Toddlers are just like the rest of us – they don’t always listen. At their age, they need you to teach them how to pay attention. “But what often happens,” says Roni Leiderman, associate dean of the Family Center at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, “is that parents say something 10 times, then they start counting down to punishment.”
That doesn’t teach a child to listen – it teaches him that he can ignore you the first 10 times you say something and only pay attention when you’re about to lose it. Getting your child to listen doesn’t have to be a battle. Here are some tips to make it easier.
Get on his level
As every parent realizes sooner or later, bellowing from a great height (much less from the other room) rarely has the desired effect. Squat down or pick up your child, so you can look him in the eye and get his attention.
Eye contact is important and works best when you’re face to face with your child. He’ll listen much more closely if you sit down next to him at the breakfast table when reminding him to eat up his cornflakes, or perch on his bed at night when telling him you’re about to turn out the light.
State your message clearly, simply, and with quiet authority. Your child will zone out if you harp on a topic too long. It’s hard to find the point of a wordy message such as “It’s really cold outside, and you’ve been sick lately, so I want you to put on your sweater before we go to the store.”
On the other hand, “It’s time to get your sweater” is unmistakable. And don’t phrase something as a question if your child doesn’t actually have a choice. “It’s time to climb into your car seat” has a lot more impact than “Come climb into your car seat, okay, sweetie?”
It’s good to give toddlers choices, but be sure you’re okay with all the options you offer – and stick with only two. By allowing your toddler to make limited choices, she’ll feel empowered (and you’ll be satisfied with the result).
Make it clear that you mean what you say, and don’t make threats – or promises – you won’t keep. If you tell your 2-year-old, “You need to drink some water at dinnertime,” don’t waffle five minutes later and let him have juice instead. If you warn him he’ll have a time-out if he hits his brother, give him that time-out when the blow comes.
Make sure your partner shares your rules and respects them as well, so that neither of you undermines the other. And if there’s a disagreement, talk it through so you’re both clear about what needs to be said or done when the issue comes up again (as it surely will).
And don’t fall into the trap of repeating less urgent instructions, such as “Set your cup on the table,” over and over again before expecting your child to comply. Gently guide your child’s hand to place the cup on the table, so he knows exactly what you want him to do.
Reinforce your message
It often helps to follow up your verbal statement with a number of other kinds of messages, especially if you’re trying to pull your child away from an absorbing activity. Say, “Time for bed!” and then give a visual cue (flicking the light switch on and off), a physical cue (laying a hand on her shoulder to gently pull her attention away from her doll and toward you), and a demonstration (steering her toward her bed, pulling down the covers, and patting the pillow).
It’s also important for your child to know when something is especially dangerous and for you to demonstrate how to approach it safely. For example, when your child crosses the street, be sure to always hold her hand. That way, she’ll associate the danger of cars with being careful.
Give your child some advance notice before a big change will take place, especially if he’s happily involved with toys or a friend. Before you’re ready to leave the house, say, “We’re going to leave in a few minutes. When I call you, it’s time to come out of the sandbox and wash your hands.”
Be instructive – and make it fun
“Give realistic tasks, like ‘Let’s put the yellow blocks away.’ Then you can make it into play: ‘Good, now let’s put the blue blocks away,'” says Leiderman.
Yelling orders may produce results, but no one will enjoy the process. Most children respond best when you treat them with confident good humor. Try using a silly voice or a song to deliver your message – you might sing “Now it’s time to brush your teeth” to the tune of “London Bridge,” for example.
Make sure the benefits of listening make sense to your child. (“Brush your teeth and then you can pick out your favorite nightgown” instead of “You have to brush your teeth or you’ll get cavities” or “Brush your teeth NOW!”) Praise her when she finishes brushing, with “Good listening!”
The good humor, affection, and trust you demonstrate to your child when speaking to her this way will make her want to listen to you because she’ll know that you love her and think she’s special.
Model good behavior
Children will be better listeners if they see that you’re a good listener, too. Make it a habit to listen to your child as respectfully as you would to any adult. Look at him when he talks to you, respond politely, and let him finish without interrupting whenever possible.
While it may seem like a tall order when you’re cooking dinner and your toddler is being especially chatty, try not to walk away or turn your back while he’s talking. As with so many other behaviors, the old saw “Do as I say, not as I do” has no value when teaching your children to listen.
Catch your child being good
How often do you talk to your child about what she’s doing wrong? Would you want to listen to someone – like your boss, for example – who only gave you negative feedback?
Your child is more likely to listen to you if you notice when she’s behaving well and comment on it. “You put your dolls away the first time I asked. Good job!” or “You were very gentle with the puppy. I’m proud of you!” Make sure to give your toddler plenty of positive reinforcement, and she’ll be less likely to tune you out when you need to steer her back on course.
Some books give sound advice about getting your child to listen. Try How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, and Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, Discipline Without Spanking or Shouting, by Jerry Wyckoff and Barbara Unell, and Raising Your Spirited Child, by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka.
You also can see: What is it like to care for a baby?