Toddlers are just like the rest of us — they don't always listen. In fact, at their age they need you to teach them how to pay attention. "But what often happens," says Roni Leiderman, associate dean of the Family Center at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, "is that parents say something 10 times, then they start counting down to punishment. What this does is actually condition the child not to listen until the tenth time."
By not listening, your child is getting your attention (though constant nagging isn't the best form of it). But being a good listener helps your child learn more effectively, heed danger signals, get along better with you and her teachers and other adults she'll be expected to respect, and make better friends. There are many simple strategies that, when consistently followed, will teach toddlers the skills they need to become good listeners. And, as Leiderman points out, "It's never too early to begin teaching your child. A toddler may not listen as well as a 5-year-old, but she still has lots of these skills."
Get on her level.
As every parent realizes sooner or later, bellowing from a great height (much less from the other room) rarely has the desired effect. Squat down or pick your child up, so you can look her in the eye and grab her attention. She'll listen much more closely if you sit down next to her at the breakfast table when reminding her to eat up her cornflakes, or perch on her bed at night when telling her you're about to turn out the light.
State your message clearly, simply, and authoritatively. Your child will zone out if you harp on a topic too long. It's hard to find the point of a wordy message such as "It's really cold outside, and you've been sick lately, so I want you to put on your sweater before we go to the store." On the other hand, "It's time to get your sweater" is unmistakable. And don't phrase something as a question if your child doesn't actually have a choice. "It's time to climb into your car seat" has a lot more impact than "Come climb into your car seat, okay, honey?"
Follow through — quickly.
Make it clear that you mean what you say, and don't make threats — or promises — you won't keep. If you tell your 2-year-old, "You need to drink some milk at dinnertime," don't waffle five minutes later and let her have juice instead. If you warn her she'll have a time-out if she hits her brother, give her that time-out when the blow comes. Make sure your spouse or partner shares your rules and respects them as well, so that neither of you undermines the other.
In addition, make your follow-through speedy. You would never expect to have to shout "Don't run across the street!" five times before your child heeded you. Similarly, don't fall into the trap of repeating less urgent instructions, such as "Set your cup on the table," over and over again before expecting your child to comply. Gently guide your child's hand to place the cup on the table so she knows exactly what you want her to do.
Reinforce your message.
It often helps to follow up your verbal statement with a number of other kinds of messages, especially if you are trying to pull your child away from an absorbing activity. Say "Time for bed!" and then give a visual cue (flicking the light switch on and off), a physical cue (laying a hand on her shoulder to gently pull her attention away from her doll and toward you), and a demonstration (steering her toward her bed, pulling down the covers, and patting the pillow).
Give your child some advance notice before a big change will take place, especially if she's happily involved with toys or a friend. Before you're ready to leave the house, tell her, "We're going to leave in a few minutes. When I call you, it's time to come out of the sandbox and wash your hands."
Give realistic instructions.
"If you tell a 2-year-old to put his toys away, he looks around the room and says, 'Sheesh!'" says Leiderman. "Give him realistic tasks, like 'Let's put the yellow blocks away.' Then you can make it into play: 'Good, now let's put the blue blocks away.'"
Yelling orders may produce results (in some children), but no one will enjoy the process. Most children respond best when you treat them with confident good humor. For example, occasionally use a silly voice or a song to deliver your message. You might sing "Now it's time to brush your teeth" to the tune of "London Bridge," for example. Stress the benefits of complying over mere dutifulness ("Brush your teeth and then you can pick out your favorite nightgown" instead of "You have to brush your teeth or you'll get cavities" or "Brush your teeth NOW!"). Praise her when she finishes brushing, with "Good listening!"
The good humor, affection, and trust you demonstrate to your child when speaking to her this way will make her want to listen to you, because she'll know that you love her and think she's special. This is an important aspect of even those strategies that require firmness. Giving straightforward, authoritative instructions does not mean you have to be crabby — such messages are much more powerful when accompanied by a hug or a smile. Then your child learns that paying attention to you is worthwhile.
Model good behavior.
Preschoolers will be better listeners if they see that you are a good listener, too. Make it a habit to listen to your child as respectfully as you would to any adult. Look at her when she talks to you, respond politely, and let her finish without interrupting whenever possible. While it may seem like a tall order when you're cooking dinner and your toddler is being especially chatty, try not to walk away from her or turn your back on her while she's talking. As with so many other behaviors, the old saw "Do as I say, not as I do" has no value when teaching your children to listen.