How do I get my Toddler to Respond to my Directions?

I have a distinct memory of stepping into an elevator once to be greeted by an adorable toddler in a stroller with her parents. Her big beautiful smile filled my heart with warmth and I found myself smiling back and saying “Hello!” Our wonderful connective moment was suddenly disrupted by her mother who said “Can you say hi to the lady?”.  The question was greeted by an awkward silence and then the father cut in “Say hi to the lady!”. . . more silence. . . the awkwardness filled the elevator and I was thinking to myself “What a shame for all involved. Her parents were uncomfortable that their child didn’t respond to their guidance introducing social norms. I was disappointed that the warm fuzzy feeling had left the elevator.

Since then I have caught myself creating the same awkward moments time and time again. When I first began leading early childhood classes I would ask the group of two year old questions like “can you hop up and down with me?” only to be greeted with stillness. So then the parents would pipe up – “Hop with Miss Tweetie!”. Still no reaction.

In class parents and I get caught in this triangle of awkwardness all the time: “Can you give Ella back her shaker?” “Can you give Miss Tweetie your drum?” “Can you say Thank you to Miss Tweetie?”

This is a perfect example of creating an expectation that is not met. We talk about this all the time in our adult world and yet we seem to bypass it with our youngest ones. We are in such a role of teaching and parenting we run into obstacles whenever there is an issue we truly cannot control. Think about the toughest parenting issues. We cannot make our children: eat, sleep, talk, use the toilet or move. We can try asking, forcing, coercing, rewarding, to name a few. Yet when it comes down to it, our children have a choice. And they know it.

So how do we get them to do what we want or need them to do when we what or need them to do it?

The answer is simple: we can’t. The sooner we can accept this as parents, the easier our time in the early childhood trenches will be. Plus the smoother the years beyond will be. Quite frankly, this is an ongoing quest that will continue with your relationship with your child for your lifetimes.

So then what? Surely we do not allow our children to run amok doing whatever they want whenever they want? No we don’t. We continue to parent, guide and teach. However, with these tools we will set ourselves up to be more succesfull by not creating expectations.

Turn it around:

Here is a very simple solution. Stop asking and start guiding:

  1. Can you say hi/thank you to the lady?” becomes “You can say hi/thank you to the lady?”
    1. This is successful for the following reasons:
      • You have taught your child the appropriate social etiquette.
      • The ‘lady’ feels acknowledged.
      • You have taken out the expectation.
  2. Can you hop up and down with me?” becomes “You can hop up and down with me.”
    1. This is successful for the following reasons:
      • You are teaching the child what the action is.
      • You are teaching the child that when a teacher is leading, the normal response is to follow.
      • You have indicated to the teacher that you take her role and her class seriously and would like your child to follow as best as they can.
      • You’ve removed the expectation.
  3. Can you give Ella back her toy?” becomes “You can give Ella back her toy!”
    • This is successful for the following reasons:
      • You are teaching the appropriate response.
      • Ella feels supported by your response.
      • You have set the ground rule and if need be, you may move onto the next step of identifying natural consequences from actions.
        • If your child does not return the toy, you may say “when you do not give Ella back her toy yourself, I will have to take it away from you and give it to her.”
  4. It’s never too late!
    • If you forget and have asked the question this is okay. Here are some possible next steps:
      • Turn it around immediately. “Can you say thank you to Miss Tweetie? You CAN say thank you to Miss Tweetie?” Then move on immediately. Do not wait for a response.
      • Answer it yourself! “Can you hop with me? Of course you can!”
  5. You are the ‘awkward other’.
    • If you are the subject of the instruction the parent has given without a response you can jump in and move things forward yourself.
      • Can you say thank you to Miss Tweetie?” Simply move it forward and say “You are welcome!”
      • “Can you hop with Miss Tweetie?” Acknowledge the child and suggest. “I’ll bet you can. You can do it if you like or you can just watch.”

The wonderful about turning it around is that occasionally you may actually get the result you are hoping for. Yet there will be no tension whatsoever and everyone involved will feel better. Plus you have still taught your child something.

 In the 70’s, parents liked to say “Do as I say, not as I do.” This comment could not be further from reality. Like it or not, our roles as parents involve imprinting appropriate behaviours. By the time our very young children are old enough to express reactions to situations, they have been watching and studying us more than we know. Whether in classes or in a more personal environment, your children are learning by observing your behaviour. The very best way to ensure your child will eventually do the things your want them to is by monitoring your own behaviours and reactions to things. Once again our children inspire us to be the best people we can be!

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