The art of persuading a toddler

Lately, I've realized a few things about my little Red Chief. At the age of two and a half, he's developing strong opinions of his own, and he's finally acquired most of the language tools he needs to make his will known.

When he was younger, it was so easy to just pick him up and make him do what he needed to do, especially since I usually couldn't tell exactly what it was that he wanted. But Red Chief is now at the point at which it is usually easier to go along with what he wants rather than make him do what I want.

The problem is that what he wants isn't always what he should have. Red Chief would happily live on suckers and hot dogs, wear no clothes, and spend the day playing disassembling electronics if I let him. But I can't. There are compromises I can make--I can let him sift the flour when we're baking together even though I know it will make a big mess, I can let him wear pajamas all day, I can let him eat an orange instead of an apple--but I can't compromise on everything. He has to brush his teeth, he has to wear a diaper, and he has to sit in his car seat when he rides in the car.

Lately, as I've been trying to focus more on him and less on myself, I've really come to see that he has a strong will of his own that needs to be respected. I'm not planning on letting him become a spoiled, disobedient little boy if I can help it, but I can give him more choice over what he does each day.

Here are some things that have helped me to persuade rather than to force:
  • Give him a choice: crayons or paint? tortilla or bread? walk up the stairs or hop up like a frog?
  • Ask myself, "Does this really matter?" Will it really matter in the long run if he wants to put socks on his hands? Probably not. I am trying to pick my battles more carefully and focus only on what's really important.
  • Give him chances to feel in control: let him make the rules when we play together, let him teach the Family Home Evening lesson sometimes, let him choose where he wants to sit at the dinner table.
  • Be consistent on things that are important. If we make important tasks into habits and routines, he's less likely to rebel, because it's just what we do every day. If I make exception even once, he's going to ask to do it again every day for the next few weeks.
  • Sing a song about it. If I ask him to pick up his toys, he does nothing, but if I start singing the "Clean Up" song, he gets right to work. Sometimes this calls for creativity, but he doesn't care if a song is terrible and doesn't rhyme as long as he can understand what it's about.
  • Do things together and by example. If I want Red Chief to sit at the table to eat lunch, I probably shouldn't eat mine in front of the computer. If I want him to go upstairs for his bath, I need to go up with him. If I want him to use his napkin, I need to show him how I use mine.
  • Teach first. Sometimes I realize that I'm asking Red Chief to do the impossible: I ask him to do do something I've never taught him to do. If I want Red Chief to pick up his books when he's done with them, I need to show him how to put them back. Many times.
  • Put my wishes second. I have a rather strong will myself, and I can't let my pride get in the way of Red Chief's well-being. When I am able to look past myself, I often see that Red Chief actually has a valid concern, and is not just being naughty.
Since toddlers are smart little things, I'm constantly having to change strategies and come up with new ideas. It's exhausting! How do/did you persuade your toddlers to do what they should? Any creative ideas?


  1. I think you are doing some good things with Red Chief. Things that can be built upon later in life.

    You have set boundaries for him-some things are negotiable, some are not. My husband and I did the same thing with our two daughters. We would ask them to imagine they were horses (they both LOVE horses) in a pasture (established boundary). We explained what was in the "pasture"-the "non-negotiables" and some privileges. They could do whatever they wanted in the pasture, but there would be consequences for "jumping the fence", such as a tiny pasture. There was a learning curve when they were little, but we were happy with the set boundary, as everyone understood expectations. As they got older, trust continued to be built, the pasture was enlarged and more privileges/trust items were put in the pasture. In her teen years, my oldest had a much larger pasture than many of her peers. Trust had been built and she knew the boundaries. I hope this makes sense.

    I think you are on the right track!

  2. Growing up my parents always approached their children's determined attitudes with the thought Is this something that could effect their eternal salvation or their safety? If not we were allowed to choose even when it wasn't necessarily what they would have reccommended (I look back on some of the picutres of clothes I picked out for myself as a child and cringe at my matching abilities) but I believe that their approach helped make me more confident of myself in the long run and better able to make a competent decision.

  3. Like you mentioned it's picking your battles and giving options. One big battle for us right now is Mo doesn't want his diaper changed when he needs it. So I give him a few minutes and wait for him to ask for something. When he says he wants to watch John Deere, then he has to be changed first. He doesn't like it, but he's quickly learned that it's a good trade off.

  4. It is so hard to remember to do those things instead of just forcing them to do what you want them to do. The biggest thing I try to do, like you mentioned, is to give my son a choice. But to make sure both choices are something I am OK with. Not a choice between whether he is ready to go to bed or not, but a choice of if he wants to walk up the stairs or if he wants me to carry him. It works most of the time.

  5. I just have to thank you for this post. I am a first time mom of a toddler, and I have lots to learn. I'm grateful for all the comments too.

  6. You know I am really going through this all right with you at the same time. I am really enjoying your post. I really have been inspired to make sure I continue to focus on them more when it is so easy to be side tracked by daily life.

  7. all sensible ideas. I remember offering Boo an icecream on a very hot day if he stopped playing in the sandpit and came to the shops with me. My mum said it was 'bribery', but I figure that most people wouldn't go to work without money as an incentive, so I was simply offering an incentive to Boo for doing what I asked. I don't think this is spoiling, just sensible compromise.

  8. Isn't limited choice wonderful? It has to be one of my favorite tools. The toddlers feel empowered and since both choices are acceptable to me, it's win win. A friend once told me that while it was difficult raising headstrong children, at least later peer pressure should be less of a worry. Your child is lucky to have such a conscientious and aware mother. I need to work on my own self-awareness.

  9. What a very good list. While I value knowing that my children will obey me, it's important to keep life pleasant for all of us as well.

  10. I love the idea of giving them choices. A lady I babysat for offered her son the choice of when to leave, when he didn't want to leave. SHe'd say, "ok, we can go in one minute or in five minutes, you choose." And that would usually take care of it. He knew that when his time was up, it was time to go.