Why do I have to keep telling my toddler “NO’ a hundred times a day? Sam is very smart and he knows that he’s not supposed to play with the TV buttons or empty clothing out of my dresser drawers. In fact, he sometimes gives me a look right before he breaks a rule as if to make sure I notice what he’s about to do! I’m getting very frustrated. How can I get him to behave better?
Being the parent of a toddler is a demanding job. You aren’t alone in thinking that you can’t take your eyes off your child for a minute or he’ll be getting into mischief or worse. Sometimes it helps to begin by looking at the times when you are not having to say “No” to Sam and then notice what is different about the times when you do. Most toddlers are delightful children when they are allowed to play in their own way, at their own pace, and in an environment that is totally safe and accessible to them.
It’s likely that you’ll find that Sam is more cooperative and easier to live with when there are few temptations. It’s usually easier for a toddler to follow the rules when he’s not longing to touch or explore things that are interesting but forbidden. Of course, real life doesn’t allow a parent to shape her life completely to suit a toddler’s ideal. Still, you’ll find that the more you can modify your expectations for Sam’s behavior the happier you both will be.
Let’s talk a bit about reasonable expectations. First, it’s important to know that a toddler is driven by curiosity and the desire to learn about the world he lives in. It’s normal for him want to touch everything he can, and the objects that will be the most interesting to him are the ones he sees that adults find interesting. Why play with a toy instead of a silver box with buttons that make it light up and show pictures and play music? And, even better, when you push the buttons your mom gets really excited! Wow, that’s really fun . . .
Of course Sam can remember that you want him to do or not do certain things. But toddlers have very little ability to control their impulses. It will help Sam if you put away most temptations in cupboards or drawers with latches. If you can’t keep things out of his sight, try to respond to his misbehavior with a boring, predictable, non-dramatic response. For example, if Sam begins to push the buttons on the TV, remind him that it’s not allowed with a brief, “Sam, these buttons are not for you,” and then take him into another room for a few minutes. Don’t get into a discussion, don’t yell, just remove him from the situation. If he’s emptying drawers that you can’t latch, take things of value out of the drawers and make space in one or two of them for things he can play with (or dump on the floor). Then, if he goes into the off-limits drawers, tell him that those drawers aren’t his, but that the others are, and escort him to the ones you’ve chosen for him to play in.
These ideas won’t work if you begin by saying “No” ten times, or if you are giving him threats and warnings. If you wait to take action, he’ll be getting more worked up and by the time you remove him he’ll probably be ready to have a fit. Sometimes toddlers do a little mischief to see what a parent will do to stop them. If the parent doesn’t do anything (and saying “no” isn’t really doing much) a toddler will escalate until the parent really gets up to stop him—but by then, tempers are heating up on both sides.
It’s important to provide Sam with lots of “dos” as well as “don’ts”. A normal toddler will need you to help him get engaged in an activity. You don’t have to play with him all the time, but it’s reasonable to be interacting with him while he plays in the same room with you. Let him “work” on something while you do your own work in the house. Get him out of the house, too. Most toddlers do well interacting with other children in well-supervised playgroups. You may not be able to leave Sam to play on his own with another child, but he may do quite well if you are close by.
Don’t expect your days with Sam to go smoothly hour after hour. Most toddlers will act up when they are tired or hungry. Prevention of conflicts is usually better than figuring out how to respond once you are provoked!