Expert Parenting Advice on How to Teach Your Toddler to Listen to You. Still working on #7, and #10 really helps!
Two weeks ago, I wrote a post about how Mazzy doesn’t listen to me.

The post centered around a discussion I had with my sister (the brilliant Dr. B) who told me to stop asking Mazzy so many questions. Particularly ones where “no” was not an acceptable answer.

I got so many responses from readers who wanted to try Dr. B’s advice, I asked her to write a more in-depth post on “listening”. Or as Dr. B calls it— COMPLIANCE. (That’s why she’s the doctor.)

It’s a good thing I did because turns out, I’m still getting a lot of things wrong.

For one thing, after the whole French parenting brouhaha, I decided to try saying “no” more sternly which escalated to a place I found uncomfortable and yet STILL DIDN’T WORK.

Dr. B says that children are more likely to respond to a directive when it is done in a child-friendly tone.

I guess both Mazzy and I have a lot to learn.

With that, I will hand you over to Dr. B…


Most children begin to exhibit non-compliance around age two (i.e., the terrible twos) as they begin to explore their independence and develop a self-image. At this age, a child’s non-compliance is their way of communicating, “I am my own person. I’m separate from you.”

In other words, they recognize that mom and dad’s desires do not always match their own and that they can have their own likes, dislikes, and belongings. Common behaviors during this stage are frequent use of the word “no,” difficulty sharing, claiming possessions as “mine”, picky eating, and throwing tantrums when they do not get their way.

Children continue to exhibit non-compliant behavior throughout their life as they explore their own unique identities, separate from their parents, although their way of expressing themselves becomes increasingly sophisticated (e.g., style of dress, teen rebellion, etc).

Instead of becoming more restrictive during these times which will likely make the behavior worse, be flexible and use your child’s resistance as a barometer for when you may need to give them more developmentally appropriate control over their choices and environment.

Below are a few suggestions for minimizing non-compliance and increasing listening in young children:

1) Be close and talk at eye-level: Some children learn that a parent is not likely to follow through until the third or fourth time they are asked to do something so they ignore the parent the first few times a request is made. Make sure your child listens the first time by setting them up for success. Do not raise your voice or intervene from across the room. Instead, make requests in close proximity to them at their eye level.

2) Give choices within acceptable parameters: When children are non-compliant, they are looking for some control. Giving choices is one way to give your child control but on your terms. State all requests or directions as choices when you can. Instead of saying, “You need to get dressed now.” Try, “Do you want to put on your shirt or pants first?” while holding up both options to make the choice as concrete as possible. Similarly, avoid making something sound like a choice when it isn’t. For example, do not say “Can you come to the dinner table?” when “no” is not an option.

3) Keep language developmentally appropriate: 2 and 3-year-olds are just learning to follow one and two-step directions, respond to questions, and to understand negative terms (e.g., Don’t throw). Use positive terms that tell your child what to do (e.g., “Walk!”) instead of what not to do (e.g., “No running!”). State one direction at a time and give your child 5 to 7 seconds to process and respond to what was asked.

4) Limit your use of directives and questions: Do not give your child more opportunities to practice “not listening” by firing questions or directions that they fail to respond to. Instead, only make a request when you have time to follow through and ask a question that your child is likely to respond to.

5) State directives in a respectful and child friendly tone (without anger): Children are more likely to follow directions when the tone is positive.

6) Be genuine and sincere: Indicate what you need your child to do by using phrases such as “I need you to” instead of “You need to” to avoid a potential power struggle when your child responds by saying “No I don’t!”

7) Always follow through on directives: Make consequences known in advance (positive or negative) (e.g., “First get dressed, then you can play with your doll.” Or “If you put that toy in your mouth again, I’m going to take it away.”) Once you’ve made a directive, you must follow through on the consequence if your child doesn’t do what you say. If your child complies, make sure to acknowledge it with plenty of descriptive praise (e.g., Good listening! Thank you for doing what I asked you to do!) to increase the behavior.

8) Give Information: Providing information lets you communicate in a way that does not reinforce non-compliance. When you give information such as “It is time to get changed” or “I’d like you to get changed,” you hope that your child will consider the information and change their behavior but you are not demanding that they do so immediately which could set you both up for failure or a power struggle. This gives you time to test the waters and decide when and how to proceed (e.g., by letting your child play longer, giving a choice, using a back-up reward, or choosing a negative consequence for not listening when you decide to state the request more firmly).

9) Model Good Listening: Be a role model for good listening by showing that you are listening to your child by imitating and reflecting back what your child says. Try to verbalize the feelings your child is expressing with behavior, in words.

10) Make listening fun: Use games and playful language to teach your child to listen. Play games such as “Simon Says” with the whole family and then use this game at other times when your child is less likely to listen (e.g., If its time to get dressed say, “Simon says put your hands up” and then slip his/her shirt on). Keep it fun and effective by alternating between funny directions (e.g., stick out your tongue) and things you want your child to do.

A child’s resistant behavior can be difficult to embrace at any age; however, responding harshly or with criticism only makes the behavior worse and can potentially damage your child’s self-esteem. Instead, remain calm and keep in mind that non-compliance is a completely normal (and important) part of development that results in children becoming the special, unique individuals they are destined to be.


Dr. B has a PHD in school psychology and specializes in early childhood development.