The Best Way to Encourage Toddler Manners

A parent is concerned that her 2.5-year-old won’t say hello or goodbye to adults, including people he’s familiar with like neighbors and teachers. This mom says that she’s tried to encourage her son’s manners through modeling. She also once coaxed him to say goodbye to his teacher, but he refused. Since that time, he’s become even more resistant and sometimes yells at people not to talk to him. At this point, she says, “It would even be fine if he ignored people” rather than yelling. She’s hoping Janet has some insight into what’s going on with her son and how she can help him get in the habit of politely greeting adults.

Transcript of “The Best Way to Encourage Toddler Manners”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m responding to a question I received on Instagram about a toddler who is not saying hello and goodbye to adults, and this parent wants to encourage that. She’s getting concerned now because he has started not only refusing to say hello or goodbye, but shouting out things to people that are saying hello or goodbye to him. So I’m going to offer some suggestions that I hope are helpful, not only for this specific situation, but that also reflect the essence of the respectful approach that I teach and clarify what I mean when I talk about raising our children with respect, and trust, and empathy.

Here’s the message I received:

Hi, Janet. I wanted to ask a question. I’m not sure if you’ve answered it before. Our two-and-a-half-year-old son doesn’t seem to want to say hello or goodbye to adults, which is something I’m trying to model and encourage. He won’t say hello or goodbye to people in our building when they say hello to him. And at school, which he loves and runs inside to, he won’t say goodbye to his teacher. I made the mistake of saying, ‘Bye-bye teacher. Now it’s your turn to say it’. Now, every time he says, ‘It’s not my turn!’ I would even be fine if he ignored people, but when someone says hello, sometimes he’ll yell back, ‘No talk to me! No say that!’ Any advice?

Okay, so actually I was quite inspired by this note and I realized that I have a lot of advice, or I have a lot of things to say about this topic, even so much that I decided to join TikTok and I did a couple of videos about this, because I thought that it would be helpful for me to demonstrate what to do when you are in a situation where your child is not saying hello and the adults seem to be pushing for that to happen. So if you are on that platform, you may want to check that out.

The first thing I want to talk about is the beginning of what she says. She says, “Our two-and-a-half-year-old son doesn’t seem to want to say hello or goodbye to adults.” So one of the keys to respectful parenting, or really any kind of effective parenting, is to understand the why. Why doesn’t he want to say hello or goodbye to adults? Why do we think he wouldn’t want to do that?

Well, what we know about young children is that they do not have the same kind of filters that we have as adults. They are much more sensitive, vulnerable, wide open. So these things that we take for granted as adults, that we’re going to say, “Hi, how are you? Oh, I’m fine”, and maybe we don’t really mean I’m fine, but we say it, children don’t have that glib response. They’re actually much more honest than that. They’re taking in this person and their energy, and it’s a lot for them to say hello at this age. It’s a lot for them to put themselves out there that way because it is a vulnerable moment for them. They don’t have this down.

So knowing this — that it’s really a big deal for a child to respond to someone, especially someone they don’t know very well or maybe a total stranger to them — what they need is a lot of our trust and our ease around this so that they can feel the safety to do what seems to us as a very small thing. Just say, hi and what’s the big deal? When they say hi, they really mean it and they’re really connecting soul to soul with this person.

One of my favorite things Magda Gerber used to say, referring to the way a baby or toddler looks at us, she would say, “There are three kinds of people who will look at you that way, a lover, an insane person, and a baby.” That openness, that showing their soul that children do, and that intensity. So what encourages children is, again, this whole feeling of safety: My parents trust me. They’re comfortable with however I handle this. They’re not feeling impatient. They’re not projecting discomfort and tension into the situation. They need that trust and they will do it. I promise you, they will.

Then there are certain times when they’re actually rightfully not feeling comfortable with that person. Maybe the person is too pushy, they’re too demanding. And that’s a wonderful sensitivity that we actually want our children to have, that intuitiveness about people, so that they don’t let the wrong people into their life. Obviously that’s very, very important.

But what can happen is maybe we’re not understanding how different our child is from us as adults in this manner, how in their innocence and sensitivity this isn’t an easy thing to do, just to say that one word. And so we try to prompt, or maybe we’re just uncomfortable that this other person is expecting something and we’ve got to please them, so we’re prompting our child or we’re coaxing them. And then we’re feeling disappointed that they’re not performing as we hoped they would. That’s understandable, too, but it doesn’t help us get what we want, which is for our child to have genuine good manners. Not just my child is saying the words.

And any feeling of pressure that a child has or any of us have, doesn’t help us to perform, doesn’t help us to be at our best, especially in these vulnerable situations.

For example, I still feel like this… I could be typing something on my computer and my child, not someone intimidating, one of my children, they are adults now but they’re not intimidating, they’re not judging me, they’re coming over to look over my shoulder for some reason. I’ve asked them to or they’re there, and all of a sudden I can’t type anymore. How crazy is that? I’m making all these mistakes that I wouldn’t have made. I get a little frazzled. I know I’m probably more sensitive than the average adult, maybe more childlike in that way, but I feel that. I totally feel that. So if my parent really wants me to do something, they’re there watching and I know that all the attention is on me right now, it’s not going to be easy to do something as risky as sharing myself with this person, saying hello.

I think the difficulty that we face as parents, one of the difficulties, is that there is this old school way of thinking that maybe our parents had, or our parents’ parents: we teach manners directly and we make our child say, hi. That’s our job, so that they’ll be able to grow up and have manners.

But that’s not the way it works. And this parent already understands that. It sounds like she’s been very subtle about the whole thing, because she does understand that she mostly wants to model that that’s the best way to encourage.

Manners are a blossoming that children have. And what they need from us is to nurture the environment for them to blossom in their time. We trust that the blossoming will happen. It’s a delicate process. It’s an unfolding that children will do if they have that nurturing and that trust and that modeling that we are friendly to people, that we are warm to people, and that we have empathy for our child. That’s the modeling that’s often most important in this. We understand them. They feel we’re on their side in that moment, that we accept who they are.

It’s growing up with those feelings inside that makes for the most genuinely well-mannered people. So it’s a more subtle process than what many believe. It’s very, very common to believe that we teach children, and that’s how we make it happen. But teaching and learning work differently. And as Magda Gerber said, “Be careful what you teach, it may interfere with what they’re learning.” We have to understand how children actually learn.

So now, what do we do when it’s gotten away from us a little, as in this example, where now our child feels uncomfortable? That discomfort of: my parent wanting me to say it, and I was disappointing her and I just couldn’t quite do it then for whatever reason.

This parent is obviously very well-intentioned, very gentle. It’s not about that. This could happen to the best of us. But now he’s getting triggered back into this every time he’s in that situation. He’s anticipating that it’s going to happen again. He’s getting triggered back into that discomfort every time, to the point that he’s even sort of lashing out at people. “Don’t talk to me. Don’t say that.” You’re putting me in this situation again. It’s an uncomfortable situation for me.

So this is impulsive. This is a sign of discomfort. And the way to handle it is to do all the things that I’ve been talking about: understand where he’s coming from, stay on his side. Take off the pressure, it doesn’t help our child. Really trusting.

And yes, other people are going to maybe pressure us. But if we want what we want, which is the manners, we have to prioritize our child’s comfort and know that other people don’t understand child development and they don’t understand my child the way that I do. We understand where he’s coming from, and that the last thing we want is to put our own pressure or emotions into the situation. We trust that our child will do this in time.

Whew, what a relief when we can trust, right? It’s scary. But when we actually embrace that, it takes the pressure off of us.

And no, everybody is not going to understand. Everybody we come across is not going to understand children and how this works. That’s okay. One of the things I try to do with parents is help them to do what this approach did for me, which is build that inner core of confidence in what you’re doing. Conviction. It’s amazing how other people’s insensitivities and, really, ignorance about children, it just falls away when you do this. And we can do it so kindly.

So we’re taking off the pressure. But in this case, I would also have a little talk with my child, because I want to reframe this for him, acknowledge and express to him that I was a little pushy about it. I am sorry that I made him uncomfortable, and I totally trust that he’s going to do that when he’s ready. And, “I’m there for you, and I know other people sort of want something, sometimes, but you don’t have to say it. I know you will when you feel comfortable. You’ll do that.”

So some semblance of that conversation.

I would also say, “But it does hurt people’s feelings when you yell ‘don’t talk to me, don’t do that.’ I understand why you’re doing that because this has become an uncomfortable situation for you, but please don’t, because it does hurt people’s feelings. And I promise I’m not going to try to get you to say goodbye anymore or say hi to people. I promise.” And then really follow through with that. It may not change it immediately. There may be a little lag where he’s still pushing people away. But if you do this re-messaging with your whole attitude and the way that you are in this situation, it will work. He will stop doing that.

Here’s another way that we can relate to how children feel… So this whole thing started, it sounds like, with that he won’t say goodbye to his teacher. And she says she made the mistake of saying… I mean, this is a small mistake that a lot of people make, but I wonder if there are other times where she’s feeling really uncomfortable that he’s not saying hello? And then maybe she’s not saying anything about that, but he’s picking up on her feelings. This sounds like a very sensitive, intuitive guy.

But how many of us, as adults, like to say goodbye? And she says, he loves his school, “which he loves and runs inside to.” He loves this place. He probably loves his teacher. It’s a wonderful time for him, but saying goodbye… I know so many adults that avoid saying goodbye when it’s charged like this, when they have emotions around it.

Think of all the parties that we… Well, now we don’t go to parties, but when we used to go to parties, think of all the times that we left without saying goodbye because we just didn’t want to have that little moment with somebody and interrupt them. It’s easier just to leave.

So it makes sense that this is hard for young children who are even more open, their hearts are on their sleeves in all situations. I mean, that’s one of the incredibly charming, lovely things about being with children is they put it all out there. So that makes sense. When we can see this, when we can see our child’s point of view, it’s so much easier to stay on their side and to handle situations in a way that helps them to blossom, helps them to flourish. Then we’re so surprised when we hear this genuine, thank you, or hi, or I’m sorry, or even goodbye.

And then the last thing she says here is, “It would even be fine if he ignored people.” But that’s the thing too is, I mean, we might think that, or the other person might even think they’re being ignored, but it’s actually quite the opposite. They’re not ignoring. They’re overwhelmed because they’re taking this person in.

And oftentimes when I’m with parents, maybe they’re in my class or people I know, or maybe people I don’t know that well, sometimes they’ll say to their child, “Say goodbye, say goodbye” or “Say hi, say hi” And if there’s a gentle way to say it, I’ll say to the child or the parent, “I see you, you are saying hi to me. I see.” Because children will do that. They will greet you with their eyes, with their countenance. You can feel it. I try to reassure the parent that I’m getting all I need here, actually getting more than enough. Your child is being real with me and taking me in and saying hello in the way they’re able to right now.

So I really hope some of this helps. I also have another written piece on this topic called “Hi, Bye, and Thank You.” And with that, I’ll say, hi, bye, and thank you. So grateful to all of you for listening.

Also, please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, JanetLansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. Both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon, Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame.  You can get them in ebook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or barnesandnoble.com and in audio at audible.com. You can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the LINK in this transcript.

Thank you so much for listening. We can do this.

1 Comment

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Love this article! I feel like it applies to so many things, even toddlers learning to feed themselves.

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