How to get your toddler to listen to you. (No, really.)
When you’re trying to get out the door for work in the morning, there’s nothing more glacial than a toddler in the bathroom.
My 3-year-old, Faith, likes to strike a yoga pose after she gets off the potty, with her hands on the floor and her bum in the air. When I finally get her upright, she often refuses to pull up her pants, which either results in a standoff — “You do it!” “No, you do it!” — or me just giving in and pulling them up.
Washing her hands involves more stalling — playing with the faucet, complaining about the water temperature.
How on earth to get her to listen and hurry up already?
I decided to turn to the experts: Julie King and Joanna Faber, authors of the 2017 book “How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life With Children Ages 2-7.” The book is an offshoot of the 1980 classic “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk,” which was co-written by Joanna’s mother.
I laid out the situation for them. The stalling. The helplessness. The sneaking out of bed multiple times a night. The crying. The whining.
Oh dear lord, the whining. Nothing makes Faith whine like TV shows and treats — as in, I want them, and I want them now. King and Faber are big into acknowledging feelings, so they advised me to first demonstrate that I hear her, and then try writing down what she wants on a piece of paper to be redeemed later. “Even little kids who can’t read are really impressed when you write down their words and read it back to them,” King said.
I tried this the other night when we got home. We were barely in the door when Faith said, “Can I watch a show?” which quickly devolved into a plaintive, “Just one show, just one show.”
I was ready: “It’s fun to watch TV, isn’t it? You really love ‘My Little Pony.’ ”
She paused. Then started up again.
So I went to my desk and found a marker. For the next 15 minutes, we sat on the floor and made tickets, with badly drawn TVs and the words “1 Show for Faith.” But then I had to make dinner. And she still wanted to watch a show — and now she had four tickets saying she could.
I had no moves left. So she got her show.
Not exactly one for the win column. Faith’s dad, wise man that he is, said maybe she could earn the tickets for good behavior or being helpful. Or maybe we could use them to get her to stop sneaking out of bed.
About that: Faber suggested sitting down with Faith and involving her in the solution. Acknowledge that she doesn’t like to stay in bed, but also that she needs to go to sleep so she’s not tired. Then ask, “What can you do when you feel like getting out of bed?” and make a list incorporating her ideas.
That’s another big anthem from the book: Put the child in charge.
When it comes to acting helpless — “carry me,” “take my shoes off” — Faber and King said that Faith might just want more attention. One way to do that is to pretend she’s a baby, they said: rock her, sing to her, give her some undivided TLC. Or find a way to be playful, pretending that her shoes are too hard to take off and you need her help. If she insists on being carried upstairs, give her three special raisin “pills” to give her the strength to climb the stairs herself.
“If we can see it as just a conflict of needs and they’re needing a little bit more of our attention, a little bit more of our touch, a little bit more of our playful connection, and we can find a way to give that, often they’ll move off and be able to be more independent,” Faber said.
Another good way to get kids to do what we want in a timely fashion: Make it into a game. Can you wash your hands before I get the food on the table? Letting them win is key, the authors said, maybe even fake-crying when we lose.
Demonstrating the concept of time can work, too. Play four songs and tell them that’s the amount of time they have to eat breakfast. Or get a timer that uses a slowly shrinking sliver of color to show the passage of time. That way they can literally see the time slipping away.
The other night when I got home from work, I put some of these suggestions to the test.
I had downloaded a Kids Timer app, which shows the passage of time with a shrinking circle of blue or red, and decided to see whether it could reduce the epic dinnertime routine. Faith had already been sitting in front of a plate of salmon and broccoli and sweet potato fries for 30 minutes by the time I walked in the door, so I whipped out my phone, set it for 12 minutes, and set it in front of her. She was intrigued, but still not eating — until I threw in a prize. If she finished eating before it went off, she could get a TV ticket for the next night.
Within 15 minutes (I paused it to allow for the last few bites), the food was gone. I admit, she was on my lap, and I was occasionally feeding her, but she ate!
She was in no hurry to go upstairs to take a bath — until I challenged her to a race. Problem solved.
When it was time to get out of the tub, Faith lay down on her stomach and refused to stand up. I started raising my voice, then remembered I had options. I reached down and pretended to pick her up, saying “Oh, you’re so heavy, can you help me?” grunting and groaning for extra effect. And she stood up. A miracle!
At bedtime, as she jumped up and down singing “This Old Man,” I bribed her again: “If you lie down and don’t get up and run around, you can have another TV ticket.” And that night, there was no pitter-patter of little feet above our head.
I asked Faber and King about the TV bribery, figuring they would not approve. And they didn’t, noting that it would be better to give her a set amount of tickets every day, putting her in control and making it clear she can only watch so much.
There goes that strategy.
I have had a few successes based on what I learned in their book. To get Faith to stop begging for a “last, last” story every night, I started giving her more notice, and incorporating her language. “This is the second-to-last book,” “This is the last-last book.”
She also likes it when I talk to her in a robot voice when I’m trying to get her dressed or pick up her toys.
Nothing works every time. She still dawdles and cries and doesn’t listen. But now I feel like I have a few tools to pull out before I resort to my “mom voice.” And that makes all of us a lot less whiny.