My Toddler Doesn't Obey

Unhappy scowling toddler with smiley faced helium balloon
John Sundlof/Alamy

I've often thought that there is one truth understood by parents better than some of the most learned philosophers: Little children are not inherently virtuous. Rather, they come hardwired with a will, boundless energy to express their interests and powerful emotions to display if they aren't satisfied. If you have any doubt that humankind is a fallen race, you have yet to spend any length of time in close quarters with a toddler.

One startling development with toddlers around 18 months of age is their disobedience of rules that you have made abundantly clear — and how they make sure you're around to see those rules broken. This is somewhat different than earlier stages, when your child's insatiable curiosity would simply override his memory, so he might explore an object after you have told him to leave it alone — seven times. Now, he can understand simple rules very well, and he won't always operate in stealth mode, a routine practice for older rule-breakers. Instead, he may trot right over to the curtains you just told him not to touch, wait until you're watching, look you in the eyes (perhaps with a grin to boot) and give them a healthy tug. He is extremely interested in your response, and it is crucial that you give him one with substance. This behavior represents an important developmental milestone for your toddler. He is developing a budding sense of identity, an awareness that it is possible to make things happen and a compelling need to find out how far his newfound capabilities can take him.

Your response, as often as possible, should be measured, loving and calm. When all is said and done, your child needs to know and understand two very important facts: First, that you love him fervently and unconditionally; and second, that you are in charge and he isn't. If either or both of these messages are not clearly established by around the second birthday, life during the following years is likely to be more difficult. Here are a few reminders as you weave these two principles into life:

Be the launch pad

 Above all else, your toddler needs to know that she is loved, accepted and "at home" with you — even when you won't give her everything she wants. She needs loving words and actions all day long, and she will come to you frequently for them, often with arms outstretched, as she seeks cuddles and hugs, comfort after a fall, help with a problem, your enthusiastic reaction to something she has brought you, invitations to play and confirmation that you are still "there" when she has not seen you for a few minutes. For a toddler, these approaches provide some critical fact-finding about how things work, how to get help and who cares about her. They can also have a major impact on the way she interacts with the world in subsequent years: After determining that her "base of operations" is safe and secure, she will be able to explore an expanding world around her.

Balance love and limits

Your child will challenge you, and if you aren't prepared and willing to meet him confidently when he does, you may find yourself living with a miserable, demanding 2- or 3-year-old — or even a full-fledged miniature tyrant.

Children need, and actually fervently seek, consistent boundaries and ground rules. Expressing love and enforcing understood limits are not contradictory, but intimately related. Allowing a child to have her way without any restraint is not an expression of love. At the other extreme, harsh, rigid or authoritarian treatment of children, even if it produces apparent model citizens, isn't an appropriate exercise of limit setting. If you meet every departure from perfect decorum with harsh words and an iron fist, your opportunities to shape his will, impart moral standards and serve as a role model will be squandered. Whatever good behavior you see will be based on raw fear and, once soured with a few years of resentment, will be discarded at the first available opportunity. Be consistently reasonable, calm, loving — and in charge.

Don't agonize over mistakes

You don't need to do everything perfectly this year to bring up a healthy, delightful child. A few mistakes, or even getting on the wrong track for a number of weeks, isn't going to ruin his life. God has granted parents a good deal of time on the learning curve and given children a great deal of resiliency. So take a deep breath, fasten your seat belt and stay on your knees — not just when you're picking up toys.

Enjoy the journey

 A common mistake made by parents of toddlers is to get caught in a maintenance — or even survival — mode. As much as they need food, safety, cleanups and diaper changes, toddlers also need the important grown-ups in their life to be fascinated with them. "Lord, give me the strength to get through this day" may be the repeated cry of the parent's heart, but with it should come a postscript: "Lord, help me understand and appreciate this incredible creation You have loaned to me."

Don't forget to step back once in a while to marvel at this little person you are nurturing. Indeed, your toddler is no less "fearfully and wonderfully made" now that he is tearing all over the house than he was while he was being knit together in his mother's womb.

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