“He won’t listen to me!” my husband exclaimed recently, exasperated. “Well, he doesn’t listen to me either!” I countered, as I watched our toddler climb up the stairs to put the clothes that I had picked out for him back into the drawer, i.e., his reaction to us telling him that it was time to get dressed for school (“not today” was his response).
Expecting total obedience from a toddler isn’t exactly realistic. But after one particularly frustrating week when I found myself struggling to get my almost 2-year-old to do anything (go downstairs, put on his jacket, leave the playground), I decided to do a little digging to see if there was something in my behavior that was contributing to my son’s resistance. And, well, take a look at some of the examples below and see if you can spot a pattern.
“Two more minutes of playtime and then it’s time for bath, OK?”
“We’re going outside now, go and get your shoes, OK?”
“Not now, you can have a snack when we get home, OK?”
And a few more variations:
“Can you put your toys away, please?”
“Are you ready for dinner?”
“Can I take your pajamas off so I can put your T-shirt on?”
Notice a theme, here? These are all questions. But questions imply that there’s a choice or a back-and-forth dialogue that’s about to occur. Except I’m not asking my son if he wants to go upstairs for a bath (he rolled around in mud all day and had a poop-splosion earlier, he is having a bath whether he wants one or not).
I’ll tell you what happens when your child answers no—it’s not pretty. You then have to decide to either respect their response (i.e., no bath) or do the opposite, which in my experience is a sure-fire way to guarantee a toddler tantrum.
But the solution here isn’t to bark commands at your child all day long. In fact, giving them frequent opportunities to make (small) decisions is an important step in growing up—it helps them feel like they have some power and control over what they do.
“Know that throughout your child’s day, you’re surely providing them with plenty of age-appropriate opportunities for them to make decisions on their own,” says Dr. Siggie. “And that’s a wonderful thing. Meanwhile there are decisions that belong only to parents, and for those, there’s no need to ask your child for buy-in or permission. You are the parent.”
Asking my son if he wants the blue or green cup for breakfast is a great way to give him a little bit of control. But asking if he wants to put his clothes on before we go outside is not, since he didn’t actually have a choice in the matter. So, what did I do? I made the conscious effort to make more statements (and cut out the “OK” at the end of every request).
Here’s what the above examples looked like when phrased as statements, rather than questions:
“Two more minutes of playtime and then we’re going to go upstairs for a bath.”
“We’re going outside now, go and get your shoes.”
“I need you to put your toys away now, please.”
“You can absolutely still be respectful to your child while making clear and direct statements, instead of asking questions,” says Dr. Siggie. “You respect your child through your tone, body language, intention, boundaries, knowledge and foresight.”
And per the parenting expert, I also made the effort to get close to him while making said statements. “You want your kids to listen? Of course. You can't really make them listen, but you can encourage them to cooperate. Here’s one tip: get close to them. instead of yelling across the room, walk over, touch their head, their back, make eye contact, calmly and firmly state—don’t ask. Closeness and clear communication create connection, increasing the likelihood for them to cooperate.”
Did my child happily leave the playground every afternoon without complaint? Well, obviously not. But I absolutely noticed an increase in cooperation—whether it was doing what was needed right away or simply doing so with a little less fuss. But what was even more important about the switch from questions to statements was how it made me feel as a parent. By phrasing my requests as fact (“we’ll read one more book together and then you will go to bed”), I felt more confident in my decisions—regardless of the outcome. I actually think my son has picked up on this and it makes him feel safe (even when accompanied by a tantrum). Having the courage of my convictions lets him know that I can be trusted to make decisions and be the leader. And that’s pretty great, right?