Pick your battles and be consistent

As a parent, you don’t want to squelch your 2-year-olds enthusiasm and self-expression, yet toddlers need structure to feel safe and secure in the world. Too many rules and too many consequences become ineffective and overwhelming. That’s why it’s good to come up with five basic rules to live by, and then carry them out with consistency.

Come up with your top five rules, then carry them out. Rank behaviors from serious to mild and create a continuum of consequences. Behaviors on one end of the spectrum, like hitting or being mean,  render an immediate consequence. Behaviors on the other end might simply be ignored, like annoying voices or whining. Most parents make a few hard rules around cruelty and safety; for example, giving an immediate consequence for these top five, non-negotiable behaviors: hitting, bad language, unkind or rude behavior, uncooperativeness and shucking responsibilities—or crossing the street without holding your hand.

Once you come up with your top five rules, be consistent on carrying them out. Remember to be specific, recognize good behavior, empower with choices and don’t negotiate.

1. Be specific and don’t over-talk

Your child simply needs to understand the rule and comply with the rule. A simple “no hitting” followed by an immediate time out works much better than a long-winded explanation of why hitting is not acceptable. When parents show ambiguity or indecision, toddlers see it as an invitation to decide for themselves.

2. Recognize good behavior, ignore the bad

When laying down the law it’s important to also praise your toddler when she does things well. Maybe it’s human nature to focus on things that need fixing rather than rejoicing in the things that are right. Praise goes a long way with toddlers. If you notice your child being kind, give a specific compliment, like ‘I like how you are being gentle with the cat.’ This means much more than a general, ‘Thanks for being good.’

Try this: Gossip with your spouse or a friend about the positives you’ve seen from your toddler that day. Pretend your toddler can’t hear and share something great he did that day. Or, tell his favorite stuffed animal at bedtime all the wonderful things its owner did during the day. Ending on a positive note might make your child sleep better, too.

3. Ignore annoying behaviors

While it is really hard to ignore a whining or protesting toddler, sometimes that’s the most effective response. If you’ve given your answer to a request and your child keeps asking, ignore her or walk away. Kids need their parents to lead, even if they resist it. As a leader, you won’t always be liked, but that’s okay.

4. Empower with choices

When your toddler refuses to go or puts up a fight getting dressed, the first step is to let her know she is heard. Start with empathy then offer a simple choice. For example, you might say, ‘I hear that you don’t want to go, but Grandma is waiting. Would you rather wear your pink tennis shoes or your sandals?’ The idea is to build freedom within limits. Simple either-or, if-then, when-then choices work great. For example, ‘when you pick up your toys, then we can go to the park.’

Toddlers are learning to navigate their world. When they understand their boundaries, they are more confident and successful. Rules supply the structure they need to flourish.