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I wrote here recently about the extent to which positive attention is the most important and powerful tool that parents possess to manage toddlers’ behavior. That article received a great deal of positive feedback, which I greatly appreciated, and for which I thank you (case in point: we all – Even parents! Even professionals! – love positive attention). Many of you responded with the same follow-up question, namely: What do I do when positive attention doesn’t work? Or, in specific reference to the illustration I provided last time around, what do I do if (and, let’s face it, when) “Jake” just refuses to walk away from the oranges?

A quick reminder of the scenario: you’re at the supermarket, and it’s time to check out. Three-year-old Jake, though, has discovered the joys of the orange bin, and has other plans – he’s way more interested in examining each and every one than joining you on line. You ask him to come join you, and he replies adamantly, “No.” You ask him again. He stomps his feet: “No!” Other customers start looking in your direction. “Tsk, tsk,” you imagine them thinking; “why can’t you control your child?”

So what do you do?

Take a deep breath

As hokey as it may sound, I implore you to first take a deep breath. Really. Feel your breath coming in and going out and the sensation of your feet on the floor; perhaps even close your eyes for a moment (but just for a moment, lest Jake take off for the candy aisle). In that moment, remember two important things: 1) You have choices, and 2) Jake is three (or two and a half, or four). And by “Jake is three,” what I mean is that you are the parent, and you are in charge. He is not calling the shots here; you are.

Now what?

You have a few options, and, unfortunately, one size does not fit all. I am going to list a few ideas, some of which may work for you, and some may not. Or, to make it even more complicated (and therefore more realistic), some of which may work for you some of the time, and others of which may work for you other times or not at all. All of them, though, are aimed at helping you avoid a power struggle. Remember: Jake is a toddler, which means that a) you are in charge, and b) if you momentarily forget that and get into a power struggle, he’ll beat you every time. In no particular order, here are some strategies for you to keep in your back pocket:

Don’t respond to Jake

Instead, start doing something he’ll like better than discovering the excitement of citrus fruit. This is a really effective strategy for some children, particularly those who have learned that they are able to get a whole lot of attention from their parents by being defiant (attention that, as we’ve discussed, is very rewarding for them). Perhaps take a toy that he loves out of your bag, and start playing with it. Or maybe take out your phone and start looking at the family pictures you know Jake loves so much, making sure to narrate your observations out loud: “Oh, Jake, this is the one where you have icing all over your face – it makes me laugh every time!” Jake may well leave the oranges, and hurry over to join you.

Join Jake at the oranges

Sounds crazy, right? But the thing is, it’s so crazy that it just may work. Little children love when you surprise them, and the element of surprise can stop defiance in its tracks. In this scenario, Jake expects you to insist he come to you, just like grown-ups always insist he does things he doesn’t feel like doing. Instead, you’re going to him, and – even better –taking an interest in what he’s doing (another thing little kids love). “Wow, I wonder how long it takes to get the oranges all stacked up like this,” you might say. Or, “I really love the color of oranges; I think oranges and eggplants have the best colors.” Connecting with your child like this – particularly at an unexpected time and in an unexpected way – can be like hitting a “reset” button, after which he or she will happily do what you asked.

Make Jake a helper

Sometimes, all kids need is an acknowledgement that they are important, that you’re asking them to do something not just because you feel like it or because you’re a grown-up, but because you need them to contribute something useful, or because they have a particular skill: “Hey, Jake, I could really use your help putting these groceries onto the conveyor belt; you’re really good at lifting the carton of milk, which is pretty heavy.”

Make it a game

Jake’s having a lot of fun looking at the oranges, so your mission is to come up with something equally fun or enticing. “Oooh, I have an idea! Do you think you can hop all the way to me?” Or, “You know how you do the hokey-pokey in school? Is there a way to do it while you walk? Like, could you do the hokey-pokey while walking over here?” For extra compliance, add in some doubt about whether he can actually pull off what it is that you’re asking: “Really? You think you can do the hokey pokey all the way to me? No way! There is no way you can do that!” Then, of course, you voice your amazement that he did, in fact, manage to meet your challenge, and continue to express how impressed you are all the way to the checkout line.

Have a race

It’s a rule of thumb, really: never underestimate the power of a race to motivate toddlers. Rather than asking Jake to come to the checkout line, you’re offering to race him there. Guess who wins?

Distract, distract, distract

Rather than continuing to ask Jake to come to you, ask him to tell you that knock-knock joke about the banana again, or the story about what Sophia did on the playground. While you’re listening, beckon to him to come join you, like it’s a casual afterthought to the main event.

Turn your command into a choice

Toddlers want to be in control; their primary developmental task (read: their job) is to become autonomous, to learn who they are as independent people, and where they fit into the larger world around them. Rather than open the door for them to be able to practice their “No!” yet again, present them with a choice for how to do what you need them to do: “Jake, do you want to try to hop over to me, or do you want to walk while you sing ‘Old McDonald’?” Then, whether he chooses to hop or sing, he’ll be complying with your request while maintaining his sense of control.

So, there you go. Seven strategies to help you get the behavior you want from your little one. Two final points:

First, I know that some of you may be thinking that, by using any of these techniques, you’ll be teaching your child that he or she can “get away with it.” Get away with what, I would ask? With being a toddler? Yes, your child will undoubtedly be getting away with being a toddler. Which is to say that defiance is not only normal and comes with the territory, but also that it serves an important function in allowing your child to develop a strong sense of self. To imply that Jake will “get away with” not listening implies that you are in competition with him, which is simply not the case. You are the parent, and you are in charge; of that there is no doubt. The task at hand is to get the behavior that you want from your toddler, and these are all ways to do just that.

Does this mean that Jake never learns that he needs to follow directions, that there are rules he needs to obey? Absolutely not, and this leads me to my second point. When it comes to behavior, as with health, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you can anticipate that the supermarket is going to be a challenging setting for Jake, whatever the reason, then it’s always beneficial to set up the expectation in advance by letting him know that it’s very important he stay with you and follow directions while you’re grocery shopping. You then give him lots of positive attention for doing so, and you may even offer a small reward if he’s able, say, to follow your directions the whole time you’re there [Note: Rewards are not bribes! A reward comes after a good behavior, whereas a bribe is given in order to stop a bad behavior. Rewards are a very effective tool; bribes are not.]

Also key to setting expectations in advance is having a few ground rules in your home, one of which may be that your toddler needs to follow your directions the first three times you ask, or else he or she receives a consequence. Then, if Jake doesn’t join you in the check-out line after you’ve asked three times, he has broken this rule, and he gets the same consequence he always gets. How do you set up these rules, and what are appropriate consequences, you ask? Perhaps that will be the topic of the next installment of this series.

Now go practice your hokey pokey.

I’m often asked about the best ways to manage toddlers’ behavior. There are so many techniques out there, and it can be difficult to sift through them. With a bit of digging, however, it’s clear to see that they all share a few key elements, the most important of which pertains to the power of attention. You, as a parent, already possess the most powerful tool there is to manage your toddler’s difficult behavior; you just have to learn to use it right. Let me explain.

When I bring up the notion of positive attention with parents, they often respond with something like, “Oh, my daughter gets plenty of that – that’s not the problem.” The important thing, though, is not only that children get enough attention, but also that they get it in the right way, and at the right times; as a parent, you have to dole out your attention strategically. Think of it this way: your attention is like money. Consider this parallel: I get to work every day around 9am. Let’s say that tomorrow I get in at 8, my boss sees me in the hallway and says, “Wow, Dr. Hershberg, it’s so great that you’re here so early; here’s an extra $500.” If that happened, do you think I’d get to work at 8am the day after tomorrow? Darn right I would. And why? Exactly. Because ALL of us – not only kids – are more likely to repeat the behaviors for which we get rewarded. Money is a huge reward for grown-ups. What’s the biggest reward for kids? Attention. So every time you give your little one attention, you are paying him, and whatever he did that got attention, he is going to do again. You have to think to yourself: do I want to pay my little guy for this? Do I want him to do it again?

The best way to give positive attention is in the form of specific praise. “Good girl,” or “Nice job” are both fine, but they’re too vague to lead to real behavior change. If two-year-old Elena comes to you when you ask her to, and you say “Good job,” she may know you’re talking about her following directions. But she may also think she walked in a particularly praiseworthy manner or, for that matter, that you liked the way she dressed the American Girl doll she’s holding. You need to pick the behavior that you want to see improve – say, following directions – and praise it specifically and frequently. Every time Elena follows directions, you want to be ready with a payment: “Great job, Elena; I love the way you followed my directions the very first time I asked!”

Being strategic with your attention is easier said than done. Picture yourself at the supermarket at checkout time. Three-year-old Jacob, however, is taking his sweet time over by the oranges, picking them up one by one to examine their color and shape. “Please come over here, Jake; it’s time to go.” In scenario one, Jake listens to you; he puts down the orange, and comes to stand by your side. You don’t pay him much mind, as you’re busy fishing through your bag for your credit card. Maybe you say “thanks,” but if you do, it’s quick, and you’re not really making eye contact. All in all, not such a big or satisfying “payment” for Jake, who did exactly what you asked him to do, and right when you asked him to do it. In scenario two, you give Jake the same instructions, but he pays you no mind. So you repeat yourself: “Jake, I said please come over here.” This time Jake responds: “No!” “Jake,” you warn, “I don’t want to have to say it again; get over here.” Jake, again: “Nooo!” This continues, until you abandon your place in the checkout line, walk over to the oranges, and take Jake by the hand. In this case, Jake didn’t do what you wanted him to do, and boy, did he get a big payment for it – you spoke to him more, and ultimately joined him physically, all for not following directions. What did he learn? That not following directions is a pretty great way to get Mom’s (or Dad’s) attention.

If you’re like many parents, you might be thinking to yourself that, in the above situation, the attention Jake received was negative, not positive; after all, his mother was hardly in a great mood by the time she had to drag him away from the oranges. It’s important to know, however, that young children differ from adults in a very important way. Namely, they prefer positive attention and negative attention to no attention at all. Adults, on the other hand, would take being ignored over negative attention any day – wouldn’t you rather fly beneath the radar than have your boss chastise you for all the things she thinks you’re doing wrong?

So what if, going back to Jake at the supermarket, you gave him a lot more attention – a much bigger payment – for following your directions in scenario one. He leaves the oranges alone, meets you by your side, and you say, “Wow, Jake, that was awesome! I asked you to come join me, and you followed my directions right away! That’s really helpful to me; thanks. Give me a high five.” What does Jake learn then? That he gets rewarded when he follows directions, when he does the exact thing that you want him to do. Will it feel unnatural or contrived? It may, at first. It can be tough to flip the paradigm around so that your child receives more attention for doing the right thing than the wrong thing, but once you get the hang of it, the approach will come to feel much more natural – it’s like building a muscle.

If it feels like it might be too hard to make this shift, think of it like this: your child is going to make sure that she gets a pizza of attention every day – attention is a basic need for kids. It’s not up to you whether to give her that pizza, but, rather, how many slices are going to be positive attention and how many are going to be negative attention. And frankly, if you don’t give your child a full pizza of positive attention, she’ll end up taking the rest of the slices in negative attention – whether you want her to or not.

A couple of final points. First, you may ask why – and how – you are supposed to provide positive attention to a child who has been difficult to manage all day long. I mean, if Elena has been throwing tantrums since she got out of bed in the morning, then why on earth would you be super positive on the one occasion, late in the day, that she is able to keep it together even when frustrated (say, that she can’t have a cookie at 5pm)? Saying something nice to Elena is probably the last thing you feel like doing, which is understandable, and human nature. But think about your favorite baseball team. It’s the seventh inning, and they have yet to score. Finally, someone gets a base hit – do you cheer? Of course! Why? Because when the team is having a rough game, they need fans more than ever. You could say, “Well, they didn’t score for six innings, so I’m not cheering them on now.” You could also say, “This is only a base hit – I’m waiting for a home run to cheer.” But you don’t say either of those things. Rather, you cheer; you cheer because you know the team needs it, and because your cheering lets the players know that there’s someone in their corner, rooting them on, there for them and proud of them when they do even the littlest thing right. Once there’s a base hit, momentum often picks up, and the whole game turns around. Right?

Second, you may be thinking that your little ones “should know” how to follow directions, or how to stay calm when they’re frustrated, or any number of other things. Putting aside developmental norms (an article for another day!), let’s go back to baseball, and your low-scoring team. When they get that first base hit, do you abstain from cheering because the team is made up of professional athletes, and they’re just doing their job? Of course not; the fact that it’s their job has absolutely nothing to do with it. You cheer because you’re a loyal fan, and because the cheering helps.

And at the end of the day, that’s what matters.