This is a question parents often ask, and I completely understand where they are coming from. It is also phrased as, “When will they understand the word, ‘no?’” or “At what age will they do what I say?” However you ask the question, basically what parents are wanting is cooperative children. And who wouldn’t? It’s easy to see why we want our children to listen and act according to our instructions. But have you ever asked yourself what exactly would help your child to listen?
Allow me to explain. I once observed a mother during a play group where we moms were chatting and the toddlers were playing nearby. As is the often the case in this scenario, one mother (or more) would have to stop to correct or redirect a child amidst their play. For this one mother, this happened several times between her and her child during this time. Feeling frustrated that her child wasn’t listening, she directed a rhetorical question at us, basically the question laid out above.
To me, the answer was obvious. Her child was not being belligerently disobedient (though it may have appeared that way), but was just engaging in normal toddler limit testing. But that’s not why they weren’t listening. The whole time during this particular play group (I have no idea what interactions were like outside of this setting) the only time the mother spoke to this child was to correct them. Not once was there an encouraging statement, a compliment, or anything that would help the child feel connected to their mother.
I do not say this to say the mother was in the wrong, but only to point out that she hadn’t helped give that toddler any reason to want to listen to her! Would you want to listen to someone that was constantly telling you what you were doing was wrong or taking things away from you that you were enjoying? I don’t think so!
|Just think of them as constantly conducting |
experiments: What happens if I do this?
So what does help toddlers to cooperate? In a word: connection! The more connected you feel to a person, the more likely you are to want to follow their directions or heed their counsel. Granted, toddlers are known for constantly testing limits, and will do so even when they feel connected to their caregiver - it’s basically their job description (and developmentally what their brain is asking of them). But the more connected they feel to a caregiver results in more cooperation from the toddler.
It may or may not be obvious how to connect to your toddler; I will give some examples. You can notice when they are exploring and learning something new, making statements or asking questions about it. Show interest in what they are doing. (Author’s note: self-directed play/learning is a great thing and we shouldn’t always interrupt it with our queries or suggestions, but in the context of connection, if your child is acting out, this is one of those things you can do to reconnect.)
What does this look like? In the context of a playgroup, my son will occasionally indicate to me something he’s doing, and wants me to acknowledge (“Are you driving that car around?” “That toy looks fun!” “Are you going to go down the slide?”). As quick as that he’s back to playing, and knows I’m still interested in what he’s doing. Granted, that can be difficult to do if you are busy talking to other moms or caring for a baby and are distracted, but try to acknowledge when your child wants your attention, because it may just take a brief moment of time.
Since I mentioned caring for a baby, I will give an example related to that. My second little one isn’t here yet, but I have watched babies while caring for my son. Sometimes I notice him having a hard time (others might refer to this as acting out) because I am holding the baby (and therefore not holding or otherwise attending to him). To acknowledge this, I will occasionally ask him if he needs a hug. Often he’ll say yes and we take a moment to have a little cuddle. Other times he says no, and then I ask about what he’s feeling, if he’s having a hard time because of the baby or if something else is bothering him. Once we get to the bottom of things (and you may not always find a reason, because children don’t always know why they are upset) we try to fix or otherwise validate what he’s going through. There is almost always an immediate improvement in behavior afterward.
As far as other ways to connect, it may require more time on your part: reading a book, playing with blocks or dolls, going outside: basically spending time with your child however they like to do that with you. Granted, where you are at a given moment may not immediately facilitate this kind of connection. But acknowledge that you are willing to do that with them when you get the chance. Make them a promise! And then keep it, and your child will learn that you value connecting with them and prioritizing them. They may still be upset in the moment, but you can always acknowledge their feelings so they know that you care.
The ultimate take home message I want everyone to get is that we need to not look at our child as “bad” for not listening. Doing that only creates more misbehavior, and usually only makes you look like the “bad guy” to your kids (due to constant correction and discipline). Rather, if your child is having a hard time listening, think of needs they may have that are not getting met and try to help them however you can. (You can think of the acronym H.A.L.T. - hungry, angry, lonely, tired - the same acronym to use to know when NOT to go shopping, at least if you want to avoid unnecessary purchases.) Think of you and your child as on the same team - how can you best assist them in having the best behavior possible? Then there will be less of you making unheeded demands and more of working together to make everyone happy. It is totally possible! As we prioritize connection over cooperation, ultimately we will have more of both. Or as Thomas S. Monson would say, “Never let a problem to be solved become more important than a person to be loved.”
I do not wish to say that we should never correct our children. Proper limit setting and keeping is absolutely in our job description. However, I do wish to emphasize that our positive interactions with and statements toward our children should greatly outnumber the number of times we have to correct if we really hope to see cooperation. Expecting unquestioning obedience from our children without first working on our relationship with them will either result in rebellious children, or children that obey only out of fear. Parenting and disciplining with love and empathy, on the other hand, will result in children that obey because they know that we care for them and their feelings and are coming from a position of connection. The more we connect and love, the more our children can trust us. The more our children can trust us, the more likely they will be cooperative.
A note about toddlers: again, this is a stage where they are constantly testing limits, and even when they feel connected they will “disobey” because they want to see what will happen. They repeat this behavior because the want to see if we will have the same response every time. So while connecting with them is of utmost importance, it is also important to, when necessary, set a limit calmly, confidently, and consistently. If we react with frustration or in any other emotionally charged manner, this will make engaging in the behavior more interesting to the toddler. Instead, when a toddler does something you don’t want them to, you calmly remind them what the limit is, what the consequence is (natural consequences are best, like taking a toy away they aren’t playing with properly, unnatural consequences are more likely to result in resentment rather than “learning a lesson.”) and follow through. If they are upset, EMPATHIZE. Don’t be sorry about setting the limit, but do be sorry that it makes them sad and help them feel that. That can immediately start to help a toddler feel reconnected and not like you are the “bad guy.”
So there you go! When will children start to listen? As soon as you start to connect.