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How do I get my toddler to listen to me?

 A child plays an airplane pilot When I first became pregnant, my husband and I used to joke (sort of) that we wished our baby would come out at age five so we could just skip the baby and toddler part with the diapers and puppy-like behavior.

While I’ve come to love every stage along the way, I must admit that defiant toddler misbehavior still makes my blood pressure rise.  How does one get a toddler to listen AND obey?

Treat toddlers like you want to be treated. Jesus was right when He said in Matthew 7:12 that we should do to others what we would have them do to us - and this applies to teaching our toddlers to listen as well.

For example, would I want someone to abruptly grab my arm to re-direct my attention? Would I want someone to angrily shout my name at the grocery store?  Would I want someone to completely ignore me while all social media news feeds are updated and read?

Uhm, no.

And yet many times these are the very tactics we implement in toddler territory; but if we’re honest, we know there is a better way - a way that requires proactive thinking, selfless focus, and intentional action from us parents.

It is a way that requires us to love our toddlers like we want them to love us.

Think ahead. Most of my toddler’s tantrums could be prevented with a just little pre-planning:

  • Positioning myself strategically on the playground allows me to quietly intervene before an altercation with another child occurs.
  • Buckling my daughter in the cart and distracting her with a Dum-Dum sucker makes shopping (mostly) fun and (usually) problem-free.
  • Burying my phone at the bottom of my purse helps me stay fully present and able to capture memorable moments with my girl.

Be fully present. I’m repeating myself... but it’s a motto worth repeating in our detrimentally distracted culture.

We adults want -- and deserve -- the attention of people with whom we are speaking.  This means holding eye contact, squaring shoulders toward one another, and quieting busy hands.

Our toddlers want -- and deserve -- this same focused attention. Connection is richer when I STOP what I’m doing, KNEEL before my child, LOCK EYES... and then gently speak.

Whisper instruction. I used to be a high school teacher... but I began as (gasp) a “screamer.”

Unfortunately, yelling yielded more yelling, less learning, and heightened stress.

So... I started whispering.

Seems counter-intuitive, I know, but it worked!  I lowered my voice, and teenagers shushed each other to hear me.

Whispering works with my toddler, too.  She slows down and stops what she’s doing to see what I have to say.  It’s kind of beautiful, actually.

Redirect positively. Note that I didn’t say, “Don’t be negative.”

Instead of saying, “Don’t run,” say, “Walk, please.”

Here’s another: not “Don’t pull the cat’s tail,” but, “Be gentle with the kitty.”

Rule of thumb: avoid using “don’t”; instead, say what you’d like the child to do.

Ask questions strategically. When it’s bedtime, I am very careful not to say, “Do you want to go night-night?” because of course, she doesn’t!

Instead I say, “Book or snuggle before night-night?”  I’m happy to accept either of her two choices without compromising on bedtime.

Use short phrases.  When I say, “Eat?” my one-year-old shouts, “YES!”  And if I say, “Milk or juice?” She shouts, “JUICE!”

Short phrases work during more serious circumstances, too.  When she kicks during a diaper change, for example, I firmly grab her wild legs and say, “Legs still, please.”

Encourage self-reflection. Toddlers aren’t thinkers (yet); they’re reactive doers. It’s why they hit or shriek when they don’t get their way.

I want my girl to think about her behavior, so I literally remove her from the room saying, “Think about hitting. Hitting is not kind and loving.”

Children asked to think about their behavior do eventually begin to reflect on their choices.

All eight of these strategies work. But -- as with all training -- internalizing instruction takes time -- a LOT of time.

I literally employ these tactics every. single. hour. of my day because I am hopeful that the lessons will one day “stick.”

Scripture tells us that “no discipline is enjoyable while it is happening—it’s painful! But afterward there will be a peaceful harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way” (Hebrews 12:11 NLT).


Being disciplined is no picnic for the toddler being corrected and trained, but I submit that it’s no party for the person doing the disciplining either.

However, if we want our children to partake of the “peaceful harvest of right living” tomorrow, then we must be strategically strong parents today.


Rhonda Owens


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