going to pick up manners right away and they won’t use their manners every time (if we’re being honest, most adults don’t either). Be patient and consistent as they learn these new ways of interacting.

Manners to Teach Your Toddler

Which manners each parent chooses to focus on will vary according to each individual family’s values. “Culture plays a huge role in lots of processes, including parenting practices, children’s social development and what even constitutes ‘good manners’,” says Amir.

In general, here are the most common manners parents want to teach their toddlers (and how to do it).

Say ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye’

Waving hello to everyone they see is a fun milestone that typically appears around nine months. While enthusiastic greetings can persist into toddlerhood, some children are more cautious or reserved around strangers and people they don’t see often. You can encourage them to greet others by teaching them it’s the polite, friendly thing to do, but it’s also important to respect their temperament and avoid forcing it if they’re particularly shy. (It’s especially important not to force any hugs or kisses with family members, even if it may hurt some feelings.)

Say ‘Please’ and ‘Thank You’

This is usually the first thing toddlers pick up in the realm of manners. Instead of prompting them to say please and thank you, be mindful to say these things to your toddler in your daily conversations. For example, if you want them to help clean up their blocks, throw a please in there: “Can you help me put these blocks in the basket please?” And then thank them: “Thank you for putting your toys away, you’re so helpful.”

Taking Turns

Toddlers need a lot of practice when learning how to take turns. You can model turn-taking (aka sharing) by asking for things instead of just taking them from your little one. And this doesn’t just apply to sharing toys—any parent knows how hard it can be to have a conversation with a toddler in tow. Teaching them to wait until it’s their turn to talk helps them learn the importance of listening to what other people have to say. It’s also a good idea to let them know when it’s okay to interrupt, like in the case of an emergency.

Say ‘Excuse Me’

Whether they’re bulldozing you out of their way, letting out a toot or interrupting a conversation, saying “excuse me” is another polite phrase to teach your toddler. The best way to get your toddler to say this is to model it when the opportunity arises.

Knock First

Once you have a baby, you suddenly realize how much you took using the bathroom alone for granted. But once they reach toddlerhood, you can begin to teach them the importance of giving people privacy and space—specifically knocking on doors when they’re closed and waiting for the okay to enter.

Cover Their Cough

This one may not be something that typically comes to mind when talking manners but it’s especially important in more recent years. Teach your toddler to help prevent spreading germs by coughing and sneezing into the crook of their arm and that tissue is the best place to wipe their noses. Follow up by encouraging frequent handwashing with the use of a fun handwashing song. This is not only a win for helping to not spread germs but also for you—yay for fewer toddler colds!

Don’t Comment on People’s Bodies

Toddlers are very observant and often have zero filters—so they’ll need a little help learning what is and isn’t appropriate to say. Teach them that it’s not polite to comment on other people’s bodies by refraining from making these comments yourself. You can also take this a step further by normalizing and celebrating all types of bodies and abilities by reading books. And also welcome curiosity! Be willing to answer any questions they may have about different things they see when out and about.

Every parent wants a well-behaved, polite toddler but keep in mind: toddlers will be toddlers. Focus on modeling the behaviors you want to see and celebrating when you see your little one engaging in them. And your they grow and develop, there will be new manners to teach and plenty of opportunities to do so. By following this same general method (modeling + explaining the why) you’ll be able to instill respect, kindness and consideration in your little one.

EXPERT SOURCES

Devon Kuntzman, PCC, and founder of Transforming Toddlerhood, a platform of helpful courses and workshops that guide parents through the toddler years.

Dorsa Amir, behavioral scientist and clinical researcher at the University of California, Berkeley.


Briana Engelbrecht

Assistant Editor

Briana Engelbrecht is Babylist’s Assistant Editor, where she brings her passion for early childhood development and the perinatal period, plus experience as a mom of two to Babylist articles and guides. A former preschool teacher, she loves children’s picture books, cats, plants and making things.

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