Respectful Parenting: How to Talk to Toddlers

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Lately, I've been reconnecting with Janet Lansbury's book No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame. I find Lansbury's approach to parenting refreshing and incredibly helpful; deep down, it validates what I believe in and provides clear, practical guidelines for my parenting.

After recently rereading her chapter on talking with toddlers, I immediately went to work. I've been shifting the way I'm speaking to my two sons (5.5 and almost 2), and I've seen great results. We're understanding each other more, and we're all feeling less frustration. The best part is, I feel like this is a manageable shift. I can do it, and so can you!

So, here are Lansbury's suggested communication adjustments with my own experiences and thoughts. Laying this foundation can improve your relationship with your child and their early learning experiences.

1. Talk normally. Save cases of clear misunderstanding, you rarely need to adjust the way you are speaking to your toddler — they understand much more than they can say. Speak in complete sentences, embrace complex vocabulary, and avoid baby talk. This communicates respect to your child and also exposes them to a wide range of vocabulary from day one.

Explain complex vocabulary (I often just throw in a synonym or brief description after saying the word), slow down your speech a bit, shorten sentences as needed, and give wait time (i.e., pause after you say something). Wait time is one of the most crucial adjustments to make. It teachers babies and toddlers the art of conversation and gives them a chance to process your speech. It's a great rhythm to get into, even when your baby or toddler does not yet have words to respond.

Another aspect of speaking normally to your children is avoiding third-person. I didn't think I was doing this that much, but once I started paying attention to it, I realized I was doing it all the time! "What is R doing?" "R built a tall tower! Can mama build one with you?" I wouldn't speak this way with my husband or friends, so why wouldn't I talk normally with my toddler? Now, it's "Can you show me what you are doing?" "I see you built a tall tower! Can we build another one together?"

2. Turn no into yes. Lately, especially with my older son, I have found that my "no" has very little power. In fact, the only power it has is to prompt defiance. I reflected on how making this adjustment during his toddler years could have prevented many of our power struggles. It's not too late, though, because making this adjustment has still helped with both of the boys.

Here are some "no" commands I found myself saying a lot: "Don't hit," "Don't take his toy," "No running," "No screaming in the house," "No toys at the table," and A LOT more. My children still need to follow these rules, but I get better results when I shift away from no and provide clear and concise direction or choice: "Gentle hands please (with me intercepting the hitting if possible)," "Do you want to share or play with something else?" "Speak at a normal volume," "Place the toy here before coming to the table."

Saying "no" less means fewer opportunities for my children to meet me with resistance and also allows me to save those words for emergencies, like when our toddler was convinced he could cross the street by himself ...

3. Real choices. Providing our toddlers two clear choices instead of asking them an open-ended question (or giving them too many choices) is very effective. It helps them reframe what they might think of as a negative situation into something empowering; a chance for them to exercise choice and independence.

This shift has been incredibly helpful during our youngest son's recent diapering refusals: screaming, thrashing, and running away. I used to just tell him, "It's time to change your diaper." Now, I've shifted to either "You need a diaper change. Do you want to walk to your changing table or have me carry you?" or "I see you are playing, but you need a diaper change. Do you want to be changed now or in a few minutes?"

4. First, acknowledge. Like any person, children want to feel understood, even if we as parents feel like they are being totally irrational. It's important to acknowledge your toddler's feelings and show them you understand their perspective. This doesn't mean you need to agree with them, and, of course, you should still set limits and follow through.

I embraced this adjustment just last week. It was early in the morning, and I was opening up the freezer to take out ice packs for lunch boxes. When our toddler heard and saw the freezer open, he immediately asked for ice cream (we had some the night before for my husband's birthday) and began screaming and crying and pulling on the freezer door. I obviously wasn't about to give him ice cream for breakfast, and I was met with how to handle this completely irrational request. "I know you are asking for ice cream, it's delicious, but it's not a healthy breakfast food. (pause) You can have a waffle instead." He still screamed and screamed. It was a tantrum for sure, but it lasted about 2 minutes. I sat next to him, on the floor, holding the freezer drawer shut. At the end of his storm, I asked if he wanted a hug. He did, and a few minutes later we all sat down for breakfast.

Making adjustments to how we speak with our toddlers can have powerful immediate impact and positive long-term influence in the areas of confidence, self-regulation, and more. These adjustments are not easy buttons; they take work, reflection, and practice. We still have our moments, all of us, because we're human. But I've been able to chalk up some more parenting wins by applying Lansbury's toddler communication tips, and I know you can, too. Share your wins with us by commenting below!

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