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Using sign language to teach toddler manners

Monica Beyer is a mom of four and has been writing professionally since 2000, when her first book, Baby Talk, was published. Her main area of interest is attachment parenting and all that goes with it, including breastfeeding, co-sleepin...

Going beyond 'milk' and 'mama'

Is it possible to teach manners to a pre-verbal toddler? Absolutely -- you might be surprised to learn it's easier than you think. If you've been using sign language with your little one from a young age (and even if you haven't) it's very easy to teach them the signs for "please" and "thank you." Read on to find out how.

Toddler signing please

Many parents use sign language with their babies as a means of communication before their child can speak. The fine motor skills required for sign language develop before those that are required for speech, and it's an excellent way to foster early communication between parents and their babies. You can start signing with your baby early on, but it isn't required — you can start at any time, even after your toddler has mastered his first words. That's where teaching manners signs come in!

Please and thank you, Mom

As your baby reaches the 12- to 18-month range, you can expand your signs and begin to incorporate "please" and "thank you" into your sign language vocabulary. These are American Sign Language (ASL) signs and they aren't complicated at all.

  • To sign "please": Rub your upper chest in circles, using a flat hand.
  • To sign "thank you": This sign looks like you are blowing a kiss — your hand starts on your mouth and moves out and down.

When introducing these signs, it's best to always do it in context. For example, your child asks for a drink or a cookie. Before you honor her request, ask your child to sign "please" by signing it while you say it. She may or may not do it right away, but if you keep up this routine she will eventually pick up the sign. You can also demonstrate it when making a request yourself. You can ask your toddler to hand you a toy, for example. Emphasize the word "please" as you say it and be sure to sign it at the same time.

The same concept works for "thank you." After you've handed your child her snack or treat, ask her to sign "thank you" as you sign it yourself. It's also easy to demonstrate to her when she has given you something.

Helpful signing tips

For manners signs (and other signs if you wish to use them) there are a number of helpful hints that you should keep in mind:

  • Speak the sign as you say it, every time. This will enable your child to learn faster. It will also help with his speech development.
  • Don't be discouraged when he doesn't sign back to you right away. It may take a few weeks — in the meantime, keep signing!
  • Encourage other family members to sign. If he sees Dad, Grandma and Aunt Heather signing, it will help with consistency.

Enjoy your signing experience and expect strangers to delight in it. It's hard to resist a sweet toddler signing "please." And many parents report that when their toddler signs "thank you" people often assume they are blowing a kiss — but are thrilled when they explain their little one is using sign language!

More on sign language

Teaching sign language to infants and toddlers

Sign language teacher Julia Harmon speaks about the importance of sign language to your infant or toddler.

More on manners

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