Just because it can be hard to reason with toddlers, that doesn’t mean they’re not thinking; it just means you’ve got to get inside their funny little heads and outfox them before you get to the stage of trying (and failing) to win with grown-up logic.
We admit it’s not easy, but here are a few tricks to add to your arsenal. And though there are no guarantees in the parenting life, some combination of them may even help you get your toddler heading in the direction you want to go (both literally and figuratively) while averting a yowling fit.
Get on the steering committee: Affirm but redirect
Dinner and bath are behind you, and you just need to make it past bedtime. Then comes the little voice: “Me park!” You know all too well what that implies, but it still pays to affirm what your toddler is thinking about while simultaneously steering him away from the aspect of it you’d rather not deal with. Try comments like “Yes, we went to the park this afternoon, didn’t we? Did you go on the see-saw with another little boy?” or “You like going to the park, don’t you?” This way, it’s still all about the park, but it no longer involves putting your shoes on.
Head to the Land of Make Believe: Use their imagination your way
On the other hand, if he wants to go to the park, why not just take him without leaving your home? Use your kid’s fertile imagination to your advantage. Pretend together that he’s going down the slide (“Should I catch you?”) or eating an ice cream cone. Sometimes, that can be enough to fulfill your kid’s desire for something you don’t want to give him in real life right now.
Take action: Make a game of it – or at least do something
Even if you can’t quite inhibit your instinct to shout “No!” when Little Olivia starts pawing Daddy’s new tie or squeezing the toothpaste tube, you can still follow that up with something kids love: action. Think of a way of relating to Daddy’s ties that won’t involve dry cleaning, like pointing to them, waving hello (and the all-important bye-bye) or tying a ribbon (er, “tie”) around the dolly’s neck. Sometimes, offering a related option can divert the kid’s thought process just enough: Do you want to put the toothpaste on the bathroom sink or the kitchen sink?
Bring on the toys: Bob the Builder wants to take a bath (or go to bed) too!
One of the (many) reasons kids don’t always want to do what you want them to do is that they’re immersed in what they’re already doing. Assuming Little Ethan doesn’t have any underlying bath-time issues, he might ignore or resist you if you tell him it’s time to take a bath, yet come willingly when you move on to your next tactic: asking him which toys he wants to take with him. The same works for going from bath to bed, though you should probably dry the toys off first.
Be matter-of-fact: Say it plainly and calmly like it’s already the law
Sometimes it works best simply to speak with the calm voice of objective, external authority. Think of it like you’re teaching your kid the way the world works, in pithy axiomatic phrases that serve your purpose: No shoes on the couch. Chairs stay on the floor. Books don’t go in the bathtub. Be patient with this. Though I had warned my daughter that the beaded necklace she had gotten as a gift would not be accompanying her to bed that night (“No necklaces in bed”), she threw a fit when the time came for me to put it away. Something must have gotten through, though. As she was playing with it the next morning, she quite good-humoredly informed me, to my surprise, “No necklace bed. Away!”
Use their independent streaks to your advantage
He won’t come to the sink to wash his hands? Remember – not letting him do it himself is a punishment all its own. Tell him he can either walk to the sink by himself or you’ll carry him there. Give him a chance to comply, and if it doesn’t work, do the old counting thing, warning him of the consequences beforehand. Warn again before three, and if it’s still no go, don’t cajole; just calmly do exactly what you said you would. On a good day, thank him for listening when he quails before the prospect of not doing something all by himself. Keep in mind that three isn’t a magic number. If you feel like your kid needs a little more time, try counting to five instead.
Value those numbers
Counting doesn’t have to be limited to threats. If the kid can’t seem to part from that really fascinating fence on the way home from nursery school, tell her she has until three, but try to stay away from the warning tone you might use at other times. I go for a kind of singsong count: “One bum ba dum bum, two bum ba dum bum, okay, the next number is three; after that we’re gonna go look at that motorcycle over there! Three bum ba dum bum. Let’s go!” You can also count something specific like five more pushes on the swing.
Control what you have control over
If your toddler’s in a willful enough mood to need a timeout, chances are good he’s not going to be so ready to listen when you try to institute one. If you can’t remove him from the situation, remove the situation from him. Take away the toy he wouldn’t share or take yourself away from him for a few minutes, saying something like, “I’m not going to sit near you when you’re not behaving nicely.” Don’t make a big deal of it if he follows you; just ignore him for a few minutes.
Want to leave the playground without setting off the next eruption of Eyjafjallajökull? Keep your eyes peeled for favorable circumstances you can exploit and help your kid look ahead to the next step. If other parents are herding their kids away from the park, let them do the dirty work and then use peer pressure to convince her it’s time to go. If there’s a dog up ahead, get your kid excited about saying hi to the doggie and start hoofing it. If you’re heading home, talk up how she’ll be able to play with her soccer ball or eat yummy pasta, and once you get home, make sure to keep your promise.