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Help! My Toddler Won’t Listen…

Ah, the toddler phase. You either love it or hate it, yes? (Confession: We LOVE it!) There’s just something to that mischievous grin, the sparkle in the eye, the testing of every boundary. While we’d all admit parenting a toddler can be physically and emotionally exhausting, engaging cooperation in a 2-3 year old is far easier to practice with just a few handy tips in your arsenal…



Here’s the truth. When it comes to parenting, many of us use the terms “listening” and “obeying” interchangeably. Perhaps we asked our 2-year-old to put his dish in the sink and he threw a tantrum. In that scenario, did he not listen? Or did he not obey? Which is it, and how do we know?

A child who isn’t listening simply needs a more effective method of communication. But a child who isn’t obeying will need a more effective method of engaging cooperation. In short: there’s a very big difference!

But before we dive deeper, can we rock the boat for a second? Our goal as parents and homeschoolers is not blanket obedience or rote compliance. Our aim isn’t to bribe, trick, or cajole our kids into behaving. Our goal is simple: to communicate respectfully and humanly as we guide our children toward lives of strong character.

In other words, we’ll rarely recommend reward charts or star stickers to “get” your kids to comply with your every demand. No, we believe in something far more long-lasting…



First things first: how can we more effectively communicate so our toddlers can better listen to us? Remember 3 words: eyes, No’s, mouth.

Eyes – Give your toddler plenty of eye contact, especially when making a request for cooperation or giving new information. When you can, crouch down to his/her level. e.g., “Can I see your eyes? I know you’re still playing; you have 15 minutes before we’ll have to start cleaning up.” Not only does eye contact help ensure active listening, but it also sets a standard for how your child will learn to communicate with you.

No’s – When possible, turn ‘No’s into a ‘Yes,’ Instead of, “No, we can’t go to the park until Dad gets home,” try, “Yes, we can go to the park after Dad gets home.” Crazy fact: A UCLA survey once reported that the average toddler hears the word, ‘No!’ more than 400 times a day! By offering a “Yes” when we can, our toddlers are less likely to focus on the perceived injustice of yet another limit and they’re more likely to tune into what we’re actually saying.

Mouth – Use your normal voice. Toddlers are still learning our language, and their goal is to communicate effectively with us. By resisting the temptation to dumb down our words or voice with “baby talk”, we’re modeling future skills they’ll rely on for life.

Now that we’ve strengthened our communication, we’re ready to move toward building stronger cooperation



Agency, or the power of choice, is a key factor in cooperation for all of us – and toddlers are no different! Think about it: are you more excited to visit a restaurant you’ve chosen or one that’s chosen for you? And once there, would you rather order your own meal, or be force-fed someone else’s dinner?

Believe it or not, this is why agency is so closely linked with cooperation. It’s difficult to perfectly comply to a request when we haven’t been invited into the decision-making process. Whenever possible, engage cooperation by offering your toddler a choice, not a command.

More specifically, there are 3 major choices you can hand over to your toddler day after day:


  1. The Choice of Circumstance
    The choice of circumstance allows your child the power of choosing when or where to complete a task, i.e. “Do you want to eat your dinner outside on the deck or inside at the kitchen counter? Do you want to visit Grandma before or after the dentist?”  While circumstantial choices seem miniscule to you, they’re monumental to your toddler! For someone who rarely gets a say in the daily details, being given the opportunity to offer input boosts your child’s sense of pride, autonomy, and independence.
  2. The Choice of Control
    The choice of controls allows your toddler the power of choosing how to complete a task: either independently, or with help. Repeat this magic phrase: “Do you want me to help you, or can you do it yourself?” By giving your child the choice of control, you’re offering him/her both the trust and the opportunity to practice an independent skill apart from you, once ready.
  3. The Choice of Capacity
    The choice of capacity allows your toddler the power of choosing what task to complete, i.e. “Do you want to put on the red pants or the blue pants? Do you want to feed the dog or the cat?” Just as you and I have different preferences on different days, so, too, do our toddlers!

Don’t forget: adding a bit of slapstick toddler humor to an everyday task is a surefire way to engage cooperation and help your toddler “listen.” Sure, laughter often takes a back seat to the constant urgency of early parenting. But toddlers are born hungry for comedy. They’re still making sense of the world, and with a bit of hard-earned fun, we can help offer them a brighter (far more enjoyable!) outlook than doldrums and drudgery. Here are a few starters to spark some ideas:

  • The next time you’re getting ready to leave the house, put your shoes on your hands instead of your feet. Announce that you’re ready to go, and wait for him/her to notice something’s awry.
  • When you fill your child‘s water glass with ice, pretend the ice cubes burned and scorched and singed your poor, poor fingers!
  • Substitute wrong words into everyday commands, e.g., “Charlie! Time to eat your dog food!”

Not only does humor engage cooperation with your toddler, but it’s also an important element to a healthy learning environment. Did you know that when our kids laugh, the flow of blood increases to their brains? Laughter helps kids release tension and promotes focus for the task at hand, increasing the brain’s receptivity to learning.



Now that you’ve learned the difference between listening & obeying and how to effectively address both, it’s time to put it all into practice! This week, try “Eyes, No’s & Mouth’ and The 3 Choices with just a dash of humor in the mix. We nearly guarantee a sunnier household!


p.s. Want to practice these tips alongside a community of parents just like you? Join Other Goose to try daily lessons for your toddler, download printables, swap tips in the forums, track your parenting progress and more – all FREE for 2 weeks! Hop in here.