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Social Graces 101

Your 18-month-old has taken to pointing at the cookie jar and exclaiming, "Dat!" But even though she's just starting to develop her language skills, you can still ask her to phrase her requests for treats -- and her joy at getting them -- in polite terms. This is the perfect time to introduce her to such courteous phrases as "please" and "thank you." "Children at this age are like little sponges," says Sal Severe, Ph.D., author of How to Behave So Your Children Will Too! "They pick up a lot."

To start sowing the seeds of social niceties in your toddler:

Teach the basics As soon as your child can talk, you can explain some straightforward concepts to her, such as "We say 'thank you' when someone does something nice, like open the door for us or let us play with his new toy."

Behave well yourself If you consistently use the words you want to hear from your child (even when you think she's not listening), she'll learn that the phrases are part of normal communication. Use respectful language with other members of your family at the dinner table. Remember to say "thank you" when your older child hands you the saltshaker or "excuse me" if you interrupt your spouse.

Praise good manners Try to reinforce your tot's displays of courtesy as much as possible. Make sure to be specific: "Thank you for saying 'please' when you asked for more mashed potatoes" or "Thank you for waiting your turn while the other kids got their ice cream." Your child will see that her etiquette efforts are worthwhile and appreciated.

Be realistic Don't expect a lot of response at first. Children under 2 are too young to be reprimanded for not using good manners. Instead, compliment her attempts and point her in the right direction. If she forgets one of her new phrases in public, remind her gently that it's important to say "excuse me" if she needs to interrupt you.

As your child approaches age 2, get her into the habit of saying "hello" when she arrives somewhere and "goodbye" when it's time to leave. These basic acts of etiquette will pave the way for the more advanced social graces that come later -- for instance, shaking hands.