Tips for Talking to Toddlers

The three C's of communicating your expectations to a two-year-old.

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Be Clear

Controlling a spirited 2-year-old is one of parenting's biggest challenges. In public it can be a nightmare. At home, free from distractions, the job is more manageable. Still, there's no magical trick to gaining complete control over your tyke. There are, however, ways you can improve your chances of getting toddlers to do what you want.

One simple idea for making your life easier at home is to remember the "Three Cs" of effective communication: you need to be clear, concise and commanding.

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Be Commanding

First, make things clear to your child with concrete and specific language. For instance, avoid phrases such as, "Mommy wants you to be a good boy during dinner, OK?" Instead, tell your little bull-in-the-china-shop-of-life exactly what you want him to do -- and keep it simple. Rather than rattle off a list of seven dos and don'ts, try stating just one. Say, "You must stay in your chair."

"But," you might object, "I want him to stay quiet, not play with his food, and on and on and on."

Unfortunately, toddlers can't remember all that. As a result, they won't cooperate in any of it. You're better off expecting them to remember just one important thing.

Speaking clearly also involves scratching the word "don't" from your vocabulary. Two-year-olds have difficulty grasping what it means. When you say, "Don't climb on the table," your 2-year-old hears, "Gibberish climb on the table," So, he or she climbs on the table. You might, instead, say, "No!" and quickly remove him or her from the table. Or, you could just say, "Get down."

Be Concise

You may have already figured out that to be clear you must also be concise. Don't use 50 words when a mere five will do. Besides, with a child of this age, if five words won't do, then no number will.

Being concise also means not explaining yourself. Two-year-olds understand instructions, but they don't understand explanations. Again, take the example of a 2-year-old boy who's climbing on a table. He'll understand a firm "Get down," but won't comprehend "Sweetie, you need to get down from the table because you could fall and hurt yourself and we'd have to take you to the doctor and that would make Mommy sad."

In such a case, your child will only hear, "Gibberish table, blah, blah fall, blah blah hurt, gibberish Mommy." So, do yourself and your child a favor and stick to "Get down."

Be Commanding

This brings us to the last of our Three Cs, commanding -- the opposite of wishy-washy.

You're wishy-washy when you plead, bargain, bribe, or threaten. On the other hand, you're commanding when you preface what you want with either "I want..." or "You must..." or something equally assertive. So, instead of saying, "If you'll pick up all your toys, I'll give you some ice cream," try this one: "You must pick up your toys now."

The commanding approach may feel uncomfortable at first, but it is a favor to your toddler.

As you might expect, there will be occasions when you follow the "Three Cs" but your toddler just stands there and looks at you as if to say, "Make me."

That's when you wait for a strategic opportunity. Here's how it works: Instead of launching yourself into battle with your toddler, leave the toys where they are, and bide your time until the child wants something from you. Later, when young Sarah asks you to read her a story, take her by the hand, walk her over to the toys that are scattered on the floor, and say, "Before Mommy can read you a story, you must pick up these toys." and she does. Maybe.

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