Toddler Ten Commandments

My husband, Tom, once remarked that he wished there was some quick and dirty parenting guide. He doesn’t have time to read all of the parenting books after I’m done with them, and he doesn’t particularly like to hear me quote entire passages. Go figure.

His wish is (sometimes) my command, so I set out to make him a list. I went back through several books I’d recently read: Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting, Lieberman’s Emotional Life of the Toddler, Cohen’s Playful Parenting, and half of Aldort’s Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves (I’m still finishing that one), and asked for the collective wisdom of my seasoned mama friends. I pared down a 10 page Word doc into a page and a half that I entitled “The Toddler Ten Commandments.”

There are a few corrections I could make to that title: 1) There are actually 14 “commandments” on my list, but ten just has a certain ring to it; 2) The word “toddler” could be removed from the title. Most of these will apply to kiddos of all ages, but that’s where we are in life at the moment; and 3) of course these “commandments” aren’t really that – they are suggestions, and not everyone will like all of them. I compiled them based on our experiences and struggles as parents so far. I welcome your thoughts and input on the list based on your own experiences.

We’ve printed out the Toddler Ten and taped it to our bathroom mirror and a kitchen cabinet. It is nice to have reminders every now and then! So without further ado, I give you the Toddler Ten Commandments. Please click on the links if you’re interested in reading a little more about the ideas presented.

  1. Keep your eye on long-term goals. Toddler “behaviors” will fade; what will remain is how your child feels about himself and his relationship with you, which is based on how you react to those “behaviors.”
  2. Take the child’s perspective. Sure it’s hard to be a parent, but it can be a lot harder to be a kid. We don’t mean to make children feel foolish or unsupported, but that’s just what happens when we trivialize their fears or tears by saying “shhh, you’re ok,” or “don’t be so upset,” etc.
  3. Let your child make his own decisions. Our default position ought to be to let kids make decisions about matters that concern them except when there is a compelling reason for us to override that right. We should be prepared to justify why, in each case, kids shouldn’t be allowed to choose. The way kids learn to make good decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.
  4. Reconsider your requests. Perhaps when your child doesn’t do what you’re demanding, the problem isn’t with the child but with what it is you’re demanding. I’ll give you a fluff example: Kieran (my son) and I were doing a craft last week. I kept suggesting that he cut the pictures, not the paper that he would eventually glue the pictures onto. He kept ignoring me. I realized that I was trying to impose my own vision of his artwork onto what he was doing – so what if he wanted to cut what I thought was the “wrong” thing! This same lesson can hold true in a number of different situations. As long as a child’s safety isn’t at risk, why not stop to reconsider whether you are imposing your own views and experiences onto them.
  5. Remember SALVE:
    • (S) Separate yourself and your emotions from your child’s behavior to be sure you’re TRULY about to respond to your child, and not as a result of baggage from your own life/childhood. (If it helps, run through any angry words in your mind, then get rid of them before speaking gently to your child.)
    • (A) give your child full, honest Attention;
    • (L) fully Listen, be present for your child;
    • (V) Validate your child’s feelings without adding your own (“I see you want ___,” “you were disappointed because ____”);
    • (E) Empower your child to solve the upset herself. Believe in her; don’t rush to “fix” her.

  6. Don’t say “no” unnecessarily. “Yes” should be our default response, such that you need a good reason not to go along with what’s being proposed, or to step in and forbid something.
  7. Change the way you see behavior. Try to see behavior as “teachable moments” rather than infractions that call for “consequences.” Don’t take behavior personally! A toddler isn’t trying to hurt or inconvenience you or “misbehave.”
  8. Respect your child. We can’t always assume that because we’re more mature, we necessarily have more insight into our children than they have into themselves.
  9. Keep her age in mind.
  10. Stop saying “good job.” Break the habit of saying “good job/sharing!” or “you’re such a great helper!” or “I like the way you . . .” Instead, try:
    • describing, rather than evaluating (“there’s something new on the people you drew, there are toes”);
    • explaining the effects of the child’s action on other people (“you set the table, that makes things a lot easier on me while I’m cooking”);
    • asking, rather than judging (why did you decide to give some of your brownie to Michael when you didn’t have to?”).

  11. Give her undivided attention. Don’t just occupy the same space, interact. It’s easy to feel distracted by emails or bills, and it’s fine to multi-task sometimes, but make sure your child gets a good portion of your total attention so they know how very 2010-01-30important they are to you. Give them affection without limit, without reservations, and without excuse. Pay as much attention to them as you can, regardless of mood or circumstance. Let them know you’re delighted to be with them, that you care about them no matter what happens. This basic posture is completely different from praise, which is doled out as a response to something a child does.
  12. Talk less, ask more, and wait. Step back and let your child figure things out. Wait for him to ask you for help. He may not. He may figure it out alone or he may do something else entirely, and that’s o.k.
  13. Talk about appropriate behaviors. Try “please use gentle touches” instead of “stop hitting.”
  14. Enjoy the journey – they grow up too fast. Don’t be in such a hurry!

This post was originally published on Code Name: Mama.

Author: Dionna

Dionna writes at Code Name: Mama, where she shares information, resources, and her thoughts on natural parenting and life with a toddler/preschooler.

32 thoughts on “Toddler Ten Commandments”

  1. This was an amazing list, thank you.. As my son enters toddlerhood, my husband and I are beginning to shape the way that we want to respond to him as he “tests” boundaries. These are excellent and thoughtful reminders and we will also be printing them out and hanging them on our refrigerator! 🙂

  2. This is literally answer to prayers. This is true toddler doctrine. Thank you for giving me this wonderful opportunity to learn. Bless you!

  3. these are awesome. just last night, when i was putting my almost 5yo to bed, i said, “k, i’m so proud of you.” he beamed, then asked why. “just because you’re you. you’re such a fun, nice kid, and a great big brother.” “thanks, mommy,” was his reply. i tell him that several times a week, but for some reason it resonated with him last night.

    i’d also add “nonviolent communication: a language of life” by marshall rosenberg to your list of references. it teaches REAL communication and acting from a place of compassion rather than coercion. it really goes hand in hand with the unconditional parenting practices, but it applies to ALL relationships in your life.

    i, too, will be printing copies of this and reviewing them with dh. 🙂

  4. Great list! The only one I have an “issue” with is 7. I personally don’t like the idea of seeing behavior as “teachable moments” – unless you are talking about the parent doing the learning lol! But I don’t think you were. I think this is a slippery slope, and paves the way for alot of “blahblahblah” from the parent when what the child is needing is empathy and understanding. I would much rather “teach” by being a role model and letting my child experience the world and form their own opinions. I think this “inner wisdom” will be much more powerful and helpful as the child grows older. I would love for number 7 to read instead, “see behavior as unmet needs”. 🙂

  5. Thank you Elly and Veronika – I’m so happy it was helpful for you.

    Raegan – thank you for the book rec. I’m right in the middle of “How to Talk So Your Child Will Listen,” but I will put that one on hold!

    Lisa – You don’t know how much I love the fact that the only criticism so far is that it’s too “parenty” 🙂 I totally agree, and I had similar thoughts when I reread this list before posting it (I wrote this several months ago). I really love your suggestion about changing it to seeing behavior as unmet needs – that says it with a lot less judgment or expectation that it might be “misbehavior.” I don’t think I can edit this post, but I will change it on my own site!

  6. Genius! Thanks so much! What a gift to share with us all (and those funny husbands who don’t enjoy having entire books read out loud to them… ;-)!

  7. I love this list — thank you! I’m having kind of a hard time with the stage my toddler is in right now (he just turned 18 months) and am looking for some ideas/support. We’ve practiced AP since the beginning with our son, and overall it’s been really good for our family. But I’m struggling right now with the fact that sometimes his needs/wants conflict with mine, and I want to be able to say yes most of the time AND I want to model for him that both of our needs matter. Yet he’s too little to understand reasoning, and doesn’t have much patience to wait at this stage. For instance, I’d like to be able to sit down (on the floor next to him) and eat a meal for 5 minutes (or a little longer), but I pretty much never get to do that because he pulls on my hand and says, “Mama up,” and tries to get me to go somewhere else in the house, or hold him, or both. Also, sometimes I need to cook or do laundry, or check my email (and I’m literally talking 5 minutes max. that my attention would be diverted from him) but he wants ALL of my attention ALL of the time he’s awake. Any thoughts/ideas/comments? I feel that by saying yes most of the time, I may have created a situation where it’s nearly impossible for me to do anything that’s not on his agenda. Help!

  8. I like your list on the most part. Although I disagree with number ten. You should always praise your children, telling them “good job” or “I like the way you did that…..”. You can follow up the “good job” with a more specific response. Children and adults need all of the praise that they can get, letting them know that who they are and what they do are appreciated. We do play therapy, my son is almost four, one of our homework assignments is to praise him by saying “good job” or I like the way…..” followed by more specific comments.

  9. If it’s appropriate to the situation, I try to say “thank you” instead of “good job”. Like the example of helping set the table, I’d say something like “thanks for your help setting the table, that way I can focus on cooking/don’t have to do it all by myself”. I love posts like these because, even after reading Unconditional Parenting or Playful Parenting or whatever, it’s hard to condense what I’ve learned from those books into something I can try to implement in my day to day parenting. (It doesn’t help that I’m also usually reading those books before bed as I’m falling asleep…)

  10. Like Danielle, I give my 16-month-old daughter near constant attention and make her agenda a priority. The only way I get any chores done is by involving my daughter in them, and allowing the chores to become part of her “play”. Sometimes we take turns in what we do, which she really likes (e.g. “It’s my turn to do the dishes; would you like to come up to the sink with me?” or “It’s your turn; what would you like to do?” Checking email or anything that requires most of my attention is still something I do when she’s sleeping, but I’ve gotten used to doing most chores either one handed (with her on my hip) or very slowly (engaging her). She loves to help sort laundry, wipe counters, do dishes, sweep, etc. Sure, she is mostly “playing,” but I’m impressed by how much she picks up about sequence and technique. She likes to play independently sometimes, too (e.g. she’ll take some of her dolls into her little tent for some “private conversation” or stack blocks with her back turned to me). I try to respect her space and privacy when she asserts it, because I don’t want to smother her. I’m hoping her willingness to help and play independently will make her transition into being a big sister a positive one (as I’m due to have a second baby when she is 24 months old).

    Thanks for posting the list. I especially like the point about taking the child’s perspective. In my opinion, doing so not only helps the parent’s relationship with the child, but it opens the parent up to a magical, wonderful, and authentic world that some adults have forgotten. Thanks!

  11. Dionna,

    Thanks for posting this. My husband too doesn’t have the time or the desire to reread the parenting books I read and I was finding it difficult to summarize all the main points without writing him a book report. I asked him to read your post saying it summarized what I’d found in fourteen points. Know what he said (with a not entirely straight face)? “Can you summarize it for me?” LOL. He read it and then said, “that could have been summarized” and when asked how he would do that, he said, “love, respect and patience.” I though that was a nice list and it sparked a great conversation.



  12. Toddlers are my favorite age group. No’s don’t even bother me as I feel that they are learning to become themselves and no is a way to express that. They are so much fun at this age. Enjoy now because in about 10 years, you will really see some attitudes….lol!

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