When my 18-month-old son scrawled on the table with his crayons, I was really shocked. After all, we'd gone through this just three days before when I told him the table wasn't for coloring. We cleaned it together, and I thought that he'd understood. Had he forgotten? Or was he just testing me?
One of the reasons toddlers break rules is because they can be impulsive, but it's also because their memory isn't fully developed yet, says Caroline DiBattisto, M.D., a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at the Georgia Health Sciences University, in Augusta. "Young kids may recall some things but not others -- and it's often random what gets forgotten and what doesn't," Dr. DiBattisto explains. After all, children this age are just beginning to use and understand many words, and people's names, objects, places, and house rules are all made up of words. In order to remember these things, toddlers have to understand the vocabulary you're using, Dr. DiBattisto notes. Once they have a better grasp of the basic language, they'll be better able to follow directions, remember your neighbor down the street, or keep in mind that it's fine to draw on a piece of paper -- but not on the table, the floor, or the walls. Although it takes a while to build cognitive skills, you can help your child's brain neurons forge solid new connections by making an effort to reinforce what he is learning and providing developmentally stimulating activities. Get started with these memory-wise tips.
Say It Again
Yesterday, when your child played with the dog's food, you told her to leave it alone -- so why is she over there splashing in his water bowl? If you feel like a broken record when it comes to explaining things, you're not alone. Toddlers are still trying to make sense out of the world, and your child may be testing her own understanding more than your patience, says Jill Uhlenberg, Ph.D., professor of early childhood education at the University of Northern Iowa, in Cedar Falls. "Your child might honestly be wondering, 'Well, it wasn't okay to play with Sparky's food. Is it okay to splash around in his water bowl?'" So be prepared to reiterate directions often. Just be sure to keep your statements simple ("These bowls are for the dog to eat and drink out of. We play with toys."). The last thing your little one needs is a boatload of extra words clouding things up.
The power of repetition doesn't just apply to learning rules. Doing the same activity builds familiarity for your kid, whether it's helping her master using a spoon by guiding her through the motions at every meal, or recall Grandpa's face by opening a photo album or chatting on Skype every few days. The more your child is exposed to something, the more solid her memories will become.
Liven Things Up
A shortcut to helping toddlers remember just about anything more easily: Add a bit of fun. "Kids are quicker to recall activities they enjoy," explains Dr. Uhlenberg. Look for ways to turn an everyday routine into something entertaining. For example, doing a silly dance move every time you drop your child's clothes into the hamper will help him learn that's where dirty laundry goes -- and he'll want to join the action and boogie along with you.
Amping up the laugh factor can be especially helpful for friends or relatives who only visit every once in a while and are met with a shy kid who doesn't seem to know who they are. If your best childhood friend spends one-on-one time with your toddler, she'll make a bigger impression if she does what he enjoys most (like playing with the train set or having a tickle war). Once your friend has gone home, be sure to recap those fun times with your kid, which will help solidify memories of her.
Employ the Sound of Music
If you're embarrassed to admit you've got more toddler songs than Lady Gaga on your iPod, we have a good excuse for you: A child will remember information more easily when it's paired with a melody than when it's presented alone, according to a recent study from Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. So rocking out to a song about brushing your teeth is more than just a fun way to bond -- it's a great technique for helping your child remember that she needs to do it twice a day for a healthy smile. Made-up tunes work well too; if you want to help her remember the names of her favorite foods or that Uncle Jeff and Aunt Ashley are coming to visit, try belting out an original melody about them.
To turn up the volume on the benefits of your musical repertoire, try slipping your kid's name into the song, suggests Dr. Uhlenberg. (During pickup time, you might sing, "Clean up, clean up, Jamie's picking up the blocks. Clean up, clean up, Jamie puts them in the box.") Not only will your child be tickled by the fact that you made the song all about her, it'll increase the odds that she'll pay attention to (and remember) the song's message.
Although a strong reprimand can certainly get your child's attention, positive feedback is particularly meaningful to toddlers and will help them remember how to do things. "Believe it or not, kids this age remember praise more than discipline," says Dr. DiBattisto. The key is to be specific ("Great job staying in the kitchen while you drank your juice!"), so that your child understands exactly which behavior you appreciate. Explains Dr. DiBattisto: "If you catch your kid being good and make a big deal about it, he'll want to remember what he was doing -- so he can repeat it."
Originally published in the October 2011 issue of Parents magazine.