Training Toddlers

A lot of parenting gets caught up in telling children what not to do. We act as if we children will automatically know what to do if they know what not to do. That doesn’t follow. If we think about it, we can all recall times that we were unsure how to act or what to do. This is often the case in new workplaces or on starting a new type of work. Having someone tell us what not to do at those times is of little help, because it doesn’t point us in the right direction of what to do. If we, who have so much more life experience, feel that way, what must it feel like to a two year old, or a five year old, or a thirteen year old?

It’s common to hear parents tell their toddler not to do something. Parents may as well save their breath; there are more effective ways to get the message across:

  • All of us are constantly bombarded by more stimuli than we are able to cope with. In order to function, we learn to screen some out and pay attention to others. We’ve probably all had the experience of not really attending to a conversation until we hear a key word (perhaps our own name) that catches our attention. In some toddlers (and even older children) ‘don’t’ doesn’t register as an important word, so instead they hear the exact opposite of the intended message. Use your child’s name to gain their attention, then use a positive message to convey what you want.

  • Toddlers brains are developing rapidly, but they don’t yet necessarily have the ability to think what to do instead of the activity they’ve been told not to do. If you don’t want your child to do something, suggest something else they can do instead, or distract them with another object (not a bribe).

  • Parental deafness – the inability to hear a parent talking to them – is a problem more commonly associated with teenagers, but it can have its origins in a much earlier age. To avoid the development of parental deafness, make your words count. There is no point saying something as parents unless we are prepared to follow through. This doesn’t just apply to threats, but also to other statements. For example, telling a child not to touch the books, but then not moving them away from the bookshelf when they continue to do so is self-defeating. The child learns to gauge their parent’s level of motivation before deciding whether to comply. It can even become a game – the child can see how wound up they can make the parent before the parent moves. Failure to follow through on instructions devalues parent’s words.

  • Instructions such as “don’t spill your drink” or “be careful” are futile and counter-productive. They are more likely to make the child focus on movements that are normally automatic, thereby making them more awkward and clumsy. We have probably all had the experience of spilling something on ourself when we are nervous; it is no different for children. Keep your instructions positive and relevant. Don’t tell your child to do something they would probably do naturally anyway.

  • Reward obedience with smiles, positive comments, and hugs. Make it worth your child’s while to do as you want.