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Best Behavior

You're standing at the bakery counter in the supermarket when the woman behind the counter gives your toddler a cookie. "Say 'thank you,'" you tell your child, who's too busy eating the cookie to respond. You repeat the request. Finally, after the woman has already turned away, your little one pipes up: "Thank you!"

Helping young children learn manners takes patience and a sense of humor. Although your immediate goal may simply be to avoid embarrassment, teaching your child proper etiquette for all types of interactions will make her life easier at home and out in the world. After all, treating others courteously  -- from saying "thank you" to sharing toys graciously  -- can be a good way for her to get the cooperation and mutual respect she wants and needs.

Contributing editor Marianne Neifert, M.D., is a pediatrician and the author of Dr. Mom's Parenting Guide and Dr. Mom's Guide to Breastfeeding.

The Right Foundation

Unless you teach a child why manners are so important, he won't really learn them  -- no matter how many times you repeat yourself. The underlying principle behind these social graces is consideration toward others, and showing courtesy is just another way of being kind--a concept even toddlers can understand. Learning this can start at home when you build on such natural characteristics as empathy and you set a good example:


At 18 months, your child is beginning to realize that others have feelings that are similar to his own. You can capitalize on these first glimmerings by giving him the words to describe his emotions, regardless of what they are: sadness, anger, happiness.

Without sounding forced, talk about your own feelings, and point out a character's expressions while your child's watching a video or looking at a book.The more he learns how to decipher his own emotions, the better he'll be able to interpret the feelings of others around him. Then when he's older, he'll have a better sense of how words can hurt people.

The Golden Rule

A toddler can learn that treating others as you would have them treat you means that he wouldn't like it if someone kicked him. By the time he's 4, a child can begin to absorb the message that the golden rule also means going out of his way to be nice without being asked, such as offering the last cookie to someone.

Setting an Example

If you constantly interrupt your mate, how can you get across the virtue of saying "excuse me"? Don't forget to be gracious to your kids  -- add "please" to all of your requests and thank them when they help out.

Building Blocks

It's best to concentrate on the manners that are most developmentally appropriate, as well as the ones that are most important to you so you don't overwhelm your child with too many admonitions. For the others, you can either be a role model (and hope your child will absorb these lessons) or wait a couple of months and then try to introduce them one at a time in a non-stressful way.

Remember that you'll need to show as well as to tell. If you want your toddler to say goodbye, try "Let's say bye-bye to Nicholas and his mommy." Sooner or later, you'll hear her little voice chime in with yours. If you want her to ask for things nicely, go along with her and lend her your voice. Your efforts can help your child internalize the lesson, as well as create a sense of teamwork and cooperation. And practice, practice, practice. Use an everyday opportunity  -- at the park or at the store  -- to point out good manners.

Try to praise even small accomplishments, whether it's adding "please" after a request or wiping off muddy shoes before coming into the house. Catch 'em being good and express your pleasure as close to the display of courtesy as possible. Don't hesitate to praise her in front of others  -- that will help foster your child's self-approval about her actions, so that ultimately her own satisfaction will be her reward.

The Magic Words

You can start teaching these as soon as your toddler speaks.


Show how powerful this word can be by thanking him for using it and, when feasible, granting his request. When you have to turn him down, say, "I hear you asking nicely, but I can't let you watch a video so close to bedtime." Let him know you appreciate it when he says the word once but that repeating it incessantly or drawing it out is rude.

Thank You

As your child is learning to say this, you can offer gentle reminders, such as "Let's thank Valerie for the cracker. Can you say 'thank you?'" Remember also to thank him whenever he helps out or is cooperative.

I'm Sorry

If he pushes or knocks down another child, step in immediately and ask him to apologize. Explain that people need to say they're sorry whenever their actions or words are hurtful to someone else.

Excuse Me

Teach your little one to use this phrase when he needs to interrupt a conversation. (For example, "Excuse me, Mommy, I need to go to the potty now.") Then reward him by responding promptly. You can help him learn to wait his turn by saying "As soon as I finish writing this check to Mr. Adams, I'll be ready to listen to you." Then thank him for not interrupting, and by all means keep your promise.

You're Welcome

This response is hard for little kids to understand. You can explain that it means you were glad to do something nice for another person, but don't expect your child to say it on his own until he's about 5.

Learning Courtesy

Teaching your child manners can be another way of teaching her limits  -- because many of the most basic courtesies are also about respecting the needs of others, as well as instilling some of the social niceties.

Disturbing Others

You can encourage your toddler to use her quietest "indoor voice" in certain locations, such as a church or a library, or when someone's taking a nap. You can always make a game out of this  -- challenge her to see who can whisper more softly, say. Expect to give her frequent reminders, as she's likely to forget.

Making a Mess

Whether she splashes water in the bathroom or deliberately drops food on the floor, explain to your little one that the house rule is that everyone helps clean up her own mess. Don't allow her to litter, and try to be a good role model by leaving your surroundings clean too.

Greetings and Farewells

You can start prompting your 18-month-old to say "hello" and "goodbye." It's easier when another adult or child has initiated the greeting.

Playing Fair

The simple games we play with babies, such as peekaboo or patty-cake, provide the earliest lessons in turn-taking, which helps prepare kids for the give-and-take of relationships. Tell your child that refusing to share or take turns or insisting on getting her own way not only shows bad manners but also will probably drive away potential pals.

Entertaining Guests

Before a playdate or a birthday party, explain to your child that he should treat guests with kindness so they'll want to come back. This means he should allow his friends to have the first choice, whether it's deciding which treat to take or what game to play. You can practice with stuffed animals before the actual event.

The Finishing Touches

Manners and assertive behavior aren't mutually exclusive. Your child should learn to treat others well, but he also needs to know that he should be considerate of himself. It's perfectly acceptable to tell someone what he doesn't like or want ("No, thank you, I don't feel like having a snack now") or to stand up for himself if another child tries to take advantage ("You can ride my trike when I'm through"). The benefits of teaching your child social graces are endless. You'll not only be doing your share to make this a nicer, more courteous world, but you'll help boost his self-confidence as well. Don't expect too much at first; it can take many years for kids to think beyond their own needs and become considerate. Until your child does, keep in mind that the way you lead your own life is the most persuasive lesson of all.