Ben is joining Marissa and her mother during breakfast because Mrs. Smith asked for support with helping Marissa communicate at meals. At first, Ben just observes and chats with Mrs. Smith. He asks her what her goals are for Marissa during breakfast. She says that she really wants Marissa to say or sign “please” and “thank you” to get her food or after getting what she needs. It’s very important to Mrs. Smith that Marissa learns manners. Marissa is 24 months old and has three words: mama (which she says), more and cat (she signs both of these).
What should Ben do? Should he follow the parent’s request and help her teach these words?
Manners and Toddlers
Okay, first of all, these two words often really don’t go together. Research has shown that parents often have expectations for behavior that far exceed a toddler’s abilities for self-control (same goes for sharing but that’s another blog post). However, learning how to be kind, considerate, and polite can begin very early (we just can’t expect it yet). Probably the very best way for a parent to “teach” a toddler manners and consideration for others is by modeling these behaviors for the child – by saying “please” and “thank you ” to others and by replying to the child with these words when appropriate (like when the toddler gives her mother her empty juice cup or throws something in the trash). Insisting on these behaviors during toddlerhood, however, is likely to result in two frustrated people (the child and the parent).
Now add in a developmental delay in communication and you’ve just raised the frustration bar. When a toddler is demonstrating a delay in communication, it’s best to focus on teaching words/signs that have concrete meanings and relate to the child’s everyday life. “Please” and “thank you” really don’t mean anything to a toddler. These words don’t correspond to an object or activity that has meaning for the child; they are abstract concepts at this age. If the child learns them, they are likely to become generic requesting words, much like what “more” becomes for many children who learn this sign. While they give the child a way to request, don’t specify the need. If the child has a generic word/sign to use to make a request, the frustration could still be there because she is unable to be more specific, so the parent-child guessing game continues as the parent tries to guess what the child is saying “please” for.
So what should Ben do when Mrs. Smith asks for help teaching these words? Here are a few ideas.
Strategies for Managing the “Please” and “Thank You” Debate
Explain the pros and cons of teaching manner words – Ben could share with Mrs. Smith information like what you’ve just read here regarding “please” and “thank you” being difficult for toddlers to understand. Once Mrs. Smith has some more information, she can decide if this is still a priority.
Ask what specific situations occur when Mrs. Smith would like for Marissa to communicate – Ben could delve deeper into the request to find out what activities are important to Mrs. Smith related to Marissa’s communication.
Identify specific, concrete words (nouns and verbs) to focus on – In discussing specific situations, Ben could help Mrs. Smith reflect on what labeling words she would like for Ben to use. The focus would be on pragmatics – helping Marissa use a word or sign to get what she needs, rather than making a general request.
Plan to revisit manner words when Marissa has added more words to her vocabulary – If Mrs. Smith is comfortable with this plan, they could agree to teach manner words later once Marissa has a larger vocabulary. “Please” could be added later to expand a request, such as “cookie please” once she can use “cookie” to request and is ready to begin using two words phrases (which might be a while since she’d need about 50 words first). “Please” will still be pretty abstract, even at that point, but it might be a way to ensure that Mrs. Smith knows that Ben hears her priority and that it will be addressed later.
In the end, if the parent really wants the child to learn these words, then that’s okay as long as Ben has provided Mrs. Smith with information about early communication development. Ben can show Mrs. Smith and Marissa the signs and they can practice them during the week. Ben’s job is to share his knowledge so that Mrs. Smith has the tools and information she needs to make informed decisions and support Marissa’s development. Teaching manner words is not a deal-breaker; it just might not be the most effective place to spend time when encouraging early language development in a toddler with communication delays.
What are you thoughts about the “Please” and “Thank You” debate? How have you handled it when a parent focuses on these words?
Share your experiences in the comments below!