Another preschool parent–the mother of one of my 2-year-old’s classmates–let out a big sigh as she pushed and pulled her infant’s stroller on the walking path to the shul, lulling the baby to sleep before retrieving her toddler.
“You always seem to have your children under control,” she said to me, exhausted, exasperated.
“Honey,” I responded firmly. “No one has their kids under control.”
In that moment, I could’ve pretended that I’m SuperMom, but I was in her shoes just two years ago. With two active kids (Myer is 4 and Dagny is 2), it seems that the glimpses we get of other families are often when their children are actually behaving.
I’ve tried everything under the sun to make my kids listen. But now I know The Truth: No one’s kids listen to them all (or even 50% of) the time.
As brain synapses develop during the preschool years (and beyond), every experience is an opportunity to learn. Getting dressed for school isn’t nearly as compelling as the lessons they’re learning–about mass, space, depth perception–by building with a pile of blocks.
Also, children crave our attention–even the negative kind. Those manipulative, moody mini-humans quickly figure out that a great way to get a parent’s undivided attention and control a situation is to do the opposite of (or completely ignore) what is requested of them.
Buck up, dear parent. Our family has tried a number of tactics to appeal to our kids’ better natures, and while there’s no “silver bullet” to get kids to listen, some of these methods could work for you, too:
When kids are excited and having fun (occasionally at mom/dad’s expense), it gets loud. So loud that we need to yell to be heard. And then yelling becomes a habit. If you find yourself about to yell–walk away. Lock yourself in the bathroom for a little “Netflix and chill” or whatever you need to calm down. After a few deep breaths, return to the scene of the crime, and find another way to get on the same page with your kids (see #2-6 below).
On the other end of the spectrum is whispering, which occasionally quiets the kids down because they want to hear whatever juicy secret you’re sharing sotto voce. Occasionally.
2. That good old “1-2-3” Magic
Of all of the child discipline books recommended to us, we found this one to be the most readable, practical, and useful for our children. Essentially as it boils down to this: Count 1, wait 5 seconds for child to choose desired behavior, count 2, wait another 5 seconds. If you get to 3, it’s time out or a “time out alternative,” such as taking away a toy for the rest of the day. On a positive note, when your child listens, heap on the praise.
The first two tactics are largely examples of “negative reinforcement.” The following four tips intend to empower your child to help you achieve your goals.
3. Making checklists
Around the time my older child turned 3, I had two kids to prepare concurrently for nap time. I used Myer’s tendencies toward organization and logic to my benefit. While eating lunch together, we wrote numbered lists with pictures, with just one or two words for each activity on the checklist. After clearing the table, Myer worked on his to-do list while I got Dagny ready to nap. Some days, Myer needed pennies for his bank as rewards for items checked off the list; other times, getting the check mark was rewarding enough.
BONUS: It helps kids learn numbers, letters, and responsibility.
4. Using the Rainbow-Colored-Unicorn-Poop-Voice™
In a voice that sounds like pink cotton candy rolled up in a wad of fruit snacks, I ask, “Oh, darling, would you please to put on your shoes please please please?” Unless we’re in truly foul, awful moods that day, this often works, and everyone ends up laughing. Sometimes Dagny’s reply, in her adorable toddler voice, is a saccharine-yet-cheeky, “Noooooo…” said with a grin. But with a little more cajoling in the Rainbow-Colored Unicorn Poop Voice™, we usually come to a peaceful agreement.
Got a competitive kid? “I’m gonna sit at the table first!” or “I’m gonna use the potty first!” often motivates them because if they win, they know they’ll get to hear, “Aw, shucks! You beat Mommy again!”
Racing against time is also fun, especially during that most combative situation: The Toddler Seatbelt Struggle of Doom. Save your sharp elbows for your next Costco trip. Instead try: “Last time it took 23 seconds to buckle you in. Let’s see how fast we can do it today!”
You can count, yell, make lists, and do all sorts of things, but before I share my last tip, remember this: You’re not a machine. You’re a parent. You’re human. You won’t always be 100 percent consistent with discipline, and you need love and attention, too.
6. Hugging it Out
Finally, when you’re one huge ball of frustration, it helps to give the offending child a bear hug–even if you don’t want to. (I’ve been known to give a little extra crush to the kid to make mommy feel better. If they complain? “Love hurts, kid.”) The reason your child isn’t listening is usually just to get your attention. And there’s no better attention to give than showing them they’re loved.