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Talking to a toddler for more than a minute is like whispering at a rock concert -- you simply will not be heard. Not only do toddlers have a very limited attention span, but even kids who speak very well don't always fully comprehend what's being said to them. So trying to get a child under 3 to obey verbal instructions is really setting yourself (and them) up for failure. The truth is, your toddler will be "good" when he happens to feel like doing what you want him to do, so get creative. For example, if you want him to stop playing and come upstairs to take a bath, get him into the idea by offering to race him up the stairs, or let him sail boats in the tub. Suddenly he's heard what you said, knows what you want, and wants it too. And he didn't come upstairs "for Mommy" or because he's a "good boy," he did it because you made him want to -- and that's the best possible reason. Remember, toddlers don't know right from wrong, so they cannot be "good" or "naughty" in any moral sense. But if you lead and guide your son into behaving as you want him to, you'll not only have less trouble right now, but your son will grow up seeking your approval and feeling cooperative, which means he'll be easier to handle later on when he actually has to choose between good and poor behavior, many times when you're not around.
That said, toddlers are capable of understanding the word "no" and it is important to discipline them when they do blatantly unacceptable things like hit, bite, kick, punch, or throw things. But make the exchange short. Say, "no hitting" firmly, but without yelling, and put your child in time-out or in a safe place away from you. Go back in two minutes, hug him, and give him another chance to do the right thing.
Copyright 2002. Updated 2009
The answers from our experts are for educational purposes only. Please always refer to your child's pediatrician and mental health expert for more in-depth advice.