Asking A Toddler Why They Did Something Wrong

2 years, 2 months.

Dear Jack,

Today when I picked you up from KinderCare, your teacher gave me an incident report to sign:

“Jack threw a toy at a friend, hitting them in the face. Left a good sized mark. Separated them. Had time to himself and we talked about being nice to friends and using words when upset.”

It’s so natural for me to respond by asking you, “Jack… why did you do that? Why did you throw a toy at your friend?”

I realize now that by asking you that, I’m asking you a question you yourself don’t know the answer to.

In fact, you’re sort of relying on me to explain why you did it.

After all, while you can now easily and quickly piece together sentences to communicate things you observe, you’re not really able to communicate to me how you feel unless you are either very happy or very sad. Therefore, asking you to explain why you feel the way you do is even more confusing for you.

Right now Mommy and I are working on teaching you different emotions to describe how you feel. While you don’t quite yet understand “angry,” you do understand “sad.”

So I guess the best way to help you understand why you threw a toy at your friend and hit them in the face is maybe something like this:

“Jack, today you hurt your friend when you threw your toy at them. I think you might have felt angry when you did it. That made your friend sad. Jack, please say you’re sorry to them tomorrow. We hand our toys to our friends instead of throwing them; even if they do something we don’t like.”

You had to go to bed without your usual playtime at your train table, plus you didn’t get to take any of your trains to bed. That’s pretty weird for me… the thought of you going to bed without your little talking die-cast trains.

Ultimately, why you threw a toy at your friend doesn’t change the fact that I need to teach you to not throw a toy at a friend… for any reason.

So now, I don’t care about the why. I care about the how: How can I teach you that what you did was not nice?

By trying to help you use words to describe how you feel, asking you to apologize to your friend, and then by taking away your favorite toys for the night.

(There may be a better way. If there is, I’m open to suggestions from anyone else who happens to be reading this letter.)





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  1. by Karen

    On February 1, 2013 at 5:03 am

    Yes. :)

    I think asking and telling are both appropriate. Emotional intelligence is important. If I ask Anna, “Why?” anything, I usually get a restatement of the question and nothing more.

    “Anna, why did you take Lily’s toy?”
    “Because I take Lily’s toy.”


    “Anna, say,”I took Lily’s tou because I wanted to play with it.”
    /begin conversation about taking vs. sharing.

    BUT at this age, language is developing so rapidly that after enough modeling, it starts to sink in.

    After weeks of these type of answers, she surprised me.
    She tried to climb into her chair herself and the chair fell and upset (and luckily did not hurt) her.

    “Anna, why are you upset?”
    “Because I pull chair and it fall down to ground and surprised me!”

    It pays off. I work with fifth graders who can’t tell me why they did something. We have to try to make this next generation more emotionally intelligent!

  2. by Jeremy

    On February 1, 2013 at 9:52 am

    I needed this post today because our 4-year-old does things that get him in trouble, even though we’ve told him many times not to. I get angry enough to probably be pretty scary to him, but I hope this post will help me rein it in and be patient with him.

  3. by Nick Shell

    On February 3, 2013 at 12:29 pm

    Jeremy, this week has definitely been a challenge for me in controlling my anger. For me, I am constantly David Banner refraining from becoming The Hulk.

  4. by acoustic travel guitars

    On February 5, 2013 at 12:30 pm

    It’s wonderful that you are getting thoughts from this post as well as from our discussion made at this time.

  5. by Sofia

    On February 6, 2013 at 9:50 am

    I only wonder if applying a consequence like Jack’s of going to bed without his toys is something he can really associate with what happened many hours ago and at school. Could anyone clarify this for me? He might not even be aware of why he’s been sent to bed without his trains, even if you explain it to him.
    I also would like to add, that making children repeat something might not exactly help them learn how to communicate, unless they are learning cause-effect in this case, which is what I think happened with Anna. Most probably in many other ways she started paying attention to this kind of dialogue, rather than repetition leading to real communication. Don’t you think?

  6. by Chris

    On February 6, 2013 at 11:57 pm

    I am grateful for the conversation going on here. At our house, we are learning these communication lessons and more with our soon-to-be 3 year old. I struggle with the development of a toddler’s understanding of the language they use and hear. (i.e. does he understand that what he did at school several hours ago was wrong? or does he really understand cause and effect to know that because he isn’t playing with his trains correctly (sharing) I will not let him play with them for the rest of the day?). We use language like:

    “did you get scared? are you hurt? I know you feel sad that you can’t play with your trains right now, but you should share them with your friends when they come to visit?”

    I teach third grade and my students don’t have the language skills they need to fully communicate how they feel, but like my son I want to help them identify and acknowledge what they are feeling and connect that to an action either positive or negative. I want my son to know that when he is sad about something it’s ok and he can tell me what made him sad; when he is angry, he cannot touch anyone; when he is happy, he can give hugs and high fives, laugh, dance, and be silly.

    best of luck parents!