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How to Teach Toddlers Obedience

Updated on March 3, 2020
denise.w.anderson profile image

Wife of a school administrator, mother of seven children, and grandmother of a growing posterity, Denise understands all aspects of family.

Children hunger for adult attention and interaction.
Children hunger for adult attention and interaction. | Source

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.

Love is shown through kindness.
Love is shown through kindness. | Source

Teach Skills First

Once trust is established 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.

Children learn responsibility through hands on teaching.
Children learn responsibility through hands on teaching. | Source

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.

Children respond readily to praise and encouragement.
Children respond readily to praise and encouragement. | Source

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 climbed 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.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Denise W Anderson


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