Every parent wants to raise a well-behaved child, but that sometimes feels like an impossible dream during the toddler years. Two- and 3-year-olds stomp their feet when they want something, crawl under the table during dinner, and snatch toys away from their friends. You might be tempted to put off teaching manners until this phase passes, but it's the perfect time to begin.
"When you start early, your child will learn that being polite and considerate is just the normal way people act," says Donna Jones, author of Taming Your Family Zoo: Six Weeks to Raising a Well-Mannered Child. Luckily, your toddler can now follow simple directions and is eager to please you. Another bonus: He's beginning to develop the habits and patterns of behavior that he'll keep for life. Just don't expect instant perfection until your child understands the reason for courtesy, he needs repetition and reinforcement from you. Get started with these simple concepts.
Now that your child is old enough to play with other kids, it's important to teach her to treat them fairly. While toddlers are naturally self-centered and possessive, they can tell the difference between "nice" and "not nice" behavior, such as grabbing a toy. Kids tend to get aggressive when they don't know how to express themselves, so if your child starts hitting, take her aside and calmly explain that she has to use her words when she wants something. Tell her why her behavior is wrong, and ask her to apologize to her friend.
To make sharing more appealing to your child, start by taking turns playing with a toy together. After her time is up, ask her nicely for the toy and have her do the same when it's your turn. At playdates, set rules. Say, "You can swing for a few minutes, and then we'll let Chris have a turn." Set a time if necessary, and get her involved with another toy or activity so it's easier for her to let go.
Kids' verbal skills improve rapidly now, so chances are that your little chatterbox can say "please" and "thank you." Whether he'll actually do it depends on you. "This is the age of imitation," says Phyllis Magrab, Ph.D., director of the Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development, in Washington, D.C. "Toddlers watch you closely and mimic what you say." Model good behavior by asking for things nicely in front of him. If he yells "gimme," ask him to say "please" before you let him have something. Practice "the magic words" often: Hand a toy back and forth and say "please" and "thank you" to each other. Maria Hughes, of Austin, always praises her 3-year-old daughter, Danielle, when she says these words on her own. "I give her a hug and tell her, 'You're such a big girl. I'm so proud of you!'"
Your toddler may prefer to eat mashed potatoes by the handful, but the good news is that she's developing the fine motor skills needed to use utensils and wipe her hands on a napkin. Start showing her how to eat properly. Say, "See how I hold my fork? Let me see you try." Make helpful suggestions and remind her when she makes mistakes: "Let's finish chewing before we talk," or "When we burp, we say 'excuse me.'"
At this stage, most kids have the self-control to chew with their mouth closed and sit at the table for 15 minutes. Talk about the meal to help your child focus on eating and limit distractions. Shannon Connors, of Mount Airy, Maryland, taught her 4-year-old son, Danny, to stay in his seat until dinner was over by telling him he couldn't come back to the table once he left. "He tried to get back in his chair a few times, but I didn't give in," she says. "Now he stays until he's finished."
Toddlers can look at someone when they say "hello," but it's normal for them to freeze when faced with unfamiliar people and situations. If your child goes mute when he meets someone, give him a gentle reminder: "Max, say 'hello' to Mrs. Jones." But don't push it if he's too shy. "Modeling good behavior is more effective than forcing it," says Alice Brown, former director of the Child Activity Center at Adelphi University, in Garden City, New York. "If you say 'hello' and extend your hand when meeting people, it will eventually come naturally to him." When he greets someone without being told, give him a nod or thumbs-up.
Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Parents magazine.