What to expect at this age
Trying to get respectful behavior out of a 2-year-old is like trying to get blood from the proverbial stone. That’s due, in part, to the fact that a 2-year-old’s language skills are still developing. So when you tell him it’s bedtime, he can’t say, “Gee, I’m really having fun with my trucks, and I wonder if we could negotiate for five more minutes of playtime?” He’s more likely to ignore you, stick out his tongue, or yell, “I hate you!” at the top of his lungs. This doesn’t mean he’s a lost cause — only that he’s very young and still needs years of consistent teaching and practice to learn how to show respect.
What you can do
Demonstrate respectful behavior. “We don’t generally give our children the kind of respect that we demand from them,” says Jerry Wyckoff, a psychologist and the coauthor of Twenty Teachable Virtues. “We get confused because often, our upbringing makes us equate respect with fear. ‘I really respected my father because I knew he’d hit me if …’ That’s not respect — that’s fear.” Instead, begin by listening. It can be hard to wait patiently for a 2-year-old to have his say, but it’s worth it. Get down on his level, look him in the eye, and let him know you’re interested in what he’s telling you. It’s the best way to teach him to listen to you just as carefully.
Teach polite responses. Your child can show caring and respect for others through good manners. As soon as he can communicate verbally, he can learn to say “please” and “thank you.” Explain that you’d rather help him when he’s polite to you, and that you don’t like it when he orders you around. Again, being respectful yourself works better than lecturing. Say “please” and “thank you” regularly to your 2-year-old (and others), and he’ll learn that the phrases are part of normal communication, both within your family and in public.
Avoid overreacting. If your child hits you or calls you a “doo-doo head,” try not to get upset (after all, you know you’re not a doo-doo head). A child who wants to provoke a reaction will endure almost any unpleasantness just to get a rise out of you. Instead, get face to face and say quietly but firmly, “We don’t hit or talk that way in this family.” Then show him how to get what he wants in a respectful manner: “When you want me to play with you, just ask me nicely. Say, ‘Mommy, I want you to come read me a story right now.'”
Expect disagreements. Life would be much easier if our kids always happily complied with our requests, but that’s not human nature. Try to remember that when your child won’t do your bidding, he isn’t trying to be disrespectful — he just has a different opinion.
Teach him that he’ll fare better if he can learn to stop expressing himself disrespectfully (“You never take me to the park, you bad mommy!”) and instead learns to put a positive spin on his requests (“Can we please go to the park after the grocery store?”). As your child’s verbal skills mature, he’ll be able to come up with these polite requests himself; in the meantime, teach him by supplying him with examples.
Set limits. “One of the best ways to demonstrate respect is to be both kind and firm in your discipline,” says Jane Nelsen, an education specialist and the coauthor of Positive Discipline for Preschoolers. “Being kind shows respect for your child, and being firm shows respect for what needs to be done.” So if your 2-year-old throws a fit in the supermarket, and none of your coping tactics work, what do you do? “Kindly but firmly take him out to the car, and sit and read a magazine until he’s done,” advises Nelsen. Then you can say calmly, “Now you’re ready to try again,” and return to the store. Eventually, he’ll learn that a temper tantrum doesn’t change the fact that the food shopping has to get done.
Praise respectful behavior. Reinforce your 2-year-old’s impromptu displays of politeness as much as possible. But be specific. “The praise should describe the behavior in detail,” Wyckoff emphasizes. “We tend to say, ‘good girl,’ ‘good boy,’ ‘good job.'” Instead, say, “Thank you for saying please when you asked for a treat,” or “Thank you for waiting your turn while the other kids got their ice cream.” Be explicit, and your child will see that his efforts are worthwhile and appreciated.