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No-Cry Discipline: Get Your Toddler to Cooperate

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Updated on May 14, 2012

It’s no secret that toddlers crave independence—from picking out an outfit to choosing a snack, convincing your self-appointed “big kid” to cooperate can be a challenge. Toddlers require finesse to work with others, because they haven’t yet reached the age at which they can see and understand the whole picture—so simply explaining what you want doesn’t always work. However by learning and using a variety of toddler-friendly methods, you can bring about some happy cooperation. Try some of these options.

  • Offer choices. Allowing your little one to select one of many options can be a win-win situation. By having several options to choose from, your toddler will feel empowered, increasing the chances she’ll select one and be happy with her decision. For example, lay out several parent-approved outfits in the morning, and have her choose her favorite. This method also works well instead of commands. Instead of telling your toddler to brush her teeth and put on her pajamas, ask which she’d rather do first.
  • Playing to win. Kids see life as one big game—so take advantage of that! Nearly any task can be turned into a game with little effort. Some games can be a one-time fix, while others can become part of your regular routine. Instead of echoing standard “too-serious” parent instructions (that often lead to fussing and tantrums), reword your request in a playful manner. Don’t command, “Pick up your toys and put them in the box.” Alternatively, try, “I bet I can pick up all the blue cars before you pick up the red cars!” By transforming a mundane task into a game, you’re guaranteed to pique your child’s interest—and even have fun in the process!
  • Engage the imagination. Capitalize on your toddler’s vivid imagination as a way to thwart negative emotions. Pretend to find a trail of caterpillars on the way to the store, hop to the car like a bunny, or imagine a carrot gives you magic powers as you eat it. Kids love to pretend, and by entering your child’s world and playing along you can prevent daily skirmishes over chores. Make bedtime more exciting with a magical talking toothbrush, or “watch” the toy soldiers march in a parade to the toy box during clean up time. Open your mind to the endless possibilities, and you’ll discover that almost any event can be sweetened with a little imagination.
  • Sing a song. Even if you can’t carry a tune, take a cue from Snow White and sing a song as you sweep. Wash your child up to, “This is the way we wash our hands, wash our hands” or make up a sing-along song to help laundry move along. Even just humming familiar melodies will lift the mood during a yawn-inducing task. Or, create a particular song to be used as a cue to certain tasks—such as a “clean up song” to belt out when the toys are picked up and put away. The joy singing spreads is contagious; so don’t be surprised if your spirits are also lifted during a sing-along with your tot.
  • Tell a story. Tall tales can be used to teach a lesson, ward off boredom, or keep your child focused on the task at hand. Share a story with your little one before a big event to let her know what’s about to happen—and to prevent any fussing during said event. Tell a tale about a girl who says “please” and “thank you” at grandma’s house for dinner, and emphasize how proud this makes grandma and grandpa. This is in preparation for an actual visit, of course! Create a fable about a puppy who goes to the doctor for a checkup, a Tyrannosaurus Rex who visits the dentist, or a penguin’s first day at daycare. Use the story format to teach important lessons about sharing, being kind, being patient or any other life skill you’re attempting to pass on to your child.
  • Be silly. Experts say that children laugh about 300 times a day, but we serious adults laugh less than 15 times a day. Not only does laughter reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and boost your immune system; it makes you feel happy, encourages your child to cooperate with you, and ends fussy moods. Kids don’t require a scripted comedy show for entertainment—any lighthearted banter will do the job. Physical humor, such as pretending to fall, exaggerated speech, or funny accents, often elicits peals of laughter. Being silly—like putting your child’s sock on his hand instead of his foot—will make him giggle and give you the cooperation you desire. Plus, acting silly for your child’s benefit will lighten your spirits as well.

Once you’ve discovered the ease and joy of these many ways to engage your toddler’s cooperation you’ll find your days are filled with a bit more happiness and peacefulness. In addition, you’ll be building a foundation for the relationship between you for years to come.

Parenting educator Elizabeth Pantley is the president of Better Beginnings, Inc., a family resource and education company. She is also the author of twelve parenting books, including the popular "No-Cry" series.

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