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Ask Dr. Sears: Nurturing Politeness

Q. Is it too early to start teaching my toddler the basics of good manners?

A. You're right on schedule. Between the ages of 2 and 4, kids are honing their speaking skills, and if "please," "thank you," and "excuse me" are part of their everyday vocabulary, using these expressions will come naturally (though they usually won't understand their meaning until age 5 or so). My wife, Martha, and I taught our children manners by emphasizing the "we principle": "This is what we eat"; "This is how we act and talk." They internalized the fact that proper etiquette was the Sears family norm and followed suit.

Some other suggestions:

Practice what you preach.
At first, kids speak mainly by parroting whatever you say, so now it's especially important to use the basic niceties as much as possible. Every time you ask your little one to hand you her plate at the dinner table, for example, say "please" and "thank you."

Don't force-feed manners.
It's okay to give your child occasional reminders, but avoid expressions like "Now say the magic word, and I'll give you a treat." You run the risk of her tiring of these words before she even understands them.

Praise proper etiquette.
When a child gets a pleasant response from Mom or Dad for being polite, she'll likely continue to speak that way.

But don't reprimand her if she slips up. Remember, she's still young and needs time to learn.