Etiquette and good behaviour in toddlers and children

Toddler behaviour

Teaching children and even toddlers to behave nicely, to be kind and generous, to care about the feelings of others is an important part of growing up. If not enough importance is placed on good manners at an early age, your child will feel the effects when they go into a mainstream school as will you. But even more importantly, bad behaviour which will inevitably isolate your child from their peers will lead to a vicious cycle of loneliness and withdrawal or even more aggression and bullying which will do nothing to help their social relationships with other children. So the sooner you are able to curb and stop such behaviours the better it will be for you and your child.

Equally though be mindful of over correcting because you don’t want to over do it to the extent that your child is bewildered by the fact that most of his/her friends don’t ask before taking or never say “sorry” for hurting someone else. Striking a balance is hard. In general though, I would lean towards the approach though that even if sometimes it is hard for your child when someone else does not behave as they should, in the long run, it is better that he/she minds their manners and is aware of how their actions would affect someone else. It is important that they learn for instance that just because someone else is doing something wrong that does not mean that they need to copy or behave in the same way.

It is also important that they learn very early on that being different because they are doing the right thing is much better than falling in with someone else who is having fun doing the wrong thing. This will help them develop the self confidence they need in their teen years to not bow down to peer pressure and try to fit in regardless of what their peers are doing.

Clearly if more people cared about the way they treat others, the way they behave and the way in which their actions impact the lives of others, it would make for a much nicer, kinder and better society. Don’t ignore bad behaviour. Wherever it takes place. Take charge and make sure that your child understand what is acceptable and not acceptable. For example, if your child is jumping on some one else’s sofa, don’t smile and turn a blind eye. That is not acceptable behaviour, take your child down and ask him/her firmly to stop. It doesn’t matter if it leads to a tantrum. It is far better to nip unacceptable behaviour in the bud than to ignore it and cross your fingers and hope it stops. Not only your child but those around you will also appreciate your willingness to teach your child right from wrong.

modelling behaviour

Modelling behaviour

This is of course the all time great way to start. Ensuring you say “excuse me”,  “please”, “thank you” and “sorry” to your child and to other adults around your child, is a huge bonus. Your child will naturally learn the words and understand when and how to use them. Bearing in mind that little minds do find it hard to accept that they are not the centre of the universe after all, being watchful in play groups, gentle reminders and making sure (especially if you have a carer) that all adults around the child are mindful of manners and teach the same principles can really help.

It doesn’t take much to add an extra instruction to a nanny for instance to make sure that your child does not snatch or push or shove, and if they do, to make sure they apologise. Your child will naturally understand and emulate such behaviour.

Let them watch you, hold the door for someone carrying heavy groceries or offer your seat to an elderly passenger or pregnant lady in a bus or a train. If you are absorbed with your phone or newspaper and you don’t see or do the things that make the world a kinder, better place, neither will your child.


 Toddler tantrum

Boundaries and Discipline

Regardless of the initial reaction to the imposition of discipline or boundaries, it is a well established fact that children not only benefit but actually need to have boundaries and structure and discipline in their lives. It helps them feel centred and secure. It is easy to sit back and repeat the age old adages like, “boys will be boys”  or  “they are just children”  or even “it’s just a phase”, but such approaches will only lead to more bad behaviour and worse, your child being very insecure and unsure of themselves which could kick off more tantrums, whining and clinging and attention seeking behaviour. The more you smile indulgently, the worse the behaviour will become. Once that cycle is put into motion it is very hard to get your child out of it. Far better to risk a couple of melt downs even if they are in public and get things right at the beginning however hard it may be, than to allow it to grow and become the norm for your child.


Encourage empathy

Show your child that words can hurt as much as physical contact can. If he/she says something that is mean or nasty, ask him/her how they would feel if another child said that to them. Bring out an example of when your child was hurt by someone else saying something or doing something to them and show them how other people feel.

You can also point out situations where they can practice being caring towards someone else. If a child falls over in the park for example, you could ask your child to go and ask if they are alright. Or if someone is upset, because they want something and can’t have it at a playdate or play group, you can help your child be kind by showing her/him how to offer that child an alternative toy or book and try to help cheer them up. This way, you will be nurturing a caring, loving child who will naturally attract friends as they grow older.

Also, don’t feel bad about showing how you feel. If you had a bad day at the office, you can always say “mummy/daddy feels very upset/frustrated today” or if you are on the road and someone does something to annoy you, “mummy/daddy is feeling quite angry now”. That way, not only are you showing your child that it is ok to feel a certain way but that it also helps to vocalise it without being hurtful or doing something hurtful to someone else. You are also helping your child understand and name feelings which will be important for them to be able to do as they grow older.

Table manners

Table manners

Sitting still for most toddlers/children is a pretty difficult task. So asking them to sit at table while everyone finishes their meal is probably not the best first rule to impose. Just make sure they eat their food politely i.e. without spreading it all over themselves and on the table and floor and don’t grab anything from someone else’s plate and don’t talk with their mouths full. That should be a good start. As their co-ordination improves so will their cutlery skills so be patient in this regard. If you find they are losing interest in their food and haven’t eaten enough, I would probably say, it would be fine to feed them the rest. It is a fairly difficult task to ask that they finish everything on their plate and sit still and follow all the rules. As your toddler turns into a reception age child though, you can probably impose a few more like asking to leave the table, “may I leave the table please/ may I be excused please” and ask that they thank the person who prepared the meal. They should by now be saying please and thank you anyway. Laying a napkin on his/her lap and teaching them to politely chat at the table would be good to introduce around this time as well.

Toddler behaviour

Personal Space

This is a hard one but one that might be introduced early. It is fairly easy to do. For instance, if your toddler or child is climbing all over you and pulling your hair or trying to poke at your eyes, all you need to do is make a square in front of your chest with your hands and say. “no, no, no, this is my space” which can be done smiling and wagging your head to indicate you are not angry but you don’t want that particular behaviour. Again, most children struggle with spatial awareness until they are quite a bit older but introducing it in a light way does help their social relationships. It also reduces to a great extent grabbing, hitting, biting and most other intrusive behaviours.

Although these are the social norms for most children, do be aware that if your child is struggling to put these into practice, to a greater extent than you feel is normal, it may be worth investigating. Often children with high functioning Aspergers, are on the Autistic Spectrum or have Sensory Processing Disorder are more tactile than their peers and are less aware of personal space and reflexes. For example a child on the spectrum may hit out, but not necessarily mean to hit. It may be that his/her muscle control is not developed enough for them to understand the force of the arm movement. A child with sensory processing disorder may want to constantly hold another child or stroke their hair which may be a source of irritation to the other child. There is more on this under the Special Needs section.

Keep an eye out for this though as early intervention is key and regardless of GPs and paediatricians in the main, being generally dismissive if your child is under the age of 6, if you feel in your heart that something is not quite right, then insist or go to a private specialist well recognised in the field. If it can be diagnosed early, and the necessary therapies put into motion, then the likelihood of your child’s behaviour improving tremendously and him/her being able to fit in with his/her peers in a mainstream school will be much smoother and easier.

Having said all of the above though, we all have that day when all the children seem to be having a meltdown at the same time, the washing machine decides not to work and the dog messed up the kitchen and you wonder for the millionth time why you ever decided to get out of bed. For those times, just remember, we all have them.

All our kids have thrown the most terrific tantrums just when we wanted them to be at their best. All our kids have thought that throwing peas and seeing how much of what is on their plate they can get on the floor in a nice restaurant is funny and we have all got those awful judgemental horrified looks from parents with the best behaved (or so they look at the time) children. Old ladies have tutted and shaken their heads.

We have all felt like sinking through the floor. You are not alone. We all do what we can as much as we can, so hang in there, despite what it seems like at that moment, because if you stick to your guns, your kids will end up as decent adults who manage their cutlery beautifully in fancy restaurants and won’t go round whacking/shoving people who don’t give them what they want!!

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