The age of two can be difficult for many reasons. I’ve talked about some of them in previous posts. However, here I want to talk about manners. Now that I have three little boys in a row, I realize how important manners are and how young they can be learned. In some cases, how young they have to be learned. I think I missed some golden opportunities with my first two boys because I didn’t realize what 2-year olds were capable of.
Forming manners is actually easy for two-year olds because they are so formulaic. They really like to exercise “the right way” to do something, or the right order. Perhaps this is why two years old used to be the most popular toilet-training age. (Now three is). If you can get a mannerism in your two-year old, they will probably do it right every time from then on, which is a big bonus for the third and fourth years when you have to keep reminding them if you are just starting.
Here are some things two-year olds are capable of:
- please/thank you
- I’m sorry
- Excuse me
- Can I get past?
- taking turns (supervised)
- Sharing (a piece of their food)
- Waiting their turn (within a short amount of time)
- Being nice to a baby, returning or giving an item to them
- Not stepping on toys
- Not stepping on people
- Look but don’t touch
- Watch but don’t take
There are probably more, but these are basic things that come to mind.
The easiest way to teach a two-year old manners is to model them, or put words in their mouths. If you do this consistently, they will get it.
For example, you give your two year old their dinner and say, “Thanks Mom” (or whatever you want them to say). If you want to really drill the lesson, you can give them one item of their dinner at a time and say it after you give each one. Then they will get it fast! At least in that context. Then you can generalize it to whenever you give them something. If you say it for them, I guarantee they’ll start echoing you and eventually do it without prompt.
Don’t lecture. Don’t remind them. Simply do it for them when they forget.
The same goes for “please.” If they ask you for something like, “Mom I want drink…” You can say, “Pleease?!” And they’ll echo you. Then you give it to them (Thanks Mom.) The next time they ask, do the same thing. Don’t say, “What’s the magic word?” Or, “what do you say?” That is better for reminding three and four year olds. Just say “Pleeease?” after they ask, and they will probably really enjoy doing it too.
“I’m sorry” is a little harder because it involves a sense of guilt or shame on their part. Sometimes kids resist apologizing because they feel bad they’ve done something wrong (or because they don’t feel bad at all!). But scolding or explaining to a two-year old doesn’t work very well (i.e. “But you HURT that little boy’s feelings!!”). They won’t conjure up conviction or regret that way, they will only be mad or confused at you. Just say “I’m sorry” for them. Model it in front of someone else if they hurt them and prompt them to say it too. If they don’t, that’s ok. It just means you have to work harder. Some things we did was increasing the number of times we said “I’m sorry” to the child—just so they got used to hearing it and feeling like it was no big deal to say it. We helped them play with their toys and incorporated “I’m sorry” into the script. Once your two-year old can echo you or say it when they’re playing with their toys, they are closer to saying it themselves. Don’t feel bad about making them apologize to you, either… “Say ‘Sorry Mommy’, Johnny. ‘Sorry mommy.'” It feels funny to you, and you probably don’t even care if they apologize, but it is really good practice for them. They are familiar with you, don’t fear your loss of love, and probably experience all kinds of small ways they need to see they did something wrong. When your two-year old senses that saying Sorry is no big deal, but just part of the routine when a mistake is made, they will start saying it. And this is really good preparation for preschool years when the need to say it to peers goes way up.
Sharing is similar, especially if you want them to do it spontaneously. We used to start with modeling our sharing of food with them. They would eventually start offering us a piece of their food (“Want bite?”) and then it would grow from there. The more you demonstrate in front of them, the quicker they’ll internalize.
Other manners like “Look but don’t touch” just take a lot of policing. And maybe some silly hand signs to illustrate. When we went into a store I’d say, “Ok you can looooook (make hand lookout sign over eyes)… but don’t touch (hold hands up to face like “put em up” command).” If you see their little hand starting to wander, gently pat it down and repeat “Doooon’t touch!” (hands back up sign). They’ll get it. If they are having a lot of trouble, make them fold their hands with their fingers laced together. Or give them a piece of string to wind around. That will help them not seek stimulus.
Overall, just stick with it. Don’t make it complex, don’t expect results right away, and try to keep things light instead of getting upset. Pretend you are teaching them a neutral routine, like how to set the table. Two-year olds are sensitive to moralizing and control, so make it a happy experience without pressure. But do it consistently and they’ll be sure to incorporate it rather naturally.