The main question: is it too early to teach a toddler manners?
The scene preceding the question: Sunday morning at the playground.
Sunny. Hot. Children ages 1 to 8 scurrying around. Parents scattered and in constant movement, keeping a lookout for their children. Some parents actually on the play structures, depending on the age and needs of their children. Wood chips and dirt and dust kicking around our ankles. A chorus of childhood giggles, shouts, and cries floating along the wind while parents’ warnings get transformed into background noise, hardly heard, coming out as labored breath or a soft whisper; whatever we’re saying is lost.
My son goes barreling up the steps of the play structure anxious to get to the top where he can run over to the big slide. In his wake is a little girl half his size, still wobbly on her own two legs and another girl a few steps above him, older, and blocking his passage. Immediately, I tell my son to be careful and say excuse me if he wants to pass. There go my words, lost to the booming chorus of childhood play. The woman next to me laughs a little and playfully hits my arm. I’ve never met her. We’ve never spoken before. She says,
We parents are so silly.
I can tell she’s the mother of the younger, wobbly girl. “Constantly telling our little ones to say ‘excuse me’ or ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ What do they really understand about manners? We should just let them be kids. We can teach them manners later.” I laughed a little, too, as I heard her point. Kind of.
Back to my question: were my expectations for toddler manners unrealistic?
Before anyone gets too yanked thinking this mom was judging me, I didn’t feel that way. She was providing commentary on the things she knows so many parents do that probably are not worth doing. I got hung up on the implication of what she said: if our children are too young to understand something, we should not waste our breath teaching them. This is important to me because this same question underlies what I’m asking myself every time I question if my expectations for my son are unrealistic. Should I not have said, pushed, prompted, ‘x,y, or z’ thing, knowing he’s only 2.5? Did I just set us up to fail? Should manners at his age not matter?
So, on one hand, I get what she’s saying. I’ve got a toddler. Does he really understand the idea of ‘excuse me’? No, probably not. He probably doesn’t understand the idea of ‘thank you’ and ‘please’ either. He is not the baby Emily Post of toddler manners. Now, he can say these in appropriate contexts and when prompted, but that is likely more a result of repetition. (And maybe knowing on some subconscious level to do what your Mama asks you.)
Toddler manners or politeness are obviously much larger concepts than any toddler actually comprehends.
Social norms, toddler manners, and general politeness end up being understood by children by observing a model of this behavior or in their own practice, but again, their practice is led by an adult’s prompting and coaching. Right? And it starts somewhere. It starts sometime. Adults have to set the examples for growth and development and learning. Yet if we wait, as this mother on the playground suggested, how long do we wait? When do we have the conversation about manners and politeness and consideration? When do we start prompting our kiddos to say things like ‘excuse me’? Isn’t there like a window of opportunity here? If we wait too long, won’t it just be harder to get them on board with the ideas we are trying to enforce?
My current mom-MO is to talk, prompt, encourage, and model.
Maybe I’m pushing too soon. Maybe that is really what the mom in the playground was trying to say to me. Not that parents generally are wrong for teaching our children manners, but that at some point, they’re just too young to bother. Then again, each of our children is different. Each can handle different things at different ages based on their own personalities. If my son seems to appropriate ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ correctly, maybe on some level he does understand the concept of toddler manners. So, why not add in ‘excuse me’ to the lineup?
There’s certainly no shame in having a polite toddler. (The biggest oxymoron ever!)
After all this deliberating, since the moment on the playground to the end of this post, here is where I’m at: maybe it’s silly to remind him to say ‘excuse me’ on the playground, but I think I rather him be in the habit of hearing those words and being trained to say them when appropriate than to assume they’ll be learned later or take the chance that I miss the window for instilling politeness and consideration for others in him now.
Truthfully, this whole setting expectations thing is tough like everything else with momming. I’m not really sure how to go about it. So, like everything else as a parent, I’m winging it. I’m making it up as I go. Doing what feels right to me and what seems to work for him. I know there are books upon books of expert opinions, but no expert knows my kid like I do. No expert knows me either.
And next time I’m on the playground and someone wants to talk about how we teach our children manners, I’ll politely say, “Excuse me?”