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Child Caring

'I don't like you!'

Hi Barbara,

I have a 3 1/2 year old little girl who keeps me on my toes most days. Her latest is telling everyone and anyone, "I don't like you." She says this to doctors, dentists, friends, babysitters, etc. She says this when she first sees someone (like the doctor or babysitter) or after a while of playing with friends. I can see that some people take it personally (understandably) and I feel bad about it. I have explained to my daughter that we don't say that to people, that it is not nice. I say this in a matter of fact tone. My 3 year old does not seem interested in what I am saying about this. She knows I don't like it so she wants to do it all the time. I know this is a phase she will outgrow (hopefully!!), but in the interim what can I do?

Thanks for your help.

From: Concerned in Concord (MA)

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Dear Concerned in Concord,

Two of the most common ways preschoolers learn about the world is (1) by imitating what they see and hear; and (2) by trying on behaviors and words and seeing what reaction they get in a cause/effect kind of way. When they repeat the behavior, it's usually because they liked the attention it got them, even if it was negative. They also sometimes repeat it to test out their new knowledge: Will Mom say no this time? What about this time?

Too much adult explanation at this age tends not to get absorbed, including the message that it hurts people's feelings. Instead, keep it simple and tell her what you want, not what you don't want. In a quiet moment, tell her, "In our family, we have good manners." Then add what that means. "That means we say please and thank you. It means when we meet someone, we say, 'Hello, nice to meet you.' Good manners are like a rule. We do it every time." You can also add to that the body language you want: eye contact, shaking hands, smiling, whatever.

Your own behavior is a powerful model, so practice what your preach and be consistent. Every once in a while, if you forget (or even: forget on purpose), say to yourself quietly, but loudly enough for her to overhear you, "Oops, I forget to say thank you to the clerk. Next time, I'll remember."

When you give her something, or she wants something, and she doesn't say please or thank you, stop the action and tell her, "Remember our family manners? Please and thank you?" Wait for her. If she isn't forthcoming, turn your back, walk away: "I can't continue/give you your snack, until you remember your good manners." Do this every time, even though it can be exhausting and she might tantrum. Tell her, "I can see you really want your snack. It's ready as soon as you have good manners."

Use the same strategy outside the home. When she meets someone and says, "I don't like you," stop the action with a quick, "Excuse me." Say (or lean over and whisper) to her, keeping your voice neutral, "Uh oh. We have manners in our family. You need a second chance!" Turn to the person and say, "Can we start over?" and let them initiate hello. You may want to turn your daughter around and re-enter the situation. Keep your tone matter-of-fact; this is not about shaming her, it's about teaching.At first, she will likely test it out. Is mom really gonna do this all the time? When she realizes that you are, it will get annoying and boring. She'll move on to something else!

Clue in caregivers and extended family members that you're working on this so that the expectations are consistent.

One of my all-time favorite children's books is, "Mary Louise Loses Her Manners," by Diane Cuneo, illustrated by Jack E. Davis. If you read it together, you can work out a code when she forgets her manners: "Uh oh. Mary Louise....."