Dear Dr. Debbie,
Is there a magic formula to getting a toddler to do what you ask?
According to your descriptions of “Authoritative versus Authoritarian Discipline” (September 4, 2018) I feel that my husband and I generally fall into the authoritative style. I do wonder whether we would get more cooperation from our two-year-old, more quickly and more often, if we were more insistent that she do as we ask. We make plenty of important decisions for her, but let her have leeway if there aren’t critical consequences. Sometimes we give her a pass – cleaning up her toys, for example – if we’re in a hurry or if she seems tired. Since I’m expecting our second child in a few months, and I’m often tired myself, I am worried that if I don’t get more control over her there’s going to be trouble ahead!
Just Do It
The easy formula for predicting a child’s compliance to parental requests is to look at how well her parents have complied with her needs. You have thus far provided a nurturing relationship which required diligence in doing for your daughter what she couldn’t do for herself: physically, emotionally, and intellectually. Research suggests that when parents have consistently responded appropriately to an infant’s needs, and continue to do so as the child grows into a toddler and preschooler, she is more likely to respond compliantly to their requests. A healthy attachment is created with consistently reliable caregiving during the early months and years. As her communication skills developed, your baby took on a more active role in making sure her caregivers responded accurately. Distinct cries and gestures for getting fed, asking for help to fall asleep, or demanding to be picked up were effectively fine-tuned over her first year. By the time your daughter turned two, she probably had command of enough words to make most of her needs perfectly clear. Knowing your child’s interests, preferences, and daily rhythms helps you figure out the rest. There are certainly times it is far more important to help her get to sleep than to insist she pick up every last toy she played with.
Logic and Language
The authoritative parent grasps and respects the process of child development. There are limits to what a two-year-old can understand as well as how well she can express herself. She doesn’t understand your concern that a messy playroom may feel unwelcoming to the new friend you’ve invited over with her child for a playdate. Neither can your two-year-old easily express to you her frustration in having just reached the bottom of the toy box (by meticulously emptying its contents one by one onto the floor) so that she can victoriously climb inside it only to have you insist that all the toys go back in.
Alternatives and Explanations
You can bridge some of her limitations with some straightforward logic and language. Until around the age of four, doing something now because of something later is unfathomable. Instead, focus on the immediate. Your conflict about toys all over the floor could be remedied in a variety of ways. An empty box could be a suitable alternative to either holding all the toys or serving as a toddler container. If you don’t have an empty box, how about a laundry basket or a pillow case? Right now may not the best time to expect cooperation because: 1. She’s excited about her achievement of getting into the now empty box or 2. She’s been playing a few hours and is tired or 3. It’s getting close to lunchtime and her blood sugar is low). An alternative could be to adjust your timetable and postpone cleaning up the toys until: 1. She’s tired of playing in the toy box or 2. She’s gone down for a nap (and you do it yourself) or 3. You feed her some lunch first.
Simple explanations, even fanciful ones, can help steer a toddler in the direction you want her to go. The toys need to get in the box because (pick one): 1. You’ve brought the vacuum into this room or 2. There’s some great music coming on to dance to or 3. (This one strays into future thinking – and she might change her mind when the time comes) You want your daughter to pick out some toys she wants the new friend to play with (so you’ll help her put the rest into the box and close it up). Or use your imagination to activate hers: The toys are tired and need to go down (in the toy box) for a nap. To prove this imagined reality, treat a few toys as if they were your tired toddler. Pat them gently on the back as you tuck them into the box while singing your usual lullaby. One toy might “miss” another toy that must now join it in the box. To further carry out this make believe, suggest your daughter find a tired toy to take with her for her own nap. The moment your daughter joins the fantasy is the time to quit cleaning and lead her (and her tired toy) to the napping place.
Yes Follows Yes
A good salesperson knows the tactic for making a solid sale is to ask the customer a few questions she could only answer with a “Yes.” For example, “Did this product catch your eye?” “Could you arrange for someone to be at home to take delivery one day next week?” Similarly, lead up to the key question with your toddler with related questions to which you already know she will have a positive answer. For example, “Is this the trailer for this tractor?” “Do these pigs go in the barn?” and eventually, “Can you help me find the rest of the farm animals?” It may feel manipulative, but just tell yourself you are breaking the overwhelming task of cleaning up into small pieces for her.
Research on compliance with toddlers also suggests that if you follow her on a diversion from the task, she is more likely to follow you back. For example, her idea of putting toy animals in the barn may be to have each animal nibble on the plastic block of hay before going inside. It may feel like very slow progress as you do the same with the rest of the animals, but it is progress at a toddler’s pace. Compliance is all about having the two of you going in the same direction. The more you can agreeably follow along with her ideas, the easier it will be for her to comply with yours.
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Dr. Debbie Wood will be presenting “Little Kids at Hope” a workshop for parents, teachers and child care professionals about nurturing relationships in the first five years. The workshop will be held at Chesapeake Children’s Museum in Annapolis, Wednesday, October 17 from 6:30 – 9:30 pm. Register with Arundel Child Care Connections at arundelccc.org or 410-222-1712 ext. 1.
What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.