A toddler sits grumpily at a day care center

Three Tips for Teaching Young Children Manners

When it comes to manners, I do it by the book. That’s how we did it in my house growing up – we put napkins in laps, let others go before us, said “sir” and “ma’am,” and we always, always, always held doors for ladies. My father called it being gracious, and the lessons he taught me are still ingrained in my behaviors to this day. Now it’s my turn to teach manners to my 2-year-old son Bennett, and I’m learning – like many lessons parents must teach their children – that it’s easier said than done.

I try my best to set a good example for Bennett, but I recognize that manners are not acquired through osmosis (though it would be a lot easier if they were). We took Bennett to a birthday party a few weeks ago held at an indoor fun park. It was his first time at a play place this grand and this crowded. Here was my jubilant little boy sitting in the driver’s seat of a play school bus when a slightly older little girl stood up and went right for his place on the bus. Just as she prepared to sit on top of Bennett in an effort to take the spot, he stiffed-armed her!

I haven’t seen my little guy defend his territory before and was rather shocked to see him act this way. Of course, my wife and I immediately let him know that kind of behavior is unacceptable, but we began thinking that perhaps we should do more research on how best to teach him the manners we hope he will embrace as he grows older. Here’s a few things that stood out to us in our findings:

First, be role models. We hear it all the time as parents – our children are like sponges; they’re constantly watching their surroundings and learning from everything they see, hear and experience. When it comes to manners, how the people around our children act on a regular basis is equally as important as what they are told is right and wrong. Primrose does a great job modeling and teaching manners while Bennett is at school. And while my wife and I think we’re great role models at home, it is probably worth checking ourselves a little more often to ensure we are always setting the best example we can for our little guy.

Second, encourage basic polite greetings. This seems pretty simple, but getting Bennett to say things like please, thank you, hello and goodbye and addressing people by their name isn’t easy. He began using sign language pretty early on to express please and thank you, but saying them verbally is a bit more of a challenge. He is often stingy with his polite words, and we sometimes let him get away with it. Maybe if we say more please-s and thank you-s to him, he’ll be more likely to model them back. 

Third, don’t immediately freak out about bad behavior. Here’s one we got wrong. It turns out that when your child does something gross, like when we see Bennett picking his nose, reacting strongly (my natural response) can sometimes serve as negative reinforcement. The more you react, the more he will do it to push the limits. Most experts advise you to ignore behaviors like this, as this stage generally passes. They also suggest that if your child typically picks his nose at times when he is bored, give him something to hold. I wish it was that easy, but Bennett is either bored often (not likely) or he just likes his nose. I think it’s the latter. These days, my wife and I are going to refrain from correcting Bennett on the nose-picking thing. We’ll see how it goes.

So when it comes to trying to teach a 2-year-old manners, I’ve learned that they develop over time through a combination of instruction, observation and the child’s natural instincts. With situations like the play school bus, my wife and I will continue to correct him and instruct that we take turns and share. With the nose picking though, as much as it kills us (and I’m sure, somewhere, his grandfather as well), we’ll let it go for now and plan to revisit it on his wedding day.

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