A powerful question in getting a toddler to cooperate Amber Pawlik

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What Would You Like?

A question that I have found that acts as magic in getting my toddler to cooperate is, “What would you like?”


When it comes to discipline, popular opinion has parents using positive and negative reinforcement, e.g., candy as a reward for good behavior and timeout for bad behavior. After reading the views of several enlightened people, as a mom, I’ve rejected this approach. I recommend any of the books with the title Positive Discipline and in particular I recommend the book Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.).


The P.E.T. book encourages parents to reject the authoritarian style of parenting where the parent is the boss and the child is ordered around. Instead, the child is looked at as a being capable of reason and problem solving. Both the child’s needs and the parent’s needs are respected and both are active participants in resolving conflict.


An example may be that a parent wants a child to put a rain jacket on but the child doesn’t want to. Old models of parenting would have the parent strong arming the child into putting the jacket on. With P.E.T, you ask the child why they don’t want to put the jacket on (or better yet, invite, not demand, conversation by saying, “I see you don’t want to put your rain jacket on”). Maybe it was a hand-me-down that they don’t like. The parent then tells the child that they want them to be protected from the rain and asks if there is another way this can be done. Perhaps they will use an umbrella.


The P.E.T book is intended for slightly older children than a toddler, but I was delighted to find out that I could start to apply this advice to my son before he was 2 years old.  At 21 months, just shy of 2 years old, most children have a verbal language explosion. Up until this verbal language explosion, I found, parenting is largely about reading signs from your child to figure out what they want. When they are about 18 months, they have a limited vocabulary and can point to what they want, which we took advantage of. But somewhere around 21-23 months, there is a great leap in their reasoning ability. It coincides also with an ability to understand colors and letters, both of which are abstract concepts as compared to understanding physical objects.


I knew my son had grown in his reasoning capability around this age when one night as we were putting him to bed, he asked for a particular toy. I told him the toy was downstairs (and so he could not have it right then.) It was much to my surprise that he not only seemed to understand but accepted this explanation!


I have learned, whenever my son starts to fuss, to immediately ask the question, “John, what would you like?” One time while I was trying to cross the road with him, he ran off to run around a flower bed. I had 2 bottles in my hand and car keys and could not easily chase him. Many parents, I think, scared by the possibility of their child running into the road, would have yelled, demanded he come back over, and if this didn’t work, dropped everything and grabbed the child. I instead asked him, “John, what would you like?” He told (as he usually does), “Milk.” I explained to him if he crossed the road with me, we could go home, and he could get milk. He was then very cooperative with me!


I use this approach daily. I have to pick my son up from school every day. He often does not want to go in the car seat:

 “John, what would you like?”


“We can get milk at home but first we have to drive home which means you have to get in the car seat.”


And, like magic, he cooperates.

I firmly believe that when people are listened to they are cooperative. Children are no different. And what a great eye opener to find that they can articulate their needs at just 23 months!

As his needs grow in size and complexity, I am sure my son’s involvement in explaining himself and in helping resolve the problem will grow too. For now though, this question acts like magic, and, I hope, sets up the framework of more problem solving to come.

Amber Pawlik
May 3, 2014

The Lucky Mom: How to have a Happy Infant through Respect, Observation, and Understanding
Amber Pawlik
This book is a guide to being that "lucky" parent with the happy baby. It is a very concise book with thoroughly cross-referenced information for parents regarding sleeping and eating habits and the intellectual and physical growth of an infant. A philosophy is presented of respecting the child where the parent observes the child for signs of hunger, sleep, or other needs, and responds appropriately. This book will give you much of the information you need as a parent in just a few hours!

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