Turn A Stubborn Toddler Into A Helper With These Magic Words

It's all about how you say things.

by Graham Techler
Originally Published: 
A toddler helping his mom wash dishes in the sink, soap suds are everywhere

Certainly we all remember that feeling of being a kid and balking at almost any request for help, simply on principal. I remember rejecting all kinds of opportunities to do good things that I’d enjoy — helping my mother decorate a cake or entertain my sister while my parents were trying to work — simply because as a kid, you identify strange opportunities to be the master of your own destiny. For a stubborn toddler navigating their world, this — surprise, surprise — often includes flat-out refusing to do almost anything asked of you.

What parent doesn’t recognize the frustration here? And although there are many reasons behind a toddler’s stubborn refusal to help, a change of language — one that helps a parent directly appeal to their child’s idea of self-image — can do wonders to help circumvent the behavior and aid in the larger task of raising a kind and considerate child.

“Parents need to use language that is encouraging and uplifting, full of praise,” says John DeGarmo, Ph.D., founder and director of the Foster Care Institute. “Language that is full of enthusiasm helps children to want to share and be polite to others. Language that is full of praise encourages a child to try new things and to participate.”

It also helps to use the magic words. Research from the University of San Diego suggests that when parents ask children about helping, kids are much more interested when parents use nouns instead of verbs. This is as simple as asking a child to be your “helper” (“Do you want to be my helper today?”) instead of asking them “Would you like to help?” Describing pro-social behaviors with nouns, the researchers found, seems to motivate kids to lend a hand. In other words, kids are more inclined to help when it falls in line with a created self-image.

This tactic works best when dovetailed with some more of the gentle hand-holding that defines much of parenthood. “When parents see accomplishments or tasks completed,” says Lori Russell-Chapin, Ph.D., a professor of counseling at Bradley University, “it is so important to say, ‘You must be very proud of yourself.’ This builds intrinsic locus of control rather than extrinsic or external reinforcements.”

Parents can use this reflective language to help their children articulate feelings of pride or satisfaction in a good deed without forcing them in any one direction. “Parents can also learn to reflect back and teach feelings such as ‘You must be relieved to have helped out your friend’ or ‘You must have enjoyed picking up those toys for your teacher,’” says Russell-Chapin. That is to say, it’s more a matter of throwing out a possibility to see if it resonates with your child.

There are some caveats to this tactic. The more task-specific this praise can be, the better. “Ideally,” says Jameson Mercier, Ph.D., of Mercier Wellness & Consulting, “you want to be specific about the behavior rather than praising the child simply because they are your children.”

What you don’t want is for the child to think the good deed is about them, rather than recognizing the value of doing something for others. “Being specific in your language,” he adds, “also builds their vocabulary because talking with your child in this manner has similar benefits to reading with your child.”

The larger lesson, one that parents certainly already know, is that the sensitivities of childhood frequently create perceived judgements that you will have to overcome with extra words of kindness and opportunities for kindness.

“As a parent,” says DeGarmo, “I understand that what I say to my children is detrimental to their development. Each day, I try to find something positive to say to each, and to thank them for something they did throughout the day. Whether it is praising a child for unloading the dishwasher, or how their hair looked, I understand that my children crave a kind word from me.”

Furthermore, all of this needs to be balanced out with acknowledgement of the fact that just linguistically directing kids toward participating in activities isn’t enough to muster their enthusiasm. “When we ask a child to participate,” says DeGarmo, “we need to do the same as adults.”

What so many parents do not realize or appreciate, notes DeGarmo, is that children are not only listening, but more importantly, children are watching the adults in their lives. In a short time, their participation will become second-nature.

Until, of course, the teenage years. But parents can cross that bridge when they come to it.

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