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Missed Manners: Toddler Etiquette Tips

Although a typical 3-year-old won't pass muster with Miss Manners, he can learn some basic etiquette. For one thing, he loves to imitate grown-ups. He's also beginning to understand that people have feelings and that his behavior can influence them. By capitalizing on these developmental characteristics, you can begin to teach your little one to mind his manners.

Set A Good Example

"Manners are something that kids learn as much from emulation as anything else," says Arlene Eisenberg, coauthor of What to Expect the Toddler Years. "If you speak politely when talking to them and, within their earshot, to other people, they'll pick up your niceties just as naturally as they pick up learning how to walk and talk." Say "please pick up your toys" and "thank you" when your toddler pours you an imaginary cup of coffee. Let him see you hold the door for a fellow grocery shopper with a heavy load, or hear you say "excuse me" when you accidentally bump into someone on the street.

Maximize The Empathy Factor

At this age, a child is beginning to tune in to other people's feelings and relate them to his own. When he sees his mother cry, for instance, he becomes concerned and may try to comfort her  -- a sign that he's beginning to develop empathy.

You can use a young child's blossoming awareness of others' feelings to teach thoughtfulness. For instance, if the child proclaims that your meatloaf is "icky," take him aside after dinner and convey your hurt feelings in terms of an incident when his feelings were hurt, suggests Lawrence Balter, Ph.D., author of Dr. Balter's Child Sense. Remind him of how it made him feel when his older brother made fun of his artwork, say. Although he's not likely to eat the entree, he will begin to learn that words can wound.

Minimize Temptation

A 3-year-old has limited self-control. He can't resist sticking his fingers in the butter dish or swiping a french fry from his brother's plate. So while it's important to stress to him that he shouldn't touch other people's food, you should also put the butter out of reach. Likewise, it's pointless to try to keep a young child at the table after he's finished eating or always expect him to say "excuse me" before he leaves the table.

In short, be realistic. Certain things are better left alone for now. Be satisfied if your 3-year-old acknowledges the grilled cheese sandwich you subbed for the meatloaf with a "Thanks, Mommy"  -- even if he says it with his mouth full.