How to Teach Toddlers Obedience

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Obedience Means Compliance

Obedience is the act of complying, or doing what one is told. Since toddlers are at the point of exerting their independence, and frequently want to do their own thing, getting them to obey can be a problem. Unfortunately, the problem does not go away as they get older. It is best to work on it when the child is still a toddler.

Obedience begins with trust. Trust means that there is a relationship with the individual. A toddler that does not trust adults will very likely not be obedient either. To develop a relationship of trust, the adult needs to do what they say they will do. Consistency is the key to development of trust. If you say that you will take the toddler with you when you go somewhere, you need to do it. Backing out or forgetting will result in a loss of trust.

Toddlers also develop trust as their needs for food, clothing, shelter, and love are met. They will be much more likely to comply with directives after teaching if they are not tired, hungry, or cranky because of someone else treating them unkindly.

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Teach Skills First

Once trust is establshed with the toddler, the focus is on the teaching of skills. There must be agreement between the toddler and adult on what the language means. For example: the statement "shut the door" means that we take our hand and push the door shut. The toddler will not understand this the first time it is said, it must be accompanied by action.

After the adult says the statement and shows the action, the toddler needs to be walked through the action, accompanied by the statement. It can only be assumed that the toddler understands when the adult says, "shut the door" and the toddler pushes the door shut. Using the snapshot approach to praise, the adult then says "you shut the door!" The animation with which the praise is given will determine how frequently the toddler repeats the behavior.

The adult can only expect obedience after the system is learned for that particular skill. Each skill must be taught in a similar way, from putting items in the garbage to pushing chairs up to the table after a meal, each skill has its own set of behaviors. Each child has their own way of learning. Some children respond better to words, whereas others respond better to action. Include both for the best results. 

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Continue Teaching Skills

Each skill the toddler needs to learn has to be taught in the same way, with the language and the action being paired together. The adult demonstrating at first, then the toddler walking through it. The repetoire of behaviors grows as the toddler grows. Praise can be withdrawn gradually as the toddler uses the skills consistently. If, for some reason, the toddler does not follow the directive from the adult, consider the following questions:

  • Is the directive something that has not been previously taught? If so, it will need to be explicitly taught in the same way before compliance can be expected.
  • Is the directive given while the toddler is engaged in other activities? If so, it may be necessary to stop the activity before compliance can be expected.
  • Is the timeline for compliance unrealistic? Is the adult in a hurry? Is there a reason that the normal amount of time has not been given?
  • Are the toddler's needs currently met? Have meals been given on schedule? Have there been changes in the routine? Has the toddler had enough sleep?
  • Is the adult manner of delivery different for some reason? Check for tone of voice, language subtleties, body language, etc.

Toddlers are very sensitive people. Their moods change depending upon what is happening in the home. If they are tired, hungry, upset, or experiencing change for some reason, their ability to comply will be hampered. Simply taking the toddler by the hand and walking through the action that needs to be completed with them usually solves the problem. This needs to be done in a kind way, talking about what is expected and why it needs to be done.

Choices and Consequences

Once skills are fully developed and the toddler is simply not doing what they are told, it is necessary to teach choices and consequences. Choices can only be given if the toddler understands the language being used. The terms "either" "or" and "choose" need to be demonstrated. For example, if the toddler has cllimbed up onto the table, and knows how to get down, but refuses to do so, the adult can say, "Get down off the table or I will get you down." The first time the phrase is used, the toddler may not understand, however; once it is demonstrated by the adult picking up the child and putting them on the floor, the toddler will know the next time and will most likely get down independently.

The use of time out is another way to teach obedience. The time out place needs to be a chair turned toward the wall, or a place where the toddler will feel left out if not with the adult, such as the laundry room just off the kitchen. To use it properly, the toddler is given a directive. When they do not comply with the directive, let them know that they will be in time out until they are ready to do it. If the parent prefers to use a time limit, set a timer to let the toddler know that they will have another chance when the time limit is completed.

Take the Time

Taking the time to teach skills while children are young means that as they grow, they are that much further ahead socially. Obedience taught in the home equals obedience in the school and community. Children with special needs take even more time to be taught, with the skills broken down into manageable steps.

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Comments 6 comments

Terri Curtis 5 years ago

I don't have children but your comment about timeline rings true with my dog. He doesn't potty any faster just because I am in a hurry and it is crazy for me to get annoyed with him because I've lost track of time! Good job Denise!


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denise.w.anderson 5 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota Author

I'm glad that you shared this comment. Behavioral priniciples are as much true for animals as for human beings. In fact, most of the original research on behavior was done with animals, then later with humans.


Cherokee 4 years ago

my daughter is one of the most disobedient child I've ever seen… I can't do anything with her.. When I tell her to do something she knows how to do she either looks at me like I'm stupid or she just says no over and over until I eventually have to just either dip it myself and ignore the fact that she just disobeyed me or do it myself and punish her and then she just gets angry with me and acts like she hates me… she is getting out of control… I just don't know what to do anymore I'm at my wits end…


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denise.w.anderson 4 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota Author

Dear Cherokee,

It sounds like you are really frustrated and need some individual assistance. If your daughter is a preschooler and you have already tried the methods in this hub and they are not working, you may want to consider having her tested by a psychologist for an emotional or behavioral disorder. If she is already in school and is having similar difficulties in school, speak to her teacher or the principal about having her tested by the school psychologist. That is how we got help for my fifth daughter when she was having similar issues. She was diagnosed with emotional disorders and we were able to get the assistance we needed.


Erin 4 years ago

My son is 2 and he goes to playschool once a week. But he keeps hitting and never does as he's told, he holds his breath until he's blue to get his own way. He also does this at home. How do I stop him from doing this?


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denise.w.anderson 4 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota Author

Young children need positive attention or they will get it by exhibiting negative behavior. When my children were young, I spent one-on-one time with them each day during the morning. Our routine included getting dressed, making the bed, brushing teeth, combing hair, and doing household tasks together. Their need to feel loved and important was met during this time and then they would play by themselves while I took care of my own needs. Young children need frequent, positive, attention for good behavior. Catch him doing something good!

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