Every day is a learning experience for your toddler. Sometimes he will be confident and other days anxious and uncertain. You need to be sensitive to his changes in mood and adjust your approach accordingly, until he is at an age where he is better able to manage them himself.

“You may be so afraid of your child’s tantrums that you ‘give in’ for an easy life. The trouble is that short-term gain leads to longer-term pain as he’ll learn to use a tantrum to get his own way.”

“Toddlers, like adults, need to develop confidence in their ability to think, act, and achieve things on their own.”

“Danny has already learned that if I say ‘No’ there is a good chance that Daddy will say ‘Yes’. It drives me crazy.”

—“Danny has already learned that if I say ‘No’ there is a good chance that Daddy will say ‘Yes’. It drives me crazy.”

What your toddler still wants more than anything is your attention. He wants to copy you and loves being with you. But be careful that your enthusiasm for him to learn doesn’t inadvertently tip over into pushiness. Try to avoid encouraging him to get something right when he is too tired or hungry to concentrate; your eagerness may end in tears, not progress.

Toddlers at this age are enormous fun, have a great sense of humor, and will follow your lead very easily if you choose to be “silly.” Laughter is a great catalyst for learning because it means your child is having fun. When children experience enjoyment they naturally make more use of their senses to “tune in” to the experience. Using humor is one way of tagging experiences and making them distinct, which can help with memory recall. Being able to tell the difference between how something is meant to be and the “silly” alternative shows your toddler’s developing ability to reason and understand that there are different ways to view the world. However, children at this age can easily become overexcited and will need help to know when they are going too far. This direction may come from your tone of voice or facial expression, or by giving your toddler a break between a period of having a laugh, then calming down.

Positive experiences

Your laughing, giggling toddler will find lots of things funny. The more she enjoys an experience, the more she will remember about it.

Guidance from you

You are a very important role model for your child’s behavior; at this age he will copy not only what you want him to do, but also many things that you would rather he didn’t! One of the most effective methods of getting him “on the right track” is to show him what you want him to do.

How your toddler can learn from you:

This period of learning is all about showing, not telling. Let your toddler watch, observe, and try for himself. With encouragement rather than criticism he will eventually get there. This is the ideal time to involve older children as toddlers may be very attached to older siblings and be very happy to copy their “big boy” or “big girl” behavior.

Showing him

Your toddler needs lots of help developing his newfound skills. Show him what to do in play and everyday tasks and he will simply copy you and gradually learn to remember.
  • Is he finding it hard to put on his socks or shoes? Show him how you put yours on.

  • Is he spilling lots of food when he eats? Show him how you guide a spoon to your mouth.

  • Is he having difficulty taking turns? Show him how it is done.

Behavior limits

Getting your child to behave in the way that you, and society, would like him to will take many months and years. At its extreme, teaching appropriate behavior is known as discipline. It can be helpful to remember that scolding should not be so much about controlling your child as reinforcing the lessons that you have been teaching him about how to behave and manage his emotions. During the toddler years this takes a very simple form. Setting behavior limits so that your toddler is clear about what he can and cannot do is the first stage in the process of teaching him relationship and social skills.

When you set limits, your toddler learns that there is a point beyond which he should not go. The more clear and consistent your limits are, the more quickly he will learn that “No means no.” By having boundaries, he also learns about self-awareness and develops an understanding that he can choose how to behave and that different choices have different outcomes.

The principles that underline behavioral techniques for toddlers are:

In many ways it really is that simple—although in the heat of the moment it is not always an easy philosophy to stick to. If you do not set limits for your child’s behavior he will try to set his own—by pushing and pushing you until he finds your limit. This happens because he needs to know where he stands in order to feel safe. Behavior limits and routine are the ideal partnership. Once your child is familiar with a routine, he will have some idea of what to expect (bath, pajamas, bedtime story, sleep) and he will be able to remember more easily how he is meant to behave (no screaming, no kicking) and will remember that there is a treat (bedtime story) if he behaves. A behavior limit only works if you are willing to stand firm and see things through.

  • Set clear limits.

  • Reward good behavior.

  • Ignore bad behavior or have a clear consequence.

  • Be consistent in your approach.

Guidelines for setting behavior limits:
  • Decide what behavior you want to achieve (“I want Samuel to stop hitting his brother”).

  • Decide on the outcome (“If Samuel does not hit his brother, then he can play with his toy. If he does hit his brother, then he can’t have the toy.”).

  • Tell your child in simple terms what you do not want him to do and what you do want him to do instead (“No hitting. Hitting is bad. Don’t hit your brother. Play nicely together.”).

  • Tell your child in simple terms what the consequence will be (“If you hit your brother, then I will put your fire engine on that shelf.”).

  • Follow through with your intention, this time and every time. Being consistent is the key to learning and success.

Praise and rewards

Rewarding “good” behavior works wonders. The more you praise your toddler for the kinds of behavior you want from him, the more of the “good” behavior you will get. Positive attention or praise will reinforce the messages that are being sent to his brain and help him condition his brain to behave appropriately in the future. This still has nothing to do with understanding whether his behavior is morally right or wrong; it is simply to do with the messages that you and others are giving him about which behavior delivers the greatest rewards.

Personal success is an important cornerstone for the development of self-esteem. Praising and giving your child lots of positive attention helps him understand when he has done something well, which encourages him to do it again, which means he will get even better at what he is doing and learn to trust himself to succeed. Your praise and recognition increase his desire to persist and to see errors as part of the learning process; they are essential for effective learning. Open any parenting book, read any problem page, or watch any TV program and you will find that most of the expert advice focuses on solving problem behavior: its cause, its effect, and how to stop it. Rarely will you hear someone say, “I don’t know how to praise my child.” However, there are two sides to behavior shaping: replacing unwanted behavior with wanted behavior also means replacing criticism and negativity with rewards and praise. Even praise can backfire if it is not delivered in a way that is reinforcing.

How to encourage more good-style behavior:

Praise and rewards should ideally motivate your toddler to make good behavior choices for the future, rather than teaching him to behave well in order to receive a treat. If the treat becomes the main incentive for the behavior, the danger is that he will lose his motivation when there is no reward. The rewards therefore need to be everyday activities that are connected to, and reinforce, the behavior in some way. Using everyday activities as rewards alongside lots of praise not only reinforces your child’s good behavior choices, but also develops his self esteem by making him feel loved and appreciated.

  • Praise the behavior, not your child, to separate the achievement from his judgement of himself as a person. (“That’s a lovely drawing of a flower Mat,” rather than just “You’re so smart, sweetie” on its own).

  • Explain clearly and simply, and anchor your comments in time . “If you sit quietly while Mommy is on the phone, then afterward we can play in the garden and you can go on the slide.” Rather than, “If you’re quiet, you can have a treat.”

  • Give him lots of hugs and smiles. If he is going through an unaffectionate phase, stay warm and smiley, but don’t force things.

  • Praise and rewards should be immediate. “Tomorrow” is too far away for a toddler to understand. Better a small reward now than having to wait.

Appropriate rewards might be:
  • You tell your toddler that if he is able to stay still in the shopping cart and manages to behave well, you will go to the park on the way home.

  • Your toddler has behaved well in the car en route to Grandma’s. As a treat he can help you make her birthday cake.

  • He has gone to bed without any fuss, and has managed to put on his pajama bottoms (back to front!). You give him a big hug of appreciation and let him choose his favorite bedtime story.

Inappropriate rewards might be:

Material rewards and inappropriate treats will send your toddler mixed messages. They will not help him learn and there is a danger that you may undermine the routines you have put in place. Treats such as staying up later are more suitable for an older child who will have the ability to understand that it is a one-time event.

Successes such as learning to walk or talk don’t need to be rewarded because they are natural developments that a child learns anyway. Rewarding this behavior raises an expectation that he might receive something, which may reduce natural motivation when a reward is not forthcoming.

  • Giving him candy in exchange for being quiet in the car. Sweet treats are never a good idea for health reasons and he may begin to expect sweets every time you travel in the car.

  • Buying him a DVD because he didn’t have a tantrum when you were in the supermarket. Buying gifts leaves you open to bribery in the future—“I’ll be quiet if I can have…”

  • Promising him he can eat while watching the television if he tries just a bit of new food. Once the control becomes negotiable, he will want to do it more and more.

Finding the right reward

For some children, praise and smiles work; for others, being trusted with something grown up, such as holding the dog’s leash, is a great motivator for good behavior.

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