Politeness and Your Toddler

Expert answers to moms' questions about toddler etiquette.


If your child has ever mortified you in a restaurant or at the playground (and whose hasn't?), teaching her manners is probably on your to-do list--somewhere between yesterday's laundry and learning how to become a Zen master. There's good reason to pencil it in near the top: In order for your child to have an active, healthy social life in the future, you need to lay the foundation for good manners now.

However, it's important to remember that you need to stay focused on manners your child can actually understand at his age. Practice is your best strategy, says Carol McD. Wallace, author of Elbows off the Table, Napkin in the Lap, No Video Games During Dinner (St. Martin's Press, 1996). With that in mind, here are answers to some of your most common questions.

Food Fights


Every time I put a plate of food in front of my 2-year-old, he screams, "Yucky!" I'm not crazy about this behavior and I don't want him to do this at other people's houses. What should I do?


Though no one likes her cooking criticized -- particularly by someone whose idea of fine dining usually involves Tater Tots -- try not to overreact to your son's behavior. There's nothing more satisfying to a little kid than a big commotion over something he's said and done. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't address his behavior and try to nip it in the bud right away. After all, good table manners are important.

Appeal to your child's growing sense of empathy. You could say, "It makes me sad when my food is yucky, so please don't say that anymore," Wallace suggests. You can also let him know that if he doesn't like certain foods, it's perfectly fine for him to say, "No, thank you."

Because food fussiness is a common issue among toddlers, you may also want to rethink how you deal with your son's meals. Picky eating is often rooted in a toddler's need for independence, so resist the urge to constantly argue over food. If your child doesn't eat something, don't worry about it -- healthy toddlers don't starve to death! It's also worth taking a look at what you serve your son; little kids are usually pretty averse to strong-flavored or bitter foods. You may have to tweak your cooking a bit to appeal to his toddler taste buds, advises Wallace. Teaching your son good table manners and examining your own behavior will stop rude food talk.

Please and Thank You


My daughter is almost 2, but "please" and "thank you" are not yet part of her growing vocabulary. I want her to be a polite child. What's the best way to teach her these words?


This is a great time to teach your daughter the value of manners -- she's just beginning to understand empathy, and she's acquiring language at breakneck speed. Good manners are learned by example and repeated exposure, so be sure that you and your partner say these words to each other for even the most mundane requests, such as passing the salt, says Sheryl Berk, author of numerous books on children's manners, including Mine! Mine! Mine! A Little Help with Sharing (Scholastic, 2000).

Next, prompt your daughter to use the words herself. When she asks for or receives a snack or toy, say something like, "What's the magic word?" and remind her of what she needs to say. If she's successful, let her know what a good girl she is. If not, don't make a big issue of it. It's important not to make this a chore, says Berk. Simply prompting your child will make it more like it's her idea, so she'll be more likely to do it. With enough repetition, you'll hear "please" and "thank you" a lot more often in your house.

Patience, Patience, Patience


Whenever I'm on the phone or chatting with a friend, my almost-3-year-old daughter constantly interrupts us. It's embarrassing. Is there any way to stop her from doing this?


This problem is about being patient and waiting your turn -- something that many adults can't handle very well -- so go easy on your daughter, suggests Wallace. Interrupting is a tough habit for toddlers to break; they have very little sense of time and not too much patience, so telling them that they have to wait a minute is akin to asking them to wait a day.

First, sit down with your daughter and explain that when you're having a conversation with someone else, it's hard to listen to her while the other person is talking. You'll also want to let her know that people take turns when they talk, and sometimes she'll need to wait until another person is finished speaking before she can chime in. Finally, tell her that if she really needs you -- she needs to use the bathroom, for example -- she can interrupt your conversation by saying "Excuse me," suggests Wallace.

The next time your daughter interrupts you, say, "Excuse me" to whomever you're talking to and then tell your daughter, "Please don't interrupt. When I'm finished talking to my friend, you can have a turn." It'll take quite a bit of practice for your daughter to get her timing right, but with your prompting, she'll eventually learn when to speak.

Toilet Talk


Recently, my 2-year-old has become obsessed with talking about bathroom behaviors. The other day, when his grandmother asked him how he was, he screamed "Poop!" The problem is, I'm trying to toilet train him, so I can't exactly remove these words from his vocabulary. What should I do?


Welcome to the lovely world of toilet talk, which is usually a package deal with potty training. Brace yourself, because these words are going to be in your family's vocabulary for some time to come. For your toddler, part of mastering this skill involves talking about it -- this helps him understand what his body is doing and what he needs to do in response. However, there's still a lot you can do to cut down on such talk. When you son screams words like "poop," don't focus on the words themselves. Instead, try to change the screaming behavior, says Carol Barkin, coauthor of Social Smarts: Manners for Today's Kids (Clarion, 1996). Giving these words special attention -- especially negative attention -- will only make them more fun to say.

For example, if your son yells "poop" at his grandmother again, you could simply say "Let's talk quietly today. Please say hello to Grandma." If you put these words in the background and other acceptable words and behaviors in the foreground, potty talk will become less pervasive.

Babysitter Blues


My new babysitter -- whom I like very much -- told me that my 3-year-old was horribly rude to her the last few times she sat for him. He said things such as, "I hate you! You're ugly!" and stuck out his tongue. I'm mortified about this behavior. How can I teach my son to be more polite when I'm not there?


When Mom and Dad are away, it's fun to push the boundaries of other adults -- particularly if you're 3. If you haven't done so before, now is the time to set some babysitting rules for your child to follow. He's in preschool now and is old enough to understand that some behaviors are simply not acceptable. Write a list of rules, such as "No mean words," on a colored piece of paper, and place it where your child can see it. Then explain what each rule is and why he needs to follow it. For example, you could say "Telling Emily she's ugly hurts her feelings. We don't want to make people we like feel bad." Don't worry that he can't read yet -- the visual presence of the paper will serve as a reminder.

The next time you have your sitter over, ask your child to apologize, and remind him of the new rules. Also let the sitter know what they are, that she can use them when she needs them, and that you want a full report on your son's behavior when you get home (say this in front of your son to underscore the point). Berk suggests building in some extra time before you go out for the three of you to play. If you show your son that the sitter is someone you like and trust, he's more likely to like her and want to please her, she adds. Hopefully, these strategies will help curb your child's behavior -- and save your relationship with your sitter.

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.

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