Update 5/27/2012: This post is the sixth in a series that I wrote on gentle, effective ways to discipline young children. This one focuses on the importance of talking honestly with toddlers using clear, direct language. Many suggestions are included for how to talk with toddlers in ways that will support them in being able to hear and cooperate with requests.
Talk to your child, not at her, over her, or about her. Tell her what you expect. Magda Gerber
Magda Gerber called it “broadcasting” or “sportscasting”, and encouraged parents to get into the habit from day one. What is broadcasting? It is simply a way of communicating with your child, talking directly with her, commenting on what you see her doing, or letting her know what will be happening next, and requesting her participation in whatever task is at hand. Of course, you expect and wait for her response when you make requests, thus establishing a conversation that will hopefully continue for a lifetime!
Basically, you want to try to involve your child in all things that concern her, and try not to do things to or for her, but instead, invite her to participate in her care. For instance, instead of scooping a baby up to carry her to her room for a diaper change, you take a moment to get down to her level, make eye contact, and tell her that you’d like to pick her up and take her to change her diaper. You pause to wait for her response before picking her up. If you are not in a hurry, you may give her a choice, asking, “Are you ready to come now?” If she indicates she isn’t, you may wait. If there isn’t a choice, and you are going to pick her up anyway, it’s best to be direct: “I am going to pick you up now.” Even the youngest baby quickly learns to understand and will respond to your requests if you get into the habit of slowing down a bit, and including her in the conversation and process.
Young toddlers are often very capable and eager to participate in all kinds of positive ways (“Me do it myself!”) if we give them the opportunity, and this in turn helps them to feel good about themselves, and builds on their ability to cooperate. A few examples: At dinner time, can your toddler bring the napkins to the table? When getting dressed, can she lift her arms, and help to put her shirt on, or bring her shoes, and try to put them on by herself ? Can she carry her cup to the table at snack time and pour her own water from a small pitcher ? Can she climb up to the diaper changing table by herself ?
It takes a little longer to involve your child in her own care, and to wait for her while she responds to your requests, but it is so worth it in terms of helping your child to learn about cooperating- first with you, and then with others. Children feel respected and important, and experience joy and pride when they accomplish tasks that are meaningful to them.
Giving choices where possible is helpful. But not too many choices (and not too often). Giving toddlers two choices is usually sufficient. “Would you like to wear your red shirt or your blue shirt today? “” Would you like to walk to the changing table or would you like me to carry you?” Your child may offer a third choice- “I want to run to the table,” and it’s perfectly fine for you to take him up on this if his choice is acceptable to you as well. “OK, you run to the changing table, and I’ll meet you there in a minute.”
What if your child is having a hard time making a choice or changes his mind after he’s made the choice? It happens! In this case, do not torture yourself or your toddler by entering into long negotiations. Sometimes, it’s just too hard for a toddler to choose. If your toddler can’t or won’t choose, you choose. “You are having a hard time choosing. I’m going to pick you up now and carry you upstairs to bed.” Your toddler may dissolve into tears at this point. This is not a bad thing. Acknowledge and allow the feelings and move on. “I hear you crying, and saying no. This is hard for you. I am going to pick you up and carry you upstairs now. Today, I’ll choose and tomorrow, maybe you’ll choose.”
What if your toddler doesn’t seem to know what she wants? She asks to be picked up, and then she wants to be put down, and she’s crying, and frustrated. You can wear yourself out trying to meet her changing needs and desires, or you can simply reflect her feelings back to her: “You are really having a hard time right now. You can’t decide if you want to be held or not. Sometimes I feel that way when I’m tired.”
BEWARE adding Okay to the end of sentences, unless you are REALLY giving your child a choice. Toddlers understand language literally. If you say,”Let’s get ready to leave the park now, Okay?” your toddler believes he has a say in the matter. If your child says “No, no go right now,” of course he’s going to be upset when you start to pack up his toys and expect him to get into his stroller, when he has understood that you were giving him a choice.
Avoid using the word NO as much as possible. It’s a tired old word, and your toddler will tire quickly of hearing it. Instead try phrasing a no as a choice and offer an alternative. Toddlers need to hear often about what they can have and do!
“You want a cookie, but it’s too close to dinner time.You may have an apple or a carrot if you are hungry.” ” I don’t want you to run away from me when we are in the store. I would like you to hold my hand, or you may sit in the cart.” “I won’t let you hit your brother. If you want to hit, you may hit these pillows.” ” It’s not time to play hide and seek right now. It’s time to get ready to sleep. We can play hide and seek later when you wake up. You may choose one of these books for us to read together.” “I know you don’t want to get into your car seat, but it’s time now. Shall I help you, or will you climb in by yourself?” “It’s time to clean up your toys. Please help me to put them in this basket.”
You want to avoid over talking or over explaining a situation as much as possible- especially if your child is tired or nearing the edge of reason. Say what you mean (briefly), mean what you say, and follow through. Give your child the respect of giving warning and allowing time when transitioning from one activity to the next, allow her the opportunity to make choices and invite her to participate, but if it’s too hard for her to to cooperate in a given moment, YOU make the choice and take action. Don’t continue to repeat yourself over and over, or fall into the trap of trying to negotiate endlessly.
Sometimes, even after you’ve gotten your child’s attention, given her notice and transition time, asked for her cooperation, and given choices, she may still resist cooperating. Maybe she’s just feeling silly or playful, or maybe she’s just doing her job as a toddler, and testing the boundries a little. You can engage in the play a bit, but if you don’t have the time or patience for play on a given day, it can help to calmly, kindly, and firmly let her know what your expectations are. You might sit down near her, hold out a hand, and say, “I am waiting for you to help me”- put your shoes on, or be ready to walk upstairs to bed, or whatever it is you have asked of her.
The calmer, quieter, and more focused you can be, the more likely it is your little one will cooperate. Again, the time and effort you are willing to devote to communicating clearly and respectfully with your child will pay off in spades in terms of the improved relationship you and your child will have and the cooperation your child will (eventually) show you.
Establishing a few clear, consistent rules around safety and gentleness for self and others, and ignoring the rest, will help save your sanity, as well as make it easier for your toddler to know what to expect. Be prepared to have to restate the rules. Be consistent. What is a “NO” today, is a “NO” tomorrow. Be calm, because sometimes a big reaction from you can be so interesting to your toddler, that she will repeat unwanted behaviors just to see how you will respond the next time.
If your child is about to put himself in a dangerous position such as running into the street, you can yell “STOP”. You can be sure that if you only use this word in the case of an emergency, your child will pay attention,and respond accordingly.
“Be sure your tone of voice reflects your feelings. Avoid mixed messages that come from trying to cover up your feelings. Don’t tell a child nothing’s the matter if you are crying. Don’t smile sweetly when you are angry. Don’t pretend to feel something you don’t. Children then become confused about the difference between what they see and what they are told.
It’s all right to use a firm and serious tone with a child who has just thrown her spoonful of strained carrots: “I’m upset that you threw your food and made a mess. It looks like you’re finished eating. I’ll take the food away now.” Magda Gerber
I don’t advise trying to trick, bribe, threaten, or “playfully tease” children in order to “get them” to do something. You are building a relationship with your child, and modeling your values for them. Using clear, unambiguous language, and communicating your expectations, desires, and feelings honestly, shows respect for both your needs and your child’s, and will go a long way towards building a trusting relationship between the two of you. Toddlers appreciate knowing what to expect, and feel safe and secure when the boundaries and limits are clear and they know that they can count on you to mean what you say and follow through.
Next, I’ll talk about about acknowledgment versus praise, and helpful ways to support toddlers when they are experiencing an emotional storm.