Why Your Toddler Doesn't Listen to You

how toddlers think

Photo by dsteiner23

It's always nice when one of those smarty pants scientists finds an explanation to some frustrating or bizarre toddler behavior. Stuff like why they refuse to nap even though they are tired or think it's okay to eat a month-old waffle from under their car seat, or, in this particular case, why they just don't listen to anything we say (over and over and over again infinity).

Like this morning:

"Aidan, put on your coat. It's cold out."

"Carolyn, please stop playing with your baby and go potty."

"Aidan, the coat. Now. We're late."

"Carolyn, did you go potty yet? Put the doll down and ..."

Well, now I'm relieved (detect the note of sarcasm here?). Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder say my children are not intentionally trying to push me over the edge. What they are really doing when I think they are blatantly ignoring me is taking all my directions, helpful suggestions, and words of wisdom and filing them away in their little monkey brains until later. A lot later. Like age 13. Okay, maybe not that much later, but you get the point.

Toddler brains don't work the way adult brains do (they're only discovering this now?!). They can't take data from the present and use it proactively for the future. So, tiny kids neither plan for the future nor live completely in the present. Instead, they call up the past as they need it.

The example that the researcher gave was exactly what happened this morning with the winter coat and my 5 year old (not a toddler in age, but still in spirit, trust me).

The researcher says: "Let's say it's cold outside and you tell your 3 year old to go get his jacket out of his bedroom and get ready to go outside. You might expect the child to plan for the future, think 'okay it's cold outside so the jacket will keep me warm'." But what we suggest is that this isn't what goes on in a 3-year-old's brain. Rather, they run outside, discover that it is cold, and then retrieve the memory of where their jacket is, and then they go get it."

In other words, moms, repeating your command a zillion times will do exactly squat. They are not going to listen to you, and if they do, it's because they don't want to lose the dessert you threatened to take away or some other terrifying proposition.

A better way to reason with a toddler with selective hearing?

"Somehow try to trigger this reactive function," the researcher explains. "Don't do something that requires them to plan ahead in their mind, but rather try to highlight the conflict that they are going to face. Perhaps you could say something like 'I know you don't want to take your coat now, but when you're standing in the yard shivering later, remember that you can get your coat from your bedroom."

Your thoughts on this finding? Will this approach work with your toddler? How do you deal with a tot that just doesn't listen?

discipline, learning


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melme... melmel518

I don't think that they have kids theirselves.  If I told my three year old 'I know you don't want to take your coat now, but when you're standing in the yard shivering later, remember that you can get your coat from your bedroom."  She would look at me with a dumb founded face like I just told her something in French.  You have to lead by example.  I don't know the answer and I think that all mothers go through this.  It is just a part of growing up and learning.  It is what my grandmother would call "a learning process."

erika... erikamommy2

I agree w/ the comment above me. I've tried this with my four year old....doesn't work!

amomm... amommy2a2yrold

most of the time with my two year old when she rejects something she's going to need if i can bring it with out her using it i do like the coat i'll let her walk out coatless the she turns and says mommy i'm cold put the coat on when we are on the porch

nucle... nuclear_sugar

...Isn't this just a fancy way of saying, "Let them learn things the hard way?"

Instead of the coat example, you could substitute this for a dangerous activity.

"Aidan, don't touch that stove, it is hot and it will burn you."

Well, "kids can't plan for the future," right? So they wouldn't understand this. According to this article, should we then just say,

"Go ahead and touch the stove, Aidan, but when you burn your hand and have to be rushed to the ER, you'll remember later that mommy told you to leave it alone."

Sorry, but, no amount of psychobabble is going to convince me that this is a good idea. If my toddler doesn't listen the first few times, I'll just MAKE him do it...physically walk him into the room and have him pick up the coat. Or remove him from the kitchen, away from the stove. It may not be the most "hip" way to deal with obstinant toddlers, but, it's the only way to keep your kids safe AND maintain your role of the one in charge.

kickn... kicknscreamn222

I have to agree with the PP.  There's times when live and learn are ok, but times when the parent just has to "make" the child do what is right.  My DD likes to think she can run away from me, even into the street, and I don't know how many times I've told her no, or say she trips and falls and hurts herself, but gets right back up and continues on her way.  Granted, she's only going to be 2 on April 4th, but the crazy kid can't seem to get the ouchie factor in her head.  Sometimes I really feel like I need a leash!

smile... smiley630

Okay my 4 year old has learned the difference between hot and cold, so now when he wants to go out side I tell him he needs a jacket he will go over and touch the window, if its warm (from direct sun) he will say no coat, if it is cold he gets his jacket.  That's the only thing he will do willingly.  the rest of it I remind him over and over  even going to potty.  He will wait til the last possible minute and sometimes not make it. 

smile... smiley630

one more thought I think he is just turning into his dad and has    selected hearing. LOL

coke2pep coke2pep

I just picked up my granddaughter (AGE 4) from headstart for not listening to the teacher and pitching a fit and kicking and hitting her as she wrote her name on the board for continuing to hop in every mud puddle between the class room and the lunchroom. She apoligized to the teacher and I took her to daycare. She will get in more trouble when her dad gets home and hears of how she acted at school. This is a process that we have delt with ever since the first week of school. She has ADHD and is on meds, but they ( Her and her Twin Sister) never listen to anything and if they don't get their way they act REALLY REALLY  BAD!! Her brother is is not ADHD and he spit on his daycare worker yesterday for her telling him that he could not do something. I don't know what is wrong with them, but their mother never acted this way!  They are very disrespectful and mean to athourity figures. Me included! I can't be a grandmother that spoils. I have to help with disiplinary issues as does everyone else in our family. Does he have any advice for us? Maybe he can come and live with them for a while and see what he can do with them. I have thought about calling Nanny 911! It is embarrassing to have to keep going to the school and picking them up for being bad! Mom and Dad have to work and can't do it. I even thought of home schooling them to keep from being embarrassed!

annel... annelebar

This is stupid.  All this theory does is teach children that it is okay to not do something the first time they are asked.  That it's okay to be disobedient.  My two year old son doesn't listen 100% of the time, but I know for sure that he understands me when i tell him to go get his jacket, or put away his toys, etc... Parents need to realize that our kids are SO much smarter than we take them for, and giving them a choice in certain situations only perpetuates defiance and disobedience.

callm... callmeann

If you wait for them to find out that it's cold out, and then go get their jacket, it will take twice as long to leave to get anywhere.  Have fun getting your boss to understand that you were late because you have to let your toddler figure everything out the hard way. 

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