Teaching your toddler manners

by | Aug 28, 2020

It’s amazing how, as soon as you have your own children, you start to hear your own parents’ voices echoing through your head. It’s not easy to teach children manners, especially toddlers, who have very firm ideas about what they will and will not do. Clinical psychologist and play therapist Dr Jó-Marié Bothma has some guidelines.

There is a Polish saying: “Not my circus, not my monkeys,” meaning that there is no need to be part of the drama as it is not your problem. But what if your children act like monkeys and your home feels like a zoo?

So what if people sneeze on you, interrupt you while you are talking, kick your seat during a movie, grab something out of your hand, cut in front of you in line or spread nasty rumours? What is the big deal about manners anyway?

Raising a well-mannered child is one of the greatest gifts you can give your child and yourself. Homes in which manners are practised as part of everyday behaviour are more peaceful, less stressful and more harmonious. Studies link good manners with success. Well-mannered children have better relationships with their peers and with grown-ups. They feel more confident about themselves and tend to grow up into well-mannered adults who have more success professionally and personally. They feel loved.

Here is what you need to know if you want to visit the zoo, not live in it!

Little eyes are watching

Parenting is not something that should be taken lightly and it’s also not something we only do some days of the week. Part of being a parent is to “parent” your children and part of that parenting would entail using your children’s moments of inappropriate behaviour to instruct, encourage, to teach or to discipline them.

Children are not born with a well-written script of good manners. Manners are taught to children during their day-to-day activities and parents ought to be the main teachers. It is very difficult to teach little ones the ins and outs of good manners, if the norm at home is that Mommy and Daddy rarely show any of it themselves. If you want a polite child, you should be a polite parent.

The power words

Teaching manners starts with some basic power words. In fact, it would be impossible to teach your child good manners without these building blocks. One can think of these words as the vocabulary of good manners. These words should be part of any child’s first 100 words to learn and can start as soon as after your baby’s first birthday. One can even teach babies these power words before they have any language, by making use of baby sign language.

SAY                                                    WHEN

Please                                                 When you want something

Thank you                                           When you get it

You are welcome                                When someone thanks you

Excuse me                                          When you bump into someone, burp during dinner,

interrupt a conversation etc.

No, thank you                                     When you do not want something

I am sorry                                            When you mess up


Power behaviours

In the same way that certain words form the vocabulary of manners, we can think of certain behaviours as the language of manners. Again, these small acts can form part of your little one’s everyday activities in and around the home.

These could include acts such as:

  • Sitting down at the table when eating
  • Encouraging polite hellos and goodbyes
  • Putting away toys at a friend’s house after a playdate
  • Learning to wait
  • Learning to take turns and share
  • No hitting, biting, shoving, swearing, screaming
  • No name calling or teasing
  • Respect others’ stuff
  • Keep your voice down when needed
  • Courtesy rules when it comes to nose-blowing, sneezing, chewing food, etc.


No-no words and behaviours

There are no-no words and behaviours in all languages. It would be ideal that our children never learn these words in the first place and never see these behaviours ever. Even if parents never use these words and always act with courtesy, our children will at some point be confronted with them at school or in other situations. It is important that parents then view these instances as teachable moments and encourage alternative words or more appropriate behaviour.

Praise for acts of kindness

We often think of parenting as the process where we only act or teach or discipline when our children are doing something wrong. When it comes to manners, it is also important to catch your child where she is doing it just right and to then comment and praise her for it.

Go one step further and tell them how it made the recipient feel when they acted with good manners and in that way teach them the “why” behind being kind and polite. Make a star-chart and refer to it as your child’s ‘100 acts of kindness chart’. Add a sticker every time you find your child acting with good manners and offer rewards after every 10 acts of kindness.

Change thoughts and build character

Always remember that children are a work in process and that our main aim is not only to teach them about good manners, but also the reason behind it. Children should be made aware of how hurtful it can be if someone calls them names or how the possibility increases that they will get a specific toy if they ask politely.

There are lovely storybooks available to assist with teaching children manners in a non-threatening way. Children tend to love to read the same books over and over again and in that way, manners can become part of your child’s norm.

Create a home with unconditional love and mutual respect

This might come as a surprise, but have you ever noticed that if you feel loved and respected, you also act more kindly towards others and yourself? When children feel secure in our love, and when they experience their homes as places where members act respectfully towards each other, they also behave with more love towards themselves and others around them. If we teach our children manners, we also teach them respect.