Thursday, May 19, 2011

8 Gentle Strategies to Foster Toddler Compliance

One of the big challenges of parenting a toddler is dealing with defiance.  While this trait is an important part of toddler emotional development, frequent resistance is hard on parents, testing even the most patient nerves. 

I did some reading on the topic in order to build my toolbox and understand this process (check out my  book review). I compiled some practical, positive strategies for getting a toddler to comply with parental requests. The motivation behind these techniques is to build a partnership, a partnership where both parent and child needs are taken into consideration.

    1.       Appeal to your toddler's natural empathy. Toddlers want to please, not hurt. Use phrases like "It hurts my ears when you... " bang on that, scream, etc., while covering your ears.  One of my favorites is "I can't understand you when you..."  whine, yell, cry, etc.  The effect is amazing! This strategy helps with compliance and it builds the toddler's ability to empathize by showing them how their actions affect others.

    2.       If at first you don't succeed, try again in 1 minute.  Or 30 seconds, or 5 minutes, or hey, maybe even a whole 15 minutes. Often  toddlers refuse an initial request simply because they want to feel they are doing it of their own volition. If you allow time for her to initiate it on her own, she is more likely to agree to it. While waiting, it's important to be silent and not pester the child with your request. Sometimes a toddler is just busy doing something. If she is granted the respect to finish it, she is more likely to comply willingly with a request to do something else.  Yes, this one takes patience, especially if you're in a hurry!

3.       Provide an attractive alternative. If a toddler is holding an unsafe object, provide a safe replacement and make the exchange respectfully. If a toddler is engaged in an inappropriate activity, direct the toddler to another specific, acceptable activity.  At home, I keep a stash of 'special' objects that I can trade in a pinch. To get it back, I just wait 15 minutes for him to lose interest.  In public, there are usually countless activities and objects that can be used.  

4.       Use humor and playfulness. For example, use exaggerated disbelief in response to a  peculiar  suggestion from a toddler. "I don't think the book needs to wear a diaper! How silly!" Play along. I have diapered everything from a toy car to a rubber band before actually putting a diaper on my son. Humor also helps dissipate frustration for both parent and child.

5.       Be emotionally available prior to your request. If you've spent the last hour on the computer, then suddenly ask a toddler to clean up his toys, compliance is less likely.  Try spending a few quality moments together before making your request. This can be as simple as a hug or a smile, or it may require a few minutes playing together. Of course, the connection must be genuine, heartfelt, and mindful.

6.       Enlist the help of your toddler. By encouraging a toddler to assist in a request, he will feel empowered and included in the decision-making process. If a toddler feels competent and independent, he is less likely to act defiantly in order to assert himself. For example, instead of coaxing my son to go into the house after a shopping trip, I ask him to help carry the groceries inside. Picking out shoes and putting items in the trash/recycling are other great toddler tasks.

7.       Say "gentle" instead of  "don't touch". Unless the object of  desire is truly threatening, let a toddler explore it. A toddler will quickly learn that "no touch" means it is dangerous to do so, not that it is annoying or socially unconventional to adults. The toddler learns to trust his parents' ability to protect him from harm, while his natural curiosity is nurtured.  He also learns to respect people, animals, plants, and objects through direct interaction with them. In addition, this approach helps develop motor control.

8.       Avoid using punishment for non-compliance. Overwhelming evidence shows that punishment does not help children develop empathy, including the desire to comply with someone else's wishes. Punishment also interferes with the development of an intrinsic desire to avoid inappropriate behavior. If a toddler is not punished for, well, being a toddler, then she is more likely to trust in parental decision making. She is less likely to feel that her parents are trying to control her or disregard her feelings. Instead, she is more likely to feel authentic respect for her parents, because they respect her. The result is a greater willingness to comply with parental requests. It is never too late to stop using punishment. There are alternatives to yelling, spanking, and time-outs

I have to admit these techniques are easier to write about than put into practice. I think the important point is to keep looking for respectful ways of putting requests to children. What do you do? Do you have other gentle strategies for getting your toddler to cooperate with your requests?

Of course, these techniques don't always work. Sometimes you have to do more. But that is a subject for another day...


  1. Well written! Often we forget that toddlers are people too with very real feelings and desires. The easiest way I maintain a respectful atmosphere with children is asking myself how I would feel/react to a particular request if I were in their place. Another thing is to question WHY I need them to 'do' a particular something that I request. Sometimes we put more importance on our needs than those of our children, forgetting that sometimes compromise is the best option for both parties (like taking the screaming excited toddler outside to be loud rather than telling them to be completely quiet kind of thing). This is difficult especially when I am impatient about having something done right NOW, when children have trouble shifting gears like that and resent it.

  2. Thank you! You make a great point about taking the child's perspective and compromising. Each day, my son and I get a little better at compromising with each other. It's a great feeling when it works. Patience...we are both still working on that!

  3. I want to share different opinion. Punishment for non-compliance is OK as long as method and level of punishment is appropriate. What to avoid the most is reward for non-compliance. For example, when toddler is whining, some parents give him/her a nice thing so he/she automatically learn to whine to get things.

  4. @Patty, thank you for your input. The use of punishment in any form or situation is always a personal choice. I used to think the same way as you until I began to read about the negative effects of punishment on children, both short and long-term. I haven't encountered any compelling evidence that punishment will help a child feel more connected to the parent or motivate them to comply based on an intrinsic desire rather than fear of punishment. I invite you to read some of the information in the links provided above or check out some of my other posts. Decide for yourself.

    As you pointed out, rewards also have their own large share of short and long-term negative effects. If this system of rewards and punishment feels "off" to you in any way, you're not alone! Toddlers aren't dogs to be trained. They're humans with rights, feelings, and a deep need to feel connected, loved and respected by their parents. These gentle strategies are suggestions to treat them with dignity when we ask them to do things. In my opinion, neither punishment nor rewards serve that purpose.

  5. great post! I find that these tips you discussed I also use with my older children. The great thing is that if your toddler sees the other children being treated the same, then it just becomes the 'norm' of the household. I think its important for the toddler to see they are treated the same as the older children and vice versa.

  6. Thanks, Sarah! It's really encouraging to hear that these approaches work with older children, too. It makes sense! It really is about treating our children as individuals and showing them the respect they deserve. My hope is that getting in the habit now while my son is young, I'll be even better at it by the time he's a teen!

  7. Thank you so much for this post! I really needed these reminders today. I also need some advice and I'm not sure if this is the right venue, but do any of you have good strategies for sibling fighting in the car? I care for my two nephews in addition to my own 2 year old daughter, and whenever we go places in the car my daughter hits and kicks the boys (to get a reaction from them---when they yell, she laughs and seems to think it's funny). We always start with the empathy approach "that hurts when you kick", remind the boys that yelling encourages her, and try to redirect by engaging her in singing a song/playing "I spy", etc., but sooner or later she will hit or kick or poke or pull hair again. It is exhausting and hard on all of us, and makes me dread even short trips to the library. I think it comes down to the fact that she just wants their attention because they're older and play with each other much more than they play with her. I've made the request that they try to include her more, and they do, but the majority of their time is still spent together, while she plays with me or independently most of the time. I think that's fair---she's in a different stage of development from them----but I don't know how to find the right balance. Thanks in advance for your input, I appreciate how much time you take to help us all!

  8. @wisdom evolves, I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I also like to return to it as a reminder to myself!

    As for sibling car fights...what a frustrating situation! I wish I had more insight but I can offer you this: can you help your daughter work through the feelings that are driving her to hit? It sounds like she feels left out at the very least. So underneath that resentment (and hitting), she's probably very sad. If you can offer comfort, connection, and an opportunity for her to unload that sadness, maybe she will stop feeling so angry.

    For a deeper discussion of this approach, check out this link from Aha!Parenting:

    Dr. Markham also has other articles about sibling rivalry but this will give you a taste of what she has to offer. Admittedly, much of what she says is more appropriate for older kids (not toddlers), but I think her ideas are applicable to all children (she's awesome!). We just have to keep the language simple and the 'talks' very short with toddlers!

    Another idea: to help with "emotional intelligence" I spend time with my son during play to talk about feelings...drawing a happy face, a sad face, an angry face, for instance. Then, when we need to talk about an intense emotion he's had, he understands what I mean.

    I hope that helps at least a bit. It sounds like your heart is really in it, so I'm sure you're daughter knows that, too. Hang in there, I'm sure you'll find your way!