10 Ways to Speak Respectfully to Toddlers


Drawing of Mama. I.H. 2.5yrs.

Be Informational, Specific and Clear. (Avoid “Later” and “Soon”) Our young children understand more than they speak and more than we usually give them credit for.  Even if our child may not understand our words or concepts, they will over time and they deserve the respect of a clear explanation and a real timeframe projection, especially when you have to say No.  They don’t read clocks, but if you are consistent, they begin to learn what five minutes/ after dinner feels like, and they begin to learn patience.

Reframe to the Positive. (Avoid “Don’t”). There are many ways to stop a behavior or say no without constantly saying “No” or “Don’t.”  Some creative frames for this are If/Then, When/Then. “When we put your toys away, then we can go for a walk outside.” A positive with a qualifier also works wonders,  “After you have eaten some bites of lunch, then you will have a cookie.” Taking the time to give more information about why we are or aren’t doing something right now can also help.

Use “We” language. (Avoid using child’s name, pointing a finger and authoritarianism).  At school or at home, we are a community and a culture. Use “We” to help the child understand what behavior is expected within the culture and to let him know that you hold yourself and everyone else to the same standards. Therefore, no child feels singled out as “bad” or “wrong”.

Use “I “ Language.  In a one-on-one setting- if there is something you cannot allow your child do, and where explanation isn’t enough, simply take responsibility for how you feel about it. “I don’t like it when you climb that high. It makes me worried and I would be sad if you fell and got hurt. Do you like it when you get a boo-boo?.”  We are interconnected beings and occasionally we can be asked to see things from a loved one’s perspective.

Be in the Child’s Reality. (Avoid Should/Shouldn’t and You Can’t). Shouldn’t is a very hard to understand concept for a toddler. Our shouldn’t and can’t clashes with a toddler’s concept of what is possible, with what the child desires and with what the child is experiencing to be true. Use explanation, information and re-direction instead, and be as clear as possible about the sort of behavior you expect instead.

Give Only Two Options.   In a challenging moment, three options are often way too much for a toddler (I tend to say wait until 3 years or more for 3 choices). It is our job as parent, teacher or caregiver to provide a healthy set of boundaries so that our children feel secure and we can do this by providing two choices. We hope to provide two acceptable options for the child, so refrain from asking a yes/no question, if a No answer is unacceptable.

Say,  “You are learning!”  (Avoiding  “Good Job” is really hard but it means nothing after a while and doesn’t help with true self-esteem or sense of accomplishment.) Try to pepper your speech instead with questions about how it feels to be accomplished “Did if feel good to do it yourself?” or “You tried so hard and then you got it!”

Ask Questions and Lead by Example. (Avoid correcting efforts). It can be especially difficult for teachers who have created precious curriculum to do this.  It is almost impossible for a toddler to get something “wrong”. They are simply exploring the ends of the earth and must test every boundary in order to come to understanding.  You know how things work and what is expected, but you could occasionally pretend you don’t and watch the child figure it out.  Magic.

Elaborate and Expand.  Your toddler/preschooler may be content with a simple answer to his question, but we respect a love of learning and a growing cognitive ability when we offer up more information, more explanation and ask the child further questions on the topic. “What is this thing?” can become a very long and enriching lesson.

Talk to the Child, About the Child.  When wanting to tell another adult in the room about one child, we strive to do this through speaking to the child, on the child’s level, about behavior or accomplishments- and allowing the other adult to listen in. This way there is no telling-on the child, no blaming the parent and we let the child know that he will be responsible for his own behaviors and can take pride in his own accomplishments! We preschool teachers struggle to do this as much as possible but are imperfect, as parents will also be imperfect with this entire list! But isn’t it nice to have some healthy guidelines anyway!?

Moorea Malatt, All Rights Reserved.

Moorea is a Parent Coach on Potty, Sleep, Gentle Discipline and more, and the Director of Genius: A Baby Academy in Seattle.


About mooreamalatt

Find my whole bio here: http://www.savvyparentingsupport.com/#!about/cktc
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8 Responses to 10 Ways to Speak Respectfully to Toddlers

  1. mommajorje says:

    Thank you!


  2. thatmamagretchen says:

    I needed thus today – thank you for the great resource!


  3. Lara K says:

    What a great list – just shared it far and wide. Thank you! Although I have to admit, I love it when my toddler comes into the bathroom, sees me on the potty and says “Good job, Mommy!” 🙂


  4. Courtney says:

    I like the one about saying “good job.” We’re careful about saying things like “you worked hard” instead of “you’re smart.” It prepares them to accept failures and try again, instead of internalizing them.


  5. Brian says:

    This is a good article we should read it together.


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