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Today’s guest columnist Coco McCann tackles etiquette for toddlers. But first, a note from Coco to readers: All the advice I’m about to give assumes this child has no special developmental needs that could require a modified approach. Keep in mind: I am not a child-rearing expert; I’m a maven of decorum and etiquette.

Dear Coco,

Whenever she wants something, my three-year-old daughter snatches it right out of my hands. She also makes verbal demands that come across as overbearing to me. It’s irritating and I’m afraid she’s becoming a real brat. How much of this should I discount as normal, age-appropriate behavior? Is it too early to begin teaching her manners?


Bamboozled in Bismarck

Dear Bamboozled in Bismarck,

If not now, when? If not you, then who? My friend, it is never too early to begin teaching etiquette to children. If you do not want your child to grow up behaving like an uncivilized, inconsiderate boar, then it is your job to teach her—and the sooner the better.

Graceful manners are one of the few things that differentiate mankind from the animal kingdom. (Well, that, plus the ability to accessorize!) Unfortunately, good manners aren’t endowed to humans at birth. They are taught.

When your daughter exhibits this behavior, simply withhold whatever she is reaching for and model the polite wording you expect her to use. “I would like to play with the yo-yo, please.” Or when resolving a dispute with a sibling over a toy she wants, simply place the toy back into the hands of the original holder and say to that child “No, thank you, Katie, I am not finished playing with the yo-yo yet.” In this way, you’re teaching her how to behave when someone else is the aggressor rather than allowing things to dissolve into a physical battle.

When she asks for things properly–whether you’ve prompted her or whether she’s done it on her own–reward her with a compliment. “I sure like the nice way you asked for that yo-yo, Katie.”

It takes time and patience to address these interactions with toddlers. Like adults, children will generally behave about the way you expect them to. Unlike adults, they can’t be held accountable for poor manners when they haven’t been trained.

If you are unwilling to slow down and teach these skills, then don’t be surprised when you find yourself developing feelings of antipathy toward your own child, much less when someone else does––however unfair that may be. Children are intended to bring pleasure and wonder to our lives—not to torment us.

There is nothing more sad or appalling than hearing a parent’s derisive laughter about their child’s poor etiquette as though they had nothing to do with it. “What a little monster you are,” I overheard a mother say in the store one day after arm-wrestling her child over a candy bar. That was a teachable moment—one that was very likely preceded by other more convenient opportunities. I can’t imagine a more unkind way to bring up a child than to help him define himself that way.

That said, not every bad behavior reflects on a parent; we all behave badly sometimes, even with the best of training. That’s less true in matters of etiquette.


What do you think? In a world full of rudeness, what’s the best way to teach etiquette to children?

If you have a question about sticky social situations, from office politics to modern etiquette, send your letters to coco@dressedherdaysvintage.com

 Life is short. Wear the good stuff.