It's true — you'll never get your 2-year-old to chew with her mouth closed. But you might be surprised what she can learn if you focus on conveying the idea of manners, the principle that there are ways to behave and ways not to behave. Your toddler has actually been learning this lesson for some time now, as she tests limits and gauges your reactions. If you get the idea of manners across early and often, she'll catch on faster — and resist less — when you start adding some specifics later.
- Be an inspiring role model. Start by setting an example — something that's easier in theory than in practice. (How faithfully do you write your thank-you notes?) It may sound simplistic, but the best way to have polite kids is to be polite. And at age 2, your child wants nothing more than to be like Mom and Dad. If your spouse is standing in front of the refrigerator when you need to open it, say, "Excuse me." If your child gets used to hearing courteous speech around the house, that's the kind of speech she'll use herself.
- Start with the basics. Saying "please" and "thank you" is usually the first bit of courtesy any parent tries to teach, and you can start as soon as your child is using some words to communicate, usually sometime after the first year. It's going to be a long time before she gets "please" and "thank you" down, but once your toddler starts talking you'll probably find yourself automatically tacking on the polite words and pausing for her to repeat them. Parents have been doing this for generations: "What do you say?" "What's the magic word?" They were right. For a little extra reinforcement from every 2-year-old's favorite red furry friend, try reading Elmo's Good Manners Game. Toddlers will have a great time helping Elmo think of the magic word.
- Ask her to join you at the table. Learning to sit still for more than five minutes straight is a major achievement for a 2-year-old, so try never to put yourself in a situation where disaster will strike if your child wiggles or wails. (You know you always have to take the aisle seat at weddings so you and the small cranky one can slip out fast, right?) But family dinners can be terrific practice time. Make sure your goals are reasonable: Fifteen minutes at the dinner table, butt on the chair the whole time, can be terribly hard work for your squirmy toddler. You might want to set incrementally increasing goals, perhaps using a kitchen timer: five minutes at first and then another couple of minutes as she gets the hang of it. When having dinner at the homes of friends and relatives, tell her ahead of time that this is a chance to show off her new sitting-still skills. When she succeeds, praise her efforts, but not so much that she feels she's doing something above and beyond what's normal. And remember, this is a 2-year-old we're talking about — expect backsliding, and try to stay cheerful about it.
- Encourage polite greetings. At 2 years old, your child can certainly can learn to say "hello" when arriving for visits or meeting new people and "goodbye" when it's time to depart. She will be wildly unreliable about it, saying "Hello" very sweetly on one occasion and then collapsing into shyness or bursting into tears on the next. But in general it's a good move to teach these salutations because they pave the way for the more advanced stuff, like "Nice to meet you" and shaking hands. Some preparation helps here: "When we get to Grandpa's, we're going to say, 'Hi, Grandpa,' okay?" If this is the first visit with Grandpa and you think he might have forgotten what you were like when you were 2 years old, you'll also need some advance work with him so he doesn't get his feelings hurt when the grandbaby hides her face and refuses to speak to him. ("Remember, Dad, she's just 2 and might be shy at first.")
- Try for playdate civility. Toddlers' first quarrels are usually over sharing their toys, which from their perspective is an outrageous thing to ask of them. Don't expect sainthood, but you'll do your child a favor if you start teaching her now that when other kids are around she can't hog all the toys, whether at home or at daycare or preschool. Lay down some simple ground rules: If there's a favorite one-person toy, everybody takes a turn with it. Nobody gets to decide how somebody else plays with a toy, as long as the toy's not being damaged. Nobody gets to hit, shove, or call people names. Respond to infractions with a clear warning, and, if necessary, an immediate end to the playtime. Finally, don't forget to praise your child — specifically naming the swell thing she just did ("It was nice of you to let Tyler throw your ball") — when she does behave generously or thoughtfully around other kids. And don't forget to lead by example; grabbing the TV remote from your spouse and changing the channel is the exact sort of behavior you want to discourage in your child.