January 3, 2019
Communicating with your child can be challenging: they are still learning how to express themselves, and you are doing your best to keep them happy and satisfied in the meantime. The language you use can make this translation easier. In the spur of the moment, amid tears and screams, it’s impossible to be discerning about everything you say–we’re parents, we get it! But when you can use them, these tactics will help.
Here are some ideas to keep in your mental toolbox as friendly reminders. Use them in whatever way works for your unique family.
- Remind rather than demand: In place of “Sit down!” you might say “In our home, we sit at the table when we eat.” Using a phrase like this to remind children of the desired behaviors or rules can be more effective than issuing commands. It will help avoid power struggles between you and your child, and will make them feel more independent and in control of their environment.
- Acknowledge effort and actions specifically: Saying “Good job!” is kind (and accurate!), but it can be even more effective to acknowledge your child’s effort by saying something like: “You worked so hard!” When you comment on their effort and actions in specifics, it is more meaningful and encouraging. For example, you might say: “You washed your hands until they were super clean!” This helps build a growth mindset in your child: the understanding that they can learn and improve through hard work. It also emphasizes intrinsic motivation (hard work and accomplishment) over extrinsic motivation (praise and rewards). Your child will do hundreds of things daily that you want to praise because they are so amazing! Recognizing their hard work is so important, and will be better received if you diversify your compliments. “Good job” eventually loses its value amid all the praiseworthy things your little one does.
- Tell your child what they can do: Toddlers like to hear what they can do rather than what they can’t (just like adults!), and this adjustment will encourage self-confidence and independence. Instead of telling them “Don’t get paint on the table!” you might say “You can paint on the white paper.” Toddlers are infamous for expressing their will in many ways – very often with the word “no,” and for testing limits set in their environment. When they hear “Don’t throw the ball from your tracker!” they want to test that boundary and its consistency. But if they hear “You can throw your soccer ball,” there is no limit to test because permission was explicitly given.
- Replace yes or no questions with a choice: As mentioned above, toddlers often go through a phase where their response to almost every question is: “No!” This is completely normal, but can be mitigated by phrasing things a certain way. For example, instead of saying: “Do you want to go to the park?” you might say “What would you like to do today?” This gives them a feeling of agency, and less opportunity to reject anything that you offer. Another alternative is giving them two choices. For example: “We can go to the park or the zoo today. Which would you like?” Sometimes a question that is too open-ended will prevent a new or hesitant speaker from voicing their opinion. When toddlers feel like they have some control over different aspects of their lives, they will feel less compelled to challenge you, and will feel more satisfied.
- Use positive discipline: Instead of telling your child not to do something, show them how to do it correctly. If you notice your little one using a toy in a less-than-constructive way, you can say “May I show you a different way?” This encourages a dialogue around how we use toys and materials at home and how to keep them nice or beautiful. If our only way of trying to change a behavior is saying “no” or “please stop,” these phrases will become white noise to your little one. This can render them ineffective during the times you really need to use them, like in a parking lot or public space where your child is at immediate risk.
- Use real language: Call a spade a spade! In other words, call things by their real names with your little one. If they use a different name or abbreviation for something, like “nana” for “banana,” correct them indirectly. For instance, if they say something like “I want nana.” reply “Sure, let me get you a banana.” This teaches children the language used in the real world, and helps them gain independence. It also demonstrates respect. We use real language with children because we honor them as fellow human beings. By correcting indirectly, you don’t hinder your child’s confidence to speak & try new words, but subconsciously instill the correct pronunciation.
- Use specific language: When you name things for your child on walks, around the house, or in the store, try to use the most specific language you can. For example, instead of “Flower,” say “Rose,” or instead of “Doggie,” say “German Shepherd.” This is a fun exercise as parents, and helps your little one differentiate all the world has to show them!