To make a toddler listen, a hug is more powerful than words

Hear goes: make your baby listen

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 August, 2013, 9:51am

I'm having problems getting my two-year-old to listen to me, even when I raise my voice. Sometimes it so frustrating and lonely. What should I do to get my little boy to pay attention to what I say?

Getting toddlers to listen is far from easy. When I talk to parents, one of the most frequently asked questions is how to teach their children to listen. A toddler may not listen as well as a primary school child, but they can be good listeners. They just need guidance appropriate for their age.

I believe it is never too early to begin teaching a child to listen. It helps them learn effectively, develop self-control, make friends and get a better head start in life.

When our children [do good], they deserve a "well done". It is the magic word

Oregon State University's two-decade study on attention span and persistence levels is worth reading. It found that toddlers who were better at concentrating, taking directions and persisting with a game even after encountering difficulties had a 50 per cent greater chance of ending up with a university degree. The study tracked 430 children from preschool to 21.

It showed that the most relevant predictor of later academic success was not the early introduction of mathematics or second languages, but whether they were taught social skills such as listening, paying attention, and how to follow directions at their young age. It suggests that the earlier the parents intervened, the more likely a child would succeed academically.

It is not unusual to find young children ignoring parents or teachers while they are developing their identities. It is because they have realised their needs do not always match others. "Not listening" is just a way of communicating: "I don't agree with you. I am what I am."

The good thing is at least your child is not throwing tantrums like other toddlers.

Having three children, I have experienced the "terrible twos" three times over. I was really frustrated as a novice dad, but eventually I found a way to get my children to listen to me.

Patience is key. If my children do not comply with a request, for example to put away their toys, I don't immediately repeat the request. This simply leads to a power struggle. I wait a couple of minutes and then ask them to do something completely different - give me a hug or help take some chocolate from a box. Just to do something that they love to do with me, and I praise them if they comply.

Then I ask them to finish the task I requested at the start, accompanied by a hug and a smile. It's been effective so far.

There are other strategies for training toddlers to be good listeners:

  • Giving instructions to toddlers while towering above them will not work. Carry your son or sit down at his level. Get his attention better by keeping eye contact with him.
  • Toddlers lose attention if the message is too long or unclear. For example, it is hard for a two-year-old to follow something like, "It's time to go to grandma's place. She has been waiting for a long time, so you need to put away your toys now to get yourself ready to go out." A specific and concise instruction is better: "Please put the red car back in its box."
  • Some parents have a tendency to phrase an instruction as a question even if the child has no choice. For example, "Can you help me put the toy car back in its box?" The child will say "no" as he perceives it as optional. You become disappointed and steer him towards a "yes". Again, it will lead to a power struggle between you two.
  • Physical cues are more important than verbal instructions. Your son may not move to grab his toy even though you have called his name for the fourth time. It is easier to get toddlers to do what you say with touch. After asking him to put away the toy car, you lay your hands on his shoulders and push him gently towards the toy. This can have a magical effect.
  • If yours is an only child, you may need to make more time to play with him. The instructions can be phrased in an interesting way. For example, "Let's play. I bet you can't find the box for the toy car. I hid it in a secret place." For my family, I always let my children have small but interesting competitions among themselves, for example, seeing who will finish a task the fastest.
  • Finally, raising one's voice may produce results for some, but I don't think you or your child would enjoy that. A crucial and sustainable step is to give possible feedback. No matter how tired we are, as parents, when our children do something good, they deserve a "well done". It is the magic word to keep him listening to you. And, it is much more powerful when paired with a hug.
  • Dannis Au is a former principal and author of Close to Daddy