Parenting Tips: Getting a 2-Year-Old To Talk Nicely -- Is It Possible?

I love 2-year-olds. I really do. It's amazing to see how much they have learned in their very short time on this planet -- and some of that includes finding exactly what bugs their parents. I mean, think of the cognition involved in this process. First, they have to be able to understand the complexities of language. Then, they must remember key phrases that upset others. Then, they must be able to replicate those phrases at just the "right" moment, socially. All of this intricate ability is the reason that humans have such huge brains; the outer cortex is necessary in order for your 2-year-old to be able to insult you in public. In fact, when I evaluate a 2-year-old in my practice, I worry when I don't see signs of oppositional behavior. It's developmentally appropriate for him to be challenging things. Not exactly reassuring to parents, but I do try to point it out as a strong sign of healthy cognitive development. But wait, you want GOOD MANNERS, too?? BabyShrink reader Carmen does. Here's her question:

Dear Dr. Heather,

I guess “negative talk” is the best way to describe what has been going on with my 2 ½ yr. old boy. His favorite phrase is “I hate you,” followed by “na, na, na, na” with the occasional “you’re stupid” or “go away” thrown in. We also have a 5-year-old who no doubt has contributed to him learning these phrases, along with daycare kids, and Disney movies. My husband and I continually try ignoring, telling him “I don’t like that talk, please talk nicely,” “I know you do, but I loooove you,” “You can go to your room and come out when you are ready to use kind words.” He continues whenever he doesn’t get his way or is generally in a grumpy mood. It’s really embarrassing when we are over at grandparents, out to dinner, or with other kids and he starts this. What else can I do to end this?

Carmen from Seattle

Dear Carmen,

One thing to remember is that your 2-year-old doesn't really understand what he's saying, but he's loving the reaction he's getting to it. So you want to change the reaction he gets, in order to shape his behavior.

Your little guy is picking up that kind of language from the sources you mention -- older brother, daycare, Disney movies -- and has seen that it makes a big impact when he talks that way. So you actually have a couple of ways to tackle the problem.

First and foremost, reward and praise nice talking. Make it a family rule that "nice talking" gets rewarded, praised and acknowledged. Include both kids in the plan. Make a big deal out of "catching" them speaking nicely. Make up a sticker chart or find another way of rewarding them, whenever they're doing it.

Next, try to cut out the "negative talk" input he's getting. Talk to his daycare provider about instituting the same kind of program at school; rewarding nice language. And cut out the movies and TV he's watching with that kind of "negative talk". I know it's pervasive, but there really is a selection of better shows out there. (And just because it's Disney doesn't mean it's automatically appropriate for every age. There are very few Disney movies that I show our kids yet.) Make a point of watching what the adults say around them, too.

And when you're out and about, make a point about having nice manners -- and that includes How We Talk. Give them a little speech ahead of time. "Now, when we are in the restaurant, we use our inside voices, and talk nicely. Anyone who "talks mean" has to sit outside with me. Who wants to talk nicely? Who wants to eat inside the restaurant? Who can get sticker points for sitting nicely and talking nicely at dinner?" Then you have to be prepared to set the example for them; if one of them goes off on a negative talk tangent, calmly lead him outside and remind him of the rule. "Only boys who talk nicely are allowed to eat in the restaurant. We can sit out here until you can talk nicely."

It might take awhile for the kids to get the hang of it, but if all the adults are on the same page, it should work. Let us know!

Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

And: Is your toddler a screamer? Check out my post on that topic here.