A few more helpful tips on guiding toddler behavior…
- Tell, never ask. LOL. I just realized I accidentally wrote “ask” in my photo, except I was way too deep in the editing to fix this mistake before my pilates class begins! I hope to re-do this photo one day, but today is not that day. If you ask toddlers to do something in the form of a question, their answer will always be “no”. So tell, never ask. “Please stop pulling on the shopping cart”, not “Can you please stop pulling on the cart?”. “If you continue to pull on the cart, I’m going to put you inside the cart”, not “can you please stop pulling on the cart?”.
- Make sure you have gained the child’s attention as much as possible before you instruct that they do something or before you state the facts about what’s about to happen. A toddler’s attention is ev.ery.where. Trust me. It takes patience to fully get a toddler’s attention. You may literally need to watch and wait for your opportunity to have an “in”.
- I like to instruct a toddler to do something no more than twice. Why twice? Once to let them know what needs to happen. Twice just in case they weren’t fully paying attention amidst all the distractions in our oh-so-fascinating, oh-so-stimulating world. It’s honestly not their fault if they were having so much fun playing or if they were so captivated watching or listening to something else that they didn’t hear you the first time. Often I will say “did you hear (Ms. Jane/ mommy)?” Then I will repeat the instruction a second time.
4. If I ever have to repeat the instruction/ the facts about what needs to happen more than twice, it’s time to stop telling, and start assisting/ showing them with physical follow through what needs to be happening.
I cringe inwardly a lot when I watch parents and toddlers getting into power struggles because the parent is repeating their request over and over and over, and the child is simply not following through.
a) Don’t expect the child to be 100% capable of following through 100% of the time using words alone. They are learning how to follow through, it’s not a skill they have mastered at ages 2 or even 3. So don’t feel bad about the child needing physical help to follow through. If they can’t do it independently, it’s exactly why us adults are there to help.
The other day I watched a mom demanding over and over that her child needed to hold her hand in public. She was like “Hold mommy’s hand. I said hold mommy’s hand. (kid starts jogging away). You WILL hold mommy’s hand! I said hold mommy’s hand! 1…. 2… (at this point she is basically furious and has started the dreaded count down). She should have asked twice, and then taken his hand, simply because she meant what she said the first two times. Does that make sense? The more people have to repeat themselves, the more frustrated we all get. This applies to all of us, even the toddlers. The other day my toddler nephew was like “mommy I need help. Mommy, help me. MOMMY I NEED HEEEEEELLLPP!!”. LOL.
I also cringe inwardly like I did at Target today when parents set their child up for a complete power struggle-meets-fail. This mom is standing there, dialoguing with her very young daughter (I would guess no older than 4) about which flavor of Milano cookie to buy. The mom was basically commanding to the daughter which flavor is best and that if she wanted the cookies she had to get the flavor that the mom said. Then the mom backed out of all of it and decided they weren’t getting any cookies. Needless to say, meltdown ensued. Then the mom tried to joke it off because they were in public, and basically being stared at (by me).
Don’t do this to your kids, people. Mean what you say, be clear and firm in your instructions and decisions, and then follow through right away within two verbal instructions. If you are consistent 100% of the time by simply following this rule, your children will start to learn that you mean what you say because you always follow through. This is the real meat of how I get a classroom of some-teen toddlers to listen to me. A look is often all that it takes, honestly. If I even flinch to start moving my body for follow-through support, they jump right into action doing what I’ve asked.
5. There is literally never a need to get upset if a toddler won’t listen to you. Just tell them what needs to happen two times, and if you feel compelled to repeat yourself a third time, don’t bother. Instead, just use your actions to prompt the child do whatever needs to happen with neutral physical assistance. First of all, their little brains are literally underdeveloped. This is critical to understand. They have the brain of a person who has suffered a traumatic brain injury. Incomplete brains often struggle with initiation. Secondly, they simply don’t yet have the capacity to obey adults 100% of the time 24/7. They’re like little brand new humans. They can’t help it. They need a LOT of repetition to learn what is legitimate and what is pure coincidence.
Thirdly, in their toddler years young children are going through a psychological phase where they basically have to disobey in order to know what is legitimate. They are teasing out this whole newfound power situation which has resulted from increasing independence combined with persisting incapability. There is a lot they can now do, because suddenly they can run and climb and grasp things– and yet paradoxically there is a ton of stuff they still can’t do by themselves, like wipe their own butt or take their own shirts off. So they are going to push the limits on purpose in order to test out how much power they truly have at this point; and to test out how consistent the adults they rely on for help are going to continue to be there when they wipe out/ blow it/ go over the edge. They need us to be consistent with our support and follow through whenever they can’t do something alone successfully.
That being said, if we give young children the power to upset us adults, it’s honestly too much power being given to such an immature and innocent little person. They really are just trying to figure out how this life of ours works. They need to find out how consistently the providers of everything in their lives are going to respond with help in all situations that they encounter. It’s like “the more independent I get, are they still going to be there to help me?”. The answer is “until you show us you are consistently capable of doing it by yourself safely and successfully without major damage to yourself or others, we are always going to help you”.
6. You need to remain as calm as you possibly can no matter what your child does. This is a growing edge for every single person who has a child in their life, even me. Every one of us. As humans, we all have moments with more fortitude, and times when we are worn down and less tolerant. This will apply to every human-to-human interaction as long as we all live. And here’s the secret: Whoever can stay calm and find humor in the situation the fastest wins. I repeat: whoever can stay calm, and find humor in the situation the fastest wins emotionally.
7. The young child doesn’t have the psychological wherewithal to handle the emotional weight of being held responsible for manipulating a grown up’s emotional response. Heck– that’s a huge responsibility for an adult, for goodness’ sake. I know if I had to be held responsible for someone else blowing up emotionally, I wouldn’t exactly feel comfortable either. So it’s our job, as the grown up, to not let our own buttons get pushed–by a friggin’ toddler. You’re bigger than them. Much bigger. Much wiser. My sister is pretty good at this, and can turn many would-be-frustrating situations into pure comedy with her toddler son. Does she start to unravel faster when she is getting tired and worn down? yes.
And this is why it’s so critical for adults to provide the assistance for a young child’s response before we get completely upset over the situation. Long before we get upset. And by “long before” I mean after request #2 came out of our mouths.
8. The voice inside your head is your ally. In non-urgent situations, use your inner voice to count to 10 slowly before you step in to physically assist the child with follow through. Most of the time, within 10 slow seconds, they will follow through.
9. In the words of thumper from Bambi, if you can’t say nothin’ nice (or remain calm anymore), don’t say nothin’ at all. Instead, use that voice inside your head to “talk back” to your child and say all the sh*t you wish you could say out loud. This will help you release your own pressure valve without letting the child know your buttons are being pushed or you have reached your frustration point in that moment.
The funnier your inner voice can respond to the child, the better you will fare. If you think us Montessori guides are Mary Poppins graceful-courteous through the entire waking hours of our lives, guess again. We’re regular adults, too. And we are for sure going home and sharing all the hilarious power struggle stories with our friends and lovers over dinner. Sometimes, I like to pretend the child is talking to me in a munchkin-like voice. My inner voice in response to the crazy that is unfolding is like, “I just can’t listen to you right now, I must throw myself on the floor and scream!”. Watch some videos on youtube called “things my two year old says” for inspiration on how to not take things too seriously.
10. I highly recommend Janet Lansbury’s “Unruffled” parenting podcast (free), and The Montessori Notebook’s online webinar, “How to talk so kids will listen” ($29) for any additional behavioral support.