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The Competent Parent: Disobedient Toddlers

Welcome to a new online series on parenting advice with our expert Dr. Deborah Wood.


Dear Dr. Debbie,

We need advice for our sometimes disobedient little girl. She has bouts of defiance over the smallest requests and we are at our wits’ end. We understand that she is two, and she has a new brother, and that these are difficult adjustments to make, but we feel we should be able to get through to her better. A typical example would be washing hands. She can mostly do it on her own. However, she’ll say she doesn’t want to, so we calmly tell her we are going to help her and put her on the stool and turn the water on. She might put one hand under the water. We ask her a little more firmly to get both hands wet and try to force her hand under the water. She will protest saying she wants to do it herself, so we back off. Then she won’t again. In the end we have to force her hands under the water despite protests. Repeat this scenario for soap, lather, rinse, and dry. And that’s just washing her hands. Tasks like getting dressed, brushing teeth and going to bed can be just as bad. String a few of these together and it can really wear a parent, and a child, down. We need more tricks up our sleeve. Do you have any? The two-year-old is rapidly gaining on us.


Mommy and Daddy


Dear Mommy and Daddy,

A baby brother is a life-changing experience for your little Twosie. It’s as if a husband comes home to his wife and says, “Darling, I’m so glad I married you. I can’t think of anything that makes me happier. In fact, you’ve made me so happy, I’ve decided to bring home a second wife. And for a little while, she’s going to need a lot more of my time and attention. “ How much of every day is Twosie reminded that she has to share attention, space, and stuff with the little interloper?

She’ll need daily reminders that she is adored, unique, and irreplaceable. “Alone time” can be part of routines – taking out the recycling, refilling the dog’s dish; or play time – tea parties, scribbling and naming pictures, jumping off the bottom step and shouting “Hurray!”; or reminiscing about her babyhood. Do activities just with her on a fairly frequent basis. These times will help lessen anger toward you about the attention you give the baby. Aside from new-baby-in-the-house issues, being two has its challenges. Twosie knows she has a mind of her own, and opposing your mind is a daily quest. A lot of conflicts are about taking care of her body. “By myself!” is the common cry of a two- to three-year-old as she tries to prove she doesn’t need you.

Actually, she needs you to help her do things by herself. Support her with clothes that are easy to put on and take off. Keep toys, snacks, the soap, towels, etc. within her reach. As for obedience, pick your battles and focus on what needs to be done. Clean hands are a must before eating, even if in the process Twosie has to prove she’s a force to be reckoned with. Don’t sweat the small stuff – and it’s mostly small stuff. More tricks for two’s: A Yes Precedes a Yes An effective sales technique goes like this: “Sir, will you be using this car to commute to work?” “Well, yes.” “And I suppose you’ll want to take the family out on weekends?” “Well, yes.” “Is getting a good deal on your trade-in important to you?” “Sure is.” “I think we can work something out.”

Before you know it, you’ve signed on the dotted line. Think about getting a string of yesses going with Twosie. The opposite also holds – if you get a “No!”, she’s likely to follow with more negativity.

The Second Choice

Because a two-year-old likes to say, “No!” give her the chance to reject one of two options. “Would you like to wash thumbs first or pinkies first?” Of course it would be more practical to wash all the fingers simultaneously, however two-year-olds are not about efficiency. Make a ritual of washing individual fingers, perhaps with a funny name for each one, or an accompanying song. Mind you, she doesn’t get to decide whether she will wash her hands, just which fingers to wash first. A little secret to giving her choices: she is most likely to choose the second option. At this stage of language development she tends to repeat the last thing she heard. You say, “Good morning, sweet Twosie! What a beautiful day!” And she responds, “Boo-ful day!” You ask, “Do you want to wear your red shirt or your blue shirt?” And she says, “Boo shirt!” because that was the last thing you said. And, because she just heard herself say, “blue shirt,” she’s completely compliant.

Opposite Humor

Two is old enough to know how things are supposed to work. If you tell her to come to the jelly faucet so you can smear grape jelly on her hands, she might laugh and say, “No Mommy, jelly not from sink!” Continue with your insistence that she get jellied before dinner (as long as she’s enjoying the joke) and she’ll counter with what’s supposed to happen. You can do the same with dressing. “What’s wrong with these pajama bottoms? They won’t go over your head!” “No, Mommy,” she’ll say. “Put them on my feet!” She’s just trying to control what she can in her upside-down world.

Dr. Debbie


Dr. Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis.  She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum.  Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at www.drdebbiewood.com  


Do you have a parenting question for Dr. Debbie? Email us! editor@chesapeakefamily.com

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