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Rules of Civility

10 things to know about toddler manners

With holiday meals and grandparent encounters on the horizon, we asked two behavior pros for tips on how to make our kids nice.
 
1. Begin teaching manners early. Real early. Vabies start to learn about manners from the time they are a few days old, just by observing and listening, says Cindy Post Senning, co-author of Emily Post’s The Gift of Good Manners and author of thegiftofgoodmanners.com.
 
2. . . . But be realistic. “A 2-year-old might sit at the table for 20 minutes, but when she’s full, she’s going to give it up,” explains Senning. Seedlings Group co-founder Aliza Pressman echoes this point. “It is not developmentally appropriate to force children under three to be polite and sit at the table for too long.”
 
3. Start with the basics. “Teach habits that will lead to better manners (and safety), such as always sitting at the table when you eat, keeping your food in your mouth or on your plate, and closing your mouth when you chew,” says Pressman.
 
4. Set up your child for success. Try to time holiday meals so your toddler is fresh off a good nap and a decent snack. Senning suggests feeding him at the usual time, beforehand, then giving him something fun to feed himself at the table. And of course have some entertaining tricks in your bag.
 
5. Be repetitive. “You can start teaching kids to say please and thank you as soon as they start having language skills,” Senning says. But remember you may have to say it over and over and over before it sticks. Keep reminding them—and consistently say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to them—and they’ll eventually get it.
 
6. Understand that please is easier than thank you. Please is fairly easy to say. “Kids learn it early,” says Senning. “You can withhold what they want until they say it. Begin coaching them on thank you at the same time, but don’t get into a huge battle with a 2-year-old about it. It’s harder, because it comes after the fact.”
 
7. Write thank-you notes. “Doing thank-you notes with your kids is a hands-on way to get the thank you concept across,” Senning says. “Say, We’re going to write Grammy a thank-you note, then write it your child’s voice, and make sure your toddler scribbles on it, too.”
 
8. Go heavy on the positive reinforcement. “It helps to ignore ‘bad manners’ and praise ‘good manners,’ Pressman says. “Use specific language, such as an enthusiastic, Wow, I noticed that you used your fork to eat your food. That was really tricky but you figured it out! Saying Great job being polite doesn’t have the same impact.”
 
9. Don’t push little ones to meet and greet. Some kids are shyer than others, so “teach them the skill when they are ready,” advises Senning, “and talk to them about how good it feels when someone greets you.”
 
10. Polish up your own manners. “The best way to teach good manners is to demonstrate good manners,” Pressman says. “You can tell your children to be polite until you are blue in the face, but what’s most effective is showing them through your own behavior what that means.”