How to Get the Behavior You Want from Your Toddler: Part II

I wrote here recently about the extent to which positive attention is the most important and powerful tool that parents possess to manage toddlers’ behavior. That article received a great deal of positive feedback, which I greatly appreciated, and for which I thank you (case in point: we all – Even parents! Even professionals! – love positive attention). Many of you responded with the same follow-up question, namely: What do I do when positive attention doesn’t work? Or, in specific reference to the illustration I provided last time around, what do I do if (and, let’s face it, when) “Jake” just refuses to walk away from the oranges?

A quick reminder of the scenario: you’re at the supermarket, and it’s time to check out. Three-year-old Jake, though, has discovered the joys of the orange bin, and has other plans – he’s way more interested in examining each and every one than joining you on line. You ask him to come join you, and he replies adamantly, “No.” You ask him again. He stomps his feet: “No!” Other customers start looking in your direction. “Tsk, tsk,” you imagine them thinking; “why can’t you control your child?”

So what do you do?

As hokey as it may sound, I implore you to first take a deep breath. Really. Feel your breath coming in and going out and the sensation of your feet on the floor; perhaps even close your eyes for a moment (but just for a moment, lest Jake take off for the candy aisle). In that moment, remember two important things: 1) You have choices, and 2) Jake is three (or two and a half, or four). And by “Jake is three,” what I mean is that you are the parent, and you are in charge. He is not calling the shots here; you are.

Now what?

You have a few options, and, unfortunately, one size does not fit all. I am going to list a few ideas, some of which may work for you, and some may not. Or, to make it even more complicated (and therefore more realistic), some of which may work for you some of the time, and others of which may work for you other times or not at all. All of them, though, are aimed at helping you avoid a power struggle. Remember: Jake is a toddler, which means that a) you are in charge, and b) if you momentarily forget that and get into a power struggle, he’ll beat you every time. In no particular order, here are some strategies for you to keep in your back pocket:

• Don’t respond to Jake. Instead, start doing something he’ll like better than discovering the excitement of citrus fruit. This is a really effective strategy for some children, particularly those who have learned that they are able to get a whole lot of attention from their parents by being defiant (attention that, as we’ve discussed, is very rewarding for them). Perhaps take a toy that he loves out of your bag, and start playing with it. Or maybe take out your phone and start looking at the family pictures you know Jake loves so much, making sure to narrate your observations out loud: “Oh, Jake, this is the one where you have icing all over your face – it makes me laugh every time!” Jake may well leave the oranges, and hurry over to join you.

• Join Jake at the oranges for a minute or two. Sounds crazy, right? But the thing is, it’s so crazy that it just may work. Little children love when you surprise them, and the element of surprise can stop defiance in its tracks. In this scenario, Jake expects you to insist he come to you, just like grown-ups always insist he does things he doesn’t feel like doing. Instead, you’re going to him, and – even better –taking an interest in what he’s doing (another thing little kids love). “Wow, I wonder how long it takes to get the oranges all stacked up like this,” you might say. Or, “I really love the color of oranges; I think oranges and eggplants have the best colors.” Connecting with your child like this – particularly at an unexpected time and in an unexpected way – can be like hitting a “reset” button, after which he or she will happily do what you asked.

• Ask Jake to be a helper. Sometimes, all kids need is an acknowledgement that they are important, that you’re asking them to do something not just because you feel like it or because you’re a grown-up, but because you need them to contribute something useful, or because they have a particular skill: “Hey, Jake, I could really use your help putting these groceries onto the conveyor belt; you’re really good at lifting the carton of milk, which is pretty heavy.”

• Create a game or a challenge. Jake’s having a lot of fun looking at the oranges, so your mission is to come up with something equally fun or enticing. “Oooh, I have an idea! Do you think you can hop all the way to me?” Or, “You know how you do the hokey-pokey in school? Is there a way to do it while you walk? Like, could you do the hokey-pokey while walking over here?” For extra compliance, add in some doubt about whether he can actually pull off what it is that you’re asking: “Really? You think you can do the hokey pokey all the way to me? No way! There is no way you can do that!” Then, of course, you voice your amazement that he did, in fact, manage to meet your challenge, and continue to express how impressed you are all the way to the checkout line.

• Have a race. It’s a rule of thumb, really: never underestimate the power of a race to motivate toddlers. Rather than asking Jake to come to the checkout line, you’re offering to race him there. Guess who wins?

• Distract, distract, distract. Rather than continuing to ask Jake to come to you, ask him to tell you that knock-knock joke about the banana again, or the story about what Sophia did on the playground. While you’re listening, beckon to him to come join you, like it’s a casual afterthought to the main event.

• Turn your command into a choice. Toddlers want to be in control; their primary developmental task (read: their job) is to become autonomous, to learn who they are as independent people, and where they fit into the larger world around them. Rather than open the door for them to be able to practice their “No!” yet again, present them with a choice for how to do what you need them to do: “Jake, do you want to try to hop over to me, or do you want to walk while you sing ‘Old McDonald’?” Then, whether he chooses to hop or sing, he’ll be complying with your request while maintaining his sense of control.

So, there you go. Seven strategies to help you get the behavior you want from your little one. Two final points:

First, I know that some of you may be thinking that, by using any of these techniques, you’ll be teaching your child that he or she can “get away with it.” Get away with what, I would ask? With being a toddler? Yes, your child will undoubtedly be getting away with being a toddler. Which is to say that defiance is not only normal and comes with the territory, but also that it serves an important function in allowing your child to develop a strong sense of self. To imply that Jake will “get away with” not listening implies that you are in competition with him, which is simply not the case. You are the parent, and you are in charge; of that there is no doubt. The task at hand is to get the behavior that you want from your toddler, and these are all ways to do just that.

Does this mean that Jake never learns that he needs to follow directions, that there are rules he needs to obey? Absolutely not, and this leads me to my second point. When it comes to behavior, as with health, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you can anticipate that the supermarket is going to be a challenging setting for Jake, whatever the reason, then it’s always beneficial to set up the expectation in advance by letting him know that it’s very important he stay with you and follow directions while you’re grocery shopping. You then give him lots of positive attention for doing so, and you may even offer a small reward if he’s able, say, to follow your directions the whole time you’re there [Note: Rewards are not bribes! A reward comes after a good behavior, whereas a bribe is given in order to stop a bad behavior. Rewards are a very effective tool; bribes are not.]

Also key to setting expectations in advance is having a few ground rules in your home, one of which may be that your toddler needs to follow your directions the first three times you ask, or else he or she receives a consequence. Then, if Jake doesn’t join you in the check-out line after you’ve asked three times, he has broken this rule, and he gets the same consequence he always gets. How do you set up these rules, and what are appropriate consequences, you ask? Perhaps that will be the topic of the next installment of this series.

Now go practice your hokey pokey.


Image via Flickr User James Jordan