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The Best Advice on Raising a Toddler, According to 11 Parents

Eleven dads share the wisdom that helped them get through the toddling years.

Raising a toddler is a lot of fun. It can, however, feel like a minefield of messes, meltdowns, and screw ups that can lead to a frustration and a decent amount of self-doubt. This comes with the territory. Toddlerhood is a time of messy emotions and messy faces. And while there are many pieces of advice on how to properly handle a tantrum or engage with a toddler so they’ll listen, we wanted to hear from parents about the best, most useful advice they received about raising a toddler. So, we spoke to a bunch of dads and landed on these eleven pieces of advice, which were given out by family members, therapists, educators and friends who’ve been there. It’s advice they said changed how they parent for the better. We hope it does the same for you. 

Be Direct

“I struggle with this one, but it has to do with the clarity of your instructions when dealing with a toddler. I have a friend who is an elementary school teacher, and she says that it’s important – especially in cases of discipline – to avoid saying stuff like, ‘Cut it out.’ Or, ‘Knock it off.’ To a toddler. That may as well be Pig Latin. Instead, be simple and direct. ‘Put the toy down.’ Or, ‘Take that out of your mouth.’ The fewer words, the better, and the more specific you can be, too. It will help the toddler learn exactly what the inappropriate behavior is, instead of just knowing that something is wrong.” – Michael, 37, Pennsylvania

Prioritize Rules

“My good friend – who is the father of a 23-year-old and a 19-year-old – told me that it’s important to prioritize rules from the beginning. He said that he made the mistake of overloading his oldest child with rules when he was a toddler, and that it just became confusing for everybody. So, when he and his wife had their daughter, rules became more of a tiered approach. The rules about safety were obviously first, and most important. From there, once those rules were established, he started gradually adding on more. So, we’re trying that, and it seems to be working great so far.” – Lou, 34, Michigan

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Allow Natural Consequences

“I burned my hand on a candle when I was a toddler. My mom told me that she warned me a few times, and then just let it happen. That sounds mean, but it was her way of teaching me about natural consequences. She said it was important that my sister and I learned the consequences of our actions ourselves, as long as they weren’t excessive or dangerous. It’s hard as a parent, because you want to step in and spare your kid the disappointment, but we’ve seen our son learn to play nicer with his toys after throwing and breaking some. He gets upset, which sucks, but he’s starting to realize: If I do this, this toy will be gone, so I shouldn’t do this thing. – Eric, 35, Arizona  

Address the Behavior, Not the Child

“When my sister was raising my niece, she said she made the mistake of just saying, ‘No!’ a lot to address bad behavior. She realized quickly — and after some research — that a toddler has no clue what the No! is directly referring to. You have to specifically state what the undesired behavior is. It’s difficult, because ‘No!’ or ‘Stop!’ are a lot quicker than, ‘Don’t play near the end of the driveway.’ But, it’s supposed to impress upon the child that it’s not him or her who is bad, but rather the behavior. It’s a very time-consuming skill to learn at first, but we’ve seen the benefits.” – John, 37, South Carolina 

Don’t Obsess Over Food

“Toddlers have a lot of leverage with food, especially with first-time parents. When my wife and I had our first child, we pinned our hopes and dreams on whether or not he would eat all of his food. My therapist told me that it’s not healthy to make food a power struggle when you’re raising a toddler, because then it becomes a negative experience for you and the child. He said that refusing food is normal, and the trick is not to treat it like a big deal, put the food away, then just offer it up some other time like nothing happened. It’s not foolproof, but it definitely helps ease the mealtime stress we had before.” – Jeff, 36, New York

Let Them Help

“When I was a toddler, my sister and I were on my mom’s hip all the time. She told us that it would’ve been easier, and probably less messy, for her to do everything herself, but that letting us do simple stuff like wiping a chair with a dust rag, throwing stuff in the trash, or picking up toys kept us busy, and made us excited to pitch in. As we got older, helping around the house didn’t really seem like such a chore, and I bet that’s why. It definitely works — our son (23 months) loves ‘cleaning’. – Robert, 34, California

Seek Out Good Behavior

“There’s a difference between condemning bad behavior and praising good behavior. As parents, I think we’re naturally inclined to try and prevent bad behavior through time outs, yelling, and all that stuff. It’s the bad behavior that’s scary to us. But actively acknowledging and praising the good behavior reinforces it in a way that makes children seek to repeat it. It won’t eliminate bad behavior but will make less room for it. I just got my P-3 elementary educator license, and that was the most revelatory piece of information I learned as a teacher and the father of a two-year-old.” – Nick, 34, Florida

Ignore Tantrums

“My brother is the king of ignoring tantrums. He’s raised three girls, so he’s like Shaolin Monk-level enlightenment by now. The best piece of advice he gave me about toddler tantrums is that ignoring them takes practice, and does get easier. But, I’ve tried it, and it works. You can almost see the wheels turning in the kid’s head. Like, ‘Why isn’t this working? I’m screaming. I’m crying. And no one’s paying any attention!’ And then they get a little more frustrated. But then, they just give up. Or get bored.  It’s like a car running out of gas — the faster it accelerates, the quicker the tank empties.” – Mike, 35, Maryland

Talk With, Not To

“This isn’t just about giving orders and instructions, though that’s part of it. I was an advanced reader when I was little, and my parents tell me they think part of it had to do with how much they encouraged me to talk and verbalize as a toddler. (My mom was an English teacher.) So, in addition to the standard story reading, I try to engage my son in ‘conversation’ as much as possible. Like small talk. Even if he’s in his car seat, I’ll ask him what colors he sees. At the very least, it’s something we both enjoy.” – Dan, 33, Rhode Island

Messes Can Be Cleaned Up

“This one happened recently. I’ve been at my wit’s end with the messiness of raising a toddler. Just food everywhere. Toys. Dirt. Crayons. Clothes. I was venting to my wife after our daughter spilled food on the living room rug, and she just said, ‘Messes can be cleaned up.’ It was a very fortune cookie-esque proverb, but it’s stuck with me, and it’s true. If you think of a mess as something temporary, it alleviates a lot of stress. At least for me. They’re annoying, but they’re not as dramatic and catastrophic as they used to be.” – Sean, 34, Indiana 

Make Friends With Other Parents

“As we were preparing for our son, our doctor suggested looking for local Facebook groups or other communities of nearby parents. She said we’d learn a lot from them. We were both sort of just like, ‘Yeah, okay.’ and dismissed the idea. We had this locked down. Right? But, one day, we swallowed our pride and started exploring. The other parents we’ve bonded with are fantastic. They’re encouraging, and they’re experienced. It’s like the perfect balance between the objective, expert advice of a doctor, and the guidance from a close friend. We’re really excited to start hanging out with them in person once everything settles down. And, even better, they’ll understand if we have to cancel plans at the last minute.” – Paul, 34, Ohio