By Alexa Joy Sherman
Whether they’re hurling spaghetti across the room, announcing that they farted or running wild through the supermarket, toddlers make life highly entertaining—not to mention exasperating, disconcerting and downright embarrassing. “Toddlers are like little cavemen, and it’s our job to make them more civilized,” says Harvey Karp, M.D., author of The Happiest Toddler on the Block (Bantam, 2004; also available on DVD at thehappiestbaby.com).
“They’ll get there by the time they’re 5, but it happens gradually—every six to 12 months—as they learn to walk, talk, figure things out and form friendships.” If you can keep that light at the end of the tunnel in sight, teaching manners to your toddler won’t just be a rewarding experience, it might even be fun.
Show and tell
Unfortunately, even adults don’t regularly exhibit good manners—whether they’re using a colorful response when getting cut off in traffic, talking on a cellphone during dinner or losing their temper with toddlers. But raising a well-behaved child begins with being a good role model. “When they’re about 1, children become increasingly interested in watching and listening to you,” says Karp.
So it’s particularly important to treat people—including your toddler—with dignity and respect. All disciplinary efforts are more effective in the context of a loving and stable relationship, notes the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Keep this in mind as you play with your child, respond to his cries and especially when you direct and correct manners.
The simplest way to step up your etiquette: Use those oft-neglected magic words as frequently and as early as possible. “From the very first diaper you change, you should be saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’” notes Leah Ingram, aka “The Manners Mom,” author of The Everything Etiquette Book (Adams Media, 2005). Mealtime provides ample opportunity for demonstrating appropriate etiquette as well, adds Lisa Taylor Richey, president of the American Academy of Etiquette.
“Sit down as a family often,” she advises. “This is where your child not only learns table manners, but conversation skills—as well as your values.” “By age 2, toddlers want to imitate the things you do,” says Karp. That’s a good time to explain why your behavior is important and prompt your child to follow suit. “When you tell someone ‘thank you,’ point it out to your toddler,” advises Richey. “When someone pays your toddler a compliment, remind him to say ‘thank you.’” Using dollplay can be helpful, too. “You can say, ‘This is how we ask for something’ or ‘This is how we play with others,’” Karp explains.
As your child starts demonstrating good behavior, plenty of praise is in order. “The fi rst time your toddler says ‘thank you’ without being reminded, make a big deal out of it,” says Richey. The intensity of the praise should be pretty high, especially when they’re younger, says Karp. “You can clap and say, ‘Yay! Everybody look what Dana did!’” he explains.
Another technique Karp recommends: gossiping, wherein you describe what your toddler did well to a nearby toy or to someone on the phone. “Your toddler believes what he overhears more than what you say directly to him,” Karp notes. “This technique makes praise about fi ve times more powerful.” Diversion and discipline Perhaps the most challenging part of parenting a toddler is fi guring out how to constructively stop tantrums, outbursts and other unruly or embarrassing behavior.
The best approach will depend on the location and situation: Is your child in danger, harming someone or simply whining? “If a child is doing something aggressive or dangerous, or breaks an important rule, you must stop the behavior right away. But [your goal is to] do that in a respectful way, even if it’s abrupt,” says Karp. Distraction can be an effective fi rst step. “This works best with younger toddlers, but most respond to being distracted under the right circumstances,” Karp notes. “If your toddler is chasing the cat, rather than saying ‘No!’ bring out a big book of cat pictures or initiate a game with a ball of yarn where your toddler is the cat. Options make your toddler feel respected.” Another useful technique is using “toddler-ese,” says Karp.
It may feel silly, but when you use short phrases, repetition and a toddler-like tone of voice and facial expression, your child may feel so understood that she snaps out of a tantrum, Karp explains.
For instance, if your toddler is wailing about not wanting to take a bath, respond by saying in a similar tone: “I know! I know! You don’t want to, you don’t want to, taking a bath is not, not fun”—and add a little pouting for effect. Ignoring a toddler may be the best bet in less serious situations. “It’s perfect for nuisance behaviors like whining, clinging, screaming or rudeness,” says Karp. “And it’s a good response for mild defiance—like when your child looks right at you and drops food on the fl oor—or a halfhearted bite or swat.”
If your toddler is ignoring you, timeouts can work wonders. “Timeouts are very effective [with] toddlers who just can’t stop themselves,” says Karp. “They deprive your child of something precious to her: the privilege of being with you.” According to the AAP, timeouts in preschool-age children increase compliance with parental expectations from 25 percent to 80 percent. Revoking certain privileges is also effective. “If your toddler hits a friend with a toy, take the toy away,” says Karp. “If she’s tossing crackers over the side of the high chair, take the crackers away.
If she’s taking too long to get ready to go to the park, tell her ‘Get dressed before I ring this bell or we won’t go.’” In extreme situations—like hitting another child or running in a public place—removing your toddler from the situation altogether is probably best. For children over the age of 2, practicing some role-playing later on can be a great way to reinforce a lesson you want them to learn about what happened.
Throughout the process, predictability is essential: Maintain loving and respectful routines, offer praise whenever a milestone is reached, follow through on promised penalties. When toddlers begin to see patterns in your behavior—and in the consequences of their own—they learn to think before they act. And that’s often what manners are all about.
Los Angeles-based freelance writer Alexa Joy Sherman has improved her manners immensely since giving birth to 15-month-old Jack.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN TODDLER MAGAZINE, SPRING ‘07
Make your little caveman civilized with these expert tips.