Pick me up!" my 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Emily, demanded as we were leaving the supermarket recently. With a bag of groceries in one arm and my 5-month-old son in the other, it was obvious that I couldn't. The practical impossibility didn't faze Emily, though. She responded with the same request, only louder. I could see where this was going: a screaming toddler clinging to my leg as I made my way to the car, spilling groceries as I endured the stinging scrutiny of other shoppers. I did the only thing I could think of at the moment: I mustered some enthusiasm and promised Emily a sticker if she would walk to the car on her own. Thankfully, the strategy worked.
But once we were all buckled in, I began to wonder: Is bribery the only way to get a 2-year-old to cooperate? Payoffs can work so well that it's tempting to rely on them constantly -- to get teeth brushed, clothes on, meals eaten.
Though there's nothing wrong with the occasional reward to encourage cooperation, experts say, there is something cheaper and longer-lasting: "a positive attitude," says Fred Rothbaum, Ph.D., a professor at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development, at Tufts University, in Medford, Massachusetts. For example, my upbeat attitude and playful tone of voice ("Let's run to the car and see who gets there first!") were probably as instrumental as the sticker in getting my daughter out of the store and into her car seat.
It's also helpful to remember that cooperation is a two-way street. "If parents respond to a child's needs," says Dr. Rothbaum, "then the child is more likely to be responsive to the parents'." Of course, creating this environment of give-and-take is no easy task when you're dealing with an impulsive, playful, emotional toddler whose main interest in life is exerting control. But it can be done. Here's how to lay the groundwork for better cooperation.
A study conducted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill showed that when parents actively involved toddlers during grocery shopping -- giving them toys to play with or asking for their help -- the kids were more likely to cooperate and less apt to misbehave. Keep your toddler occupied with every aspect of your trip: Tell her what's happening ("We're looking for the red apples!"), engage her in conversation ("What do you think we can make with this flour?"), and allow her to make simple decisions ("Should we buy beans or broccoli today?"), all the while emphasizing the positive ("You found the cereal! Good job."). "Getting them involved from the beginning is much more effective than waiting for them to get upset, when you have to set limits and negotiate," says Dr. Rothbaum.
Routines make your child's environment more understandable and reduce the likelihood of frustration, says psychotherapist John W. Maag, Ph.D., author of Parenting Without Punishment: Making Problem Behavior Work for You (The Charles Press, 1996). And while following the same bath-book-bed script every night won't guarantee cooperation at bedtime, the predictability is comforting for your child and minimizes the chance of a meltdown.
Similarly, you should leave enough time in your daily routine for your child to complete tasks herself. "Ask yourself, 'How can I arrange things so there are more opportunities for my child to be cooperative?' " advises Dr. Maag. If you want your child to walk to and from the car by herself, for example, allow for the extra time it will take.
You'll communicate your confidence in your child's ability to cooperate if you talk to her enthusiastically, without hesitation, impatience, or excessive volume. Be clear and direct: Instead of saying, "I want to leave the house now," let your toddler know exactly what you expect of her. Squat down so that you're eye-to-eye and calmly state, "Please put on your coat and hat." Likewise, be specific in your praise: "Thank you for putting on your coat and hat!"
Most parents know that giving their child a choice -- and the sense of control that accompanies it -- can turn a no into a yes. This is a good strategy -- in small doses. Let your child choose between only two things, which will enable him to feel independent without being frustrated by too many decisions. Johanna Harris, of Bloomington, Minnesota, uses this strategy with her 2 1/2-year-old daughter whenever she can: "Caroline can pick the shirt she wants to wear from the two I put out," says Harris. Give your child time to make a choice. If she chooses something else, you can say either, "That's a nice choice, too -- I didn't think of that," or if that choice is inappropriate, "That's not one of the choices, but I can pick one out for you if you need some help."
Your toddler will be more likely to work with you to accomplish a task if he knows what's in it for him. Just keep your explanations at a 2-year-old's level. Dawn Nealon, a mother and day-care provider from Manchester, New Hampshire, uses if/then scenarios to highlight the benefits of cooperation for her kids and day-care charges. "I explain that if they clean up the puzzle, then they will have room to paint," she says. "If you help children to see how their actions can benefit them, they're far more likely to cooperate." Similarly, Elizabeth Pantley, author of Perfect Parenting: The Dictionary of 1,000 Parenting Tips (Contemporary Books, 1998), recommends explaining things in when/then language: "When the PJs are on, then we'll read a book." These types of simple one-two sequences are easy for toddlers to follow and link cooperative behavior with something they enjoy.
Accept the fact that your child can't control her impulses yet. If your toddler is prone to touching your priceless antique lamp every time she comes near it, move it out of reach; preventing a problem before it happens means less stress for you and less frustration for your child. Your toddler's impulsive behavior is a developmental phase, says Dr. Maag. You're not stunting her future development by removing enticing things from her now; you're creating an environment in which it's easier for her to cooperate.
If you react to every one of your 2-year-old's transgressions, both of you will be frustrated and unhappy. Unless something is dangerous or destructive, it can be helpful sometimes to ignore the behavior. Likewise, keep rules to a necessary minimum -- too many musts take control away from a young child and cause frustration. Cooperating at dinnertime, for example, should probably be defined as sitting in front of a plate and perhaps even eating; expecting a toddler to use utensils properly is setting her up for failure. But if she does use her fork well or sit nicely, praise her.
Appeal to your child's sense of fun -- be silly, imaginative, and entertaining when you're approaching a task. For example, have a cleanup race or make a walk to the car into a parade. Harris recites a funny poem while brushing her daughter's teeth. "It keeps Caroline from focusing on the fact that I am brushing, and we get the job done," she says. Another silly game: Make objects talk, says Pantley. If your child refuses to get dressed, give his clothes some personality: "Hi! I'm Harry the sweatshirt; can you put me over your head?" While parents may find this strategy silly, toddlers find it so much fun that they often forget what they were refusing to do.
Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the November 1999 issue of Parents magazine.