Use coloring time to teach courtesy or sharing.

Ways to Teach Basic Rules to Toddlers

by Molly Thompson

Remember the instructions that used to be on shampoo bottles: Lather. Rinse. Repeat? When teaching rules to toddlers, leave off "lather" and "rinse" and you've got the main concept: repeat, repeat, then repeat again. At this age, your toddler wants to please you, but is just beginning to develop the ability to empathize with others and still has little concept of right and wrong. Keep rules for toddlers simple, enforce them consistently and focus on matters that truly matter at this stage. It's far more important that your toddler learn never to run out into the street than it is for her to learn how to set the table or shake hands.

Decide What's Important, Then Simplify

Identify the concepts that are important for the health and safety of your child -- these are critical during the toddler years. Develop a few basic rules based on these concepts: don't run out into the street, don't eat items off the ground and don't talk to people you don't know, for example. Present these rules to your toddler in simple terms. Save the long-winded explanations for your older kids: Toddlers don't reason, barely understand consequences and have extremely short attention spans. Stick to "We don't hit each other because it hurts" or "Don't pull the dog's tail because he will bite you."

Show and Tell

Adults seldom associate rules with fun, but using fun ways to teach the rules is one of the best techniques when working with toddlers. Make a game out of safety rules. For example, stop when Mom says "red light," walk again when she says "green light." Read an entertaining, age-appropriate book or watch a video about manners to teach your child the magic words -- "please" and "thank you." Use your toddler's stuffed animals to teach bedtime rules: enlist her help in teaching and modeling the rules for her animals as you teach them to her.

If I've Told You Once ...

Yes, it might seem as though you have to tell your toddler the new rules a million times, but it won't really be that painful. Tell your toddler the rule, tell him again, then ask him to repeat it to you. Demonstrate the rule by acting it out or "doing" the rule in the appropriate settings. Learn "please" and "thank you" when enjoying pieces of fruit or sharing crayons. Stop frequently when you're taking him for a walk to repeat the rule about not going into the street, then show him yourself by stopping at the curb, looking both ways and taking his hand. Tell him the rules often, then tell him again.

Be Consistent

Consistency is as important to teaching rules to toddlers as is repetition. And not just consistency in saying the words, but consistency in applying the rules and consistency between parents. Your toddler also needs to see you model the same rules you're trying to teach her, whether those are using good manners, treating others kindly or picking up after yourself. It won't matter how many times you've told her not to swear if she hears you swearing around the house, and if you never pick up your dirty clothes, she's not likely to, either.

About the Author

As a national security analyst for the U.S. government, Molly Thompson wrote extensively for classified USG publications. Thompson established and runs a strategic analysis company, is a professional genealogist and participates in numerous community organizations.Thompson holds degrees from Wellesley and Georgetown in psychology, political science and international relations.

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