How to Have a Dialogue with Your Toddler
“Dialogue” and “toddler” may seem to some people like two words that don't belong in the same sentence, but a closer look at children's development of language and your role in it proves otherwise. Little children are watching and listening to what's going on around them, and you can provide enriching input, harmful input, or no input at all, which can be just as devastating.
The Building Blocks of Language
When you teach your child how to wash his hands, you're teaching him more than just hygiene. You're also teaching social etiquette, giving him a chance to practice coordination, giving him a sense of pride in himself, and, though you may not realize it, teaching him language at the same time. Talking to your child, who can't talk back the way an adult can, isn't as one-sided as it seems; you're talking to someone who is soaking up not just the content of what you're saying, but the system by which you're saying it. When you say, “Soapy! Are you all soapy?” you're teaching your child vocabulary, inflection, pronunciation, and how to form a question.
Without this kind of interaction, children can't learn language. They need lots of input to develop fluency. What better conversation topic than loving words to strengthen bonds, communicate your values, and sow the seeds of empathy?
Communicating Your Values to Your Toddler
A toddler's worldview is self-centered, and “me, me, me” is his refrain. That's normal, but allowing him to remain so isn't: now's the time to start sowing the seeds of empathy. The first step is to give names to feelings. When reading a book, show him the characters' expressions and name them: “Look, the monkey is sad.” or “Yay! The little boy is excited now!” are ways to narrate feelings portrayed in illustrations and photos. Also, help your child name his own feelings: “Oh, the crayon broke. It looks like you're disappointed. Are you disappointed?” Develop a vocabulary of feeling words.
Be sure to make a distinction between being responsible for one's actions and being responsible for others' feelings, or your child will be vulnerable to guilt-trips. So, if your child breaks someone's toy, instead of saying, “You made him feel sad; go say sorry,” say, “He's crying now. How do you think he feels? What can you do?”
Next, implement the Golden Rule. Whenever your child hurts another person — because even the most well-behaved children do hurt others at some point — say, “How would you like it if somebody did that to you? Would you like it?” Then, elicit a feeling word: “How would you feel? Do you think you might feel scared, or embarrassed?” If your child appears remorseful, say, “It looks like you feel sorry. Would you like to go apologize? I'll come with you.” Support your child during an embarrassing apology, but don't apologize for him. He must do it himself to successfully make amends.
Finally, keep praise for apologies at a minimum, or your toddler will make a “First I hit, then I apologize, then everybody gives me attention” connection that could result in further aggressive behavior.
Easy on the Logic
Toddlers are capable of simple logic: I kick the ball, it moves forward; I throw food, I get put in time out. They are not capable of more than a few steps in a logical sequence: going to sleep too late tonight makes me grumpy tomorrow and that's why I end up in trouble and can't have dessert tomorrow night and spend an hour throwing a fit, causing me to stay up too late yet again. When there's more than one or two steps of logic involved, the kind thing to do is to take control and say, “This is the rule, therefore we are doing it,” and end it there.
In addition, toddlers think in terms of the concrete (here and now) rather than the abstract (ideas, the past, and the future). “Don't open Mommy's purse,” is more effective than, “I really don't want you playing in my purse because my checkbook is in there and if it gets torn that's like tearing money, which ….” Lengthy explanations tend to be ineffective; a toddler who appears to be paying rapt attention is more likely enjoying the delay of consequences and the pleasure of watching his effect on you. When you say no to a toddler, don't discuss it. No is no.