Toddlers are driven to explore the world. As they develop their sense of autonomy, they gain confidence and a sense of self-worth that will serve them well throughout their lives. While this sounds wonderful, and we definitely want our kids to develop these skills, this hard-wired desire to explore and make choices often results in frustration for both parent and child.
Sometimes, it’s simply not safe for a toddler to explore, or there isn’t as much time as she’d like. We parents are busy and need to get the grocery shopping done or get to work on time. We simply cannot always give our little ones the freedom to do what they are driven to do.
What we can do, is keep in mind their developmental goals when we choose how to guide our kids through daily life. The way we adults choose to communicate makes a big difference in our children’s behavior. What we say, and how we say it, can invite cooperation – or resistance.
I’ve found this to be true time and again in my experience working with young children – and now as a parent. I find it fascinating to try out new phrases and choice words to guide my son in a respectful and positive way.
Recently, I came across a wonderful idea in the book I’m currently reading, Positive Discipline: The First Three Years by Jane Nelsen (affiliate link). In this post I’ll share this simple and effective technique with you.
Get Your Toddler to Cooperate
Here’s the concept: get your child involved by offering acceptable choices. As you move through your day, offer your toddler choices when you can. Offering choices will give her a sense of power and invite cooperation while meeting her developmental needs.
For example, Instead of saying “Put on your shoes,” (a command that many toddlers in the throws of autonomy development would baulk at) say, “Would you like to wear your red shoes or your blue sandals? You decide.”
Those two words at the end are really important. Saying, “you decide,” increases your child’s sense of power – making it more likely that she’ll cooperate.
The key here is to set your child up for success by offering only choices which are acceptable to you. If you aren’t really OK with the blue sandals, don’t make that one of the choices.
Kids Can Contribute
Toddlers especially love to help and we can support this desire when giving choices. For example, you might say, “I need your help! Do you want to carry the sand toys or the blanket? You decide.”
Not only will this give your toddler a sense of power and invite cooperation, it will help her feel that she is a valued and capable member of the family.
What if it Doesn’t Work?
Say your toddler wants to wear her flip flops instead, and you don’t feel they are safe for the terrain of your walk. Calmly say, “That wasn’t one of the choices. Would you like to wear your red shoes or your blue sandals?”
You could offer a bit of information here (“Your feet will be safer in your red shoes or your blue sandals,”) but be brief and stay focused on the decision at hand.
If she still doesn’t want to choose, you may offer a new choice. “Either you can decide, or I can help.” It’s important that this question doesn’t come out as a threat, but as an honest choice. I’ve actually had children choose to have me help at times!
Whatever happens, the shoes will go on and you’ll be on your way. Even if there are protests and you must kindly and firmly follow through.
Keep in mind that, by resisting, your toddler is doing exactly what she is meant to do. Stay calm and be available for a hug if your child would like one.
Shouldn’t She Just Do What I Say?
Yes, there are times when kids need to “just listen” for safety reasons. Other times there will simply not be a choice for them to make. However, I’ve found that if children have their developmental needs met whenever possible and feel that they are valued members of the group, they are more likely to simply follow directions when they need to.
It may be helpful to keep in mind that your child is still going to do what you’re asking. One way or another, the shoes will go on.
It may also be helpful to keep a toddler’s developmental capabilities in mind. Your toddler is still working on impulse control and doesn’t understand the concept of “no” the way we do. She also doesn’t understand “we are in a hurry,” or “I’m so tired today, please just put on your shoes!” In other words, expecting a toddler to consistently cooperate is an unreasonable expectation.
Still, we parents get tired, hurried and stressed. We can’t do this all of the time. But, as one of my early childhood education teachers told me, the more often we use tools like these the better they work! So use them when you can – and do what you need to survive when you need to.
Want to Know More?
Purchase Positive Discipline: The First Three Years by Jane Nelsen (affiliate link) or check it out at your local library. Make sure you get the 2015 edition – it has some significant differences from the previous release!