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Talking with Toddlers

“We must be so careful in speaking to a child. What we say or don’t say, how we say it and when is so very, very important in shaping a child’s view of himself or herself. But it is even more important in shaping that child’s faith in us and their faith in God.”

– Elder Holland, The Tongue of Angels

Lucy was the kind of baby that made other parents envy. She was sleeping through the night at six weeks, and her loudest cries were just a decibel louder than my speaking voice. When other 18-month olds were throwing tantrums, Lucy was memorizing her ABCs and numbers.

When Lucy turned two, Andy and I laughed at the misnomer “terrible twos.” Lucy was verbal. She was a sweet big sister. She was potty training with ease, and she was finally eating dinner without a fight.

Then, one day in March (when Lucy was two years and 5 months old), my husband turned to me and said, “I think she’s finally two.” He didn’t say “terrible” because he’s earning a PhD in Human development and we don’t say such things . . . but we both knew what he meant.

Now our loquacious girl readily reverts from words to wailing. Tantrums are the norm. And she pops the question “WHY?” with confounding frequency and in such irrelevant places that my blood pressure rises just hearing it.

So. (Deep breath)

I’ve been brushing up on my communication skills with Lucy in mind. Today I remembered a photocopied article* that floats around in my drawer of unfiled things. The content is brilliant! I thought I’d share, just in case your toddler is also—erm, not exactly terrible, but perhaps a bit whinier than you bargained for.

1. “State suggestions and directions in a positive rather than negative form.”

This means telling your child what to DO rather than what NOT to do. When you give directions in the positive, you tell your child what good behavior looks like, which increases his or her ability and inclination to obey. For instance, it is better to say “It’s time for a bite of peas” than “stop playing with your fork.”

2.  “Give a choice only when you are prepared to leave the choice to the child.”

Autonomy is ESSENTIAL to child development, so don’t tease your child by dangling choices that you don’t intend to fulfill. For instance, I’m guilty of saying, “Do you want to come with me to the store, or do you want to stay at home by yourself?” I say it to entice Lucy to hurry up, but it’s obviously an empty threat. I’m not going to leave my two-year old at home, so I shouldn’t say so. If I can’t follow-through with a choice, then I shouldn’t present it as an option.

On the other hand, when I give Lucy legitimate choices (ex: “Do you want to wash your hands or take off your jacket first?”), I simultaneously reinforce MY behavioral expectations and give HER control over the situation. It’s a win-win.

3. “Use your voice as a teaching tool. Your words and tone of voice should help the child feel confident and reassured.”

Tone of voice. Whew. This is the new and greater law of parenting. Sometimes my voice indicates a lot more anger than eating one’s soup should warrant.

Here again, I think it’s useful to quote from the article: “The most effective speech is simple and direct and slow. Decreasing speed is more effective than raising pitch.” I find this last statement doubly true, because slowing down reduces MY stress and helps Lucy feel safe and understood.

4. “Define limits clearly and maintain them consistently. . . there will be few ‘no’s, but they will be clearly defined.”

Andy and I sometimes create unnecessary rules that have more to do with our own annoyances rather Lucy’s behaviors. This is ineffective and unfair.

I’ve heard that “No” is one of the first words that most toddlers learn—because they hear it so often! My goal as a parent is to say “Yes” to as many of Lucy’s ideas and activities as I possibly can, and to treat the “No’s” with exacting consistency.

Minimize the rules, but be consistent about them.

5. Try something novel.

This bit of advice isn’t from the same dog-eared article as the rest, but it’s essential. When I was stuck in a cycle of negative co-rumination with a friend, a wise college roommate advised me to “bring something novel to the table.” The gist is to break out of unwanted communication patterns by doing something totally unexpected. In parenting, this usually translates to PLAYING instead of getting angry–

Example: Lucy ignores me if I say, “Lucy, put on your shoes,” but she responds promptly and joyfully if I say, “Cinderella, here are your glass slippers!”

Example: Lucy won’t eat dinner without a fight…unless we do “singing bites” (each bite results in a short musical stanza from mom or dad).

Example: Lucy ignores my prompts to prepare for bed if I make demands. But if I growl and chase like a tiger, she is giggly and compliant.

In close, a pep talk and a testimony.

First, we can do it. We can be direct. We can be honest. We can be kind. We can be the emotionally mature adults that our emotionally uneducated children need.

Secondly, we can’t do it without the Spirit. God will gently chasten us so that we can gently chasten our children. More often then not, it is our own communicative foibles that predicate their misbehaviors. He’ll correct us if we’ll ask Him to.

Our words, like our deeds, should be filled with faith and hope and charity, the three great Christian imperatives so desperately needed in the world today. With such words, spoken under the influence of the Spirit, tears can be dried, hearts can be healed, lives can be elevated, hope can return, confidence can prevail.

* Tips 1-4 come from a chapter entitled: Initial Support Through Guides to Speech and Action. But now you must forgive me because that is all the sourcing I can provide. May you benefit from my lawless distribution of good advice.

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Jenny Harris
Jenny is a star-gazing, book-clubbing mother of two. She has a Master’s degree in Human Development and Family Studies, which is mildly comical (but also a boon in parenting and relationships). Her kids will attest that she’s crazy about reading aloud, time out of doors, and creative play. Her family’s goal is the “abundant life,” as prescribed by Jesus. You can read more posts by Jenny here.

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