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How to Get Cooperation From Your Toddler

By Aspen Anderson

Because my son was premature (82 days early, 2 pounds, 62 days in the NICU, I know you were wondering), for over two years I had an amazing benefit, provided by the state, of bi-weekly therapy appointments with speech, physical, and developmental therapists with Master’s Degrees and Ph.D.s in early childhood development. One of my biggest takeaways from that experience was that there is real, valid, scientifically-backed advice out there that, when followed, can make life with a small human just SO much easier. 

I was constantly amazed at the specificity of the instructions these therapists gave me to help him catch up. He’s behind in crawling? Do this eye exercise. Boom, fixed. He’s not advancing to the next food texture quickly enough? Stick his Cheerios in the back side of his cheek so he has to strengthen his tongue to fish it out. Boom, fixed. It once took me (not my son – ME) four tries to properly follow their very specific instructions on how to give my son a choice – if I gave him a choice and he grabbed the item from me rather than me handing it to him, it wasn’t properly developing his social interaction skills, so I had to turn his wrist upward and put the toy in his hand so that I was actively responding to his choice. The minutia was fascinating to me, and it taught me that tiny adjustments in how we parent can lead to huge results.

 Fortunately, a lot of equally qualified therapists and doctors maintain blogs, so I have been able to continue learning in the wonderful world of the internet. As my son began entering toddlerhood, I read an article I found extremely helpful on how to get your toddler’s cooperation and participation – unfortunately, it was a while ago and I can’t find it to link. It was written by a Ph.D. in childhood development, and let me tell you – IT WORKS! Here are some of the things I took away that I have incorporated to get better cooperation from my toddler. It’s all about understanding how their brains work!

  1. Make everything a story: Rather than saying, “put your toys away,” you make cleanup about something your toddler can relate to. So I say, “It’s time for your toys to go to sleep! Do you know where their beds are?” and he will joyfully help put the toys “to bed.” Recently he has started hugging and kissing them and says goodnight to them. It’s adorable! Making things silly will get their cooperation too because they are engaging in an imaginary world with you so your instructions become play. Instead of “get in your car seat,” try, “Oh no, if you get into your car seat you will sit on my purple elephant!”
  2. Create patterns: Every day I tell my son to son take off his shoes and then I ask him “where they live” and he puts them away. Then I do the same thing with his dirty socks – it took a little while for him to learn there were different homes for dirty and clean socks, but he gets it now! Having as much structure in your day as possible helps them feel like they understand what is happening, and explaining when things are going to be different will help them feel involved in the process. My son goes to a different babysitter or family member almost every day, so every morning I explain where we are going, who he is going to see, who is going to pick him up, and who is going to put him to bed. The other day he loved this so much he made me go over it eight times, piping “again!” every time I finished.
  3. Toddlers love to help! Research shows that if you let your children help you clean and cook at this young age, it establishes life-long cognitive patterns and increases their cooperation for years to come. It also establishes the expectation that they are participants in maintaining the household – which cuts down on entitlement. As soon as they are old enough to do something for themselves, they should be expected to take ownership of it (not as a rule, where if they don’t they will be punished – more as a natural evolution of their role in the family).  My son pulls out his broom to help sweep, throws things in the garbage, and if I start baking he pulls his stool around the counter and insists on helping pour and stir. If he spills something, he asks for a paper towel and cleans it up himself – I didn’t teach him that, he just learned by example. You may have to do it right when they think they are done, but there is a huge developmental benefit to letting them try. 
  4. Ease transitions: If you are getting ready to head out the door and rip your child away from his toys without warning, you are likely going to get a meltdown. Give them fair warning when a transition is happening: “We will be leaving in five minutes to go to grandma’s, so I’m going to play with you for a few minutes, then we will put on your shoes.” Giving that little bit of time and attention helps them prepare for a shift, and puts their focus on you and what you are doing, distracting them from their previous activity. Giving positive statements about what is coming or telling them who they are going to see also helps them shift to what is next. If I tell him it’s time to see Gracie (Papa’s blue macaw) or Stella (his BFF at CCNS), he gets actively excited to get out the door.  A good tip for yourself is to take a deep breath because sometimes it is hard to have the patience to work with your toddler when you are running behind. 
  5. Be careful about choices vs. directions: “Can you go find your socks” is an optional choice, “I need you to go find your socks” is a direction. If you give them a choice when you really did need them to do something, you can’t blame them if they accepted the fact it was a choice, and choose “no.” Being specific helps them understand when they need to follow directions, versus when you are giving them an option. Similarly, giving them a choice helps them feel like they have control of their lives. Just be sure to be specific. Instead of saying, “Choose a shirt,” say “Do you want to wear the red shirt with the dinosaur or the pink shirt with Elsa?” Whenever my son realizes I am giving him a choice to make his face lights up and he savors every second of it before deciding. These sorts of communications work best when you get down on their level and look them in the eye.
  6. Give them jobs: My son is responsible for getting his own hat, coat, and shoes in the morning and retrieving his bowl and spoon for cereal. It is his job to open the garage door and to hold the receipt for the checkers at the exit of Costco. He knows these things are his responsibility, and he takes them very seriously. Giving toddlers responsibilities helps them feel that sense of control, as well as a sense of participation in the adult world. It prepares them for bigger jobs in the future by teaching them they have an active role to play in their lives.
  7. Give natural consequences: When consequences need to be enforced, opt for logical, natural consequences rather than an enforcement of your power as the adult. Unless you are talking about a situation where their safety is at risk, find a way to talk to them that they can understand rather than just saying “I’m the adult so you have to do what I say” (again, deep breaths). We are developing little human brains, and unfortunately, if they live in a world where we train them to submit to us as authoritarians, they find it confusing because their instinct is to run to us when they are afraid, yet we are the source of their fear.  This inadvertently teaches them that it’s ok for someone they love to exert power over them, which sets them up for normalizing abuse in adult relationships. So try to use “if” “then” statements that are logical. “If you don’t sit still in church, you don’t get ice cream after” isn’t a natural consequence, and are you really going to follow through? Probably not. “If you don’t get into the car, we won’t be able to listen to your favorite song” is a natural consequence. “If you don’t put on your pajamas now, we won’t have time to read your favorite story.” Your job is to help them understand cause and effect, so eventually, they can recognize the relationship between actions and consequences themselves. 

So much of parenting success is in the minutia. The little things really count, and establishing routines and working on making your own responses consistent will go miles in getting cooperation. I know it isn’t always easy, and we aren’t going to be perfect. But if there ever was a good motivation to try, it is the galaxy that looks back at you through your child’s eyes.