Can Toddlers Follow Directions?

Child at center playing with paint

Toddlers are primed from infancy to tune in to language. They want to be with us and understand us. So why is getting them to listen and follow directions so difficult?

  • They’re distracted. Toddlers are new to the planet and it’s an awfully exciting place. They love to explore cause and effect. “What happens if I pour this water?” and “What happens if I pull these bowls out of the cupboard?” Making messes is much more interesting than cleaning them up.

  • They’re testing you. Just as toddlers enjoy seeing what will happen if they dump, pour, or knock something over, they also enjoy getting a reaction out of parents. In both cases, they’re experimenting and trying to make sense of the world. “Do you really mean it? What will happen if I don’t comply?”

  • They’re asserting their individuality. Sometime during the first year, infants realize that they are separate and independent from others. Imagine how empowering (and also somewhat frightening) this realization must be! Toddlers sometimes say “no” just because they can.

  • They’re human. When someone gives you a command, do you always want to comply? Probably not. Toddlers are the same way. Another common problem is that they simply don’t know how to follow the direction. Remember, toddler behavior is almost always a form of communication. The question is, “What is my child trying to say with this behavior?” More often than not, it’s one of three things:

    • I don’t understand your request.
    • I can’t comply with your request
    • I’m feeling distress (I’m tired, overloaded, hungry, grumpy, etc.).

How to Get Your Toddler to Listen

  1. Create a climate of respect. From infancy, children are unique. They are developing their own opinions, preferences, and will. These are good and necessary aspects of their personality  aspects that build resilience and confidence later in life. Avoid scolding, manipulating, and yelling, which often breed defiance. Instead of a statement like, “Good girls pick up their toys,” try, “Let’s pick up your toys. Then we can play outside.” Be direct, clear, and open. If you wouldn’t say something to an adult, don’t say it to your child.

  2. Make it easy. As adults, most household chores are automatic for us. Not so for toddlers, who’ve only been on the planet a few short months. Organize your home so it’s easy for your child to help. Place coat racks at a toddler’s level. Have designated spaces for shoes, toys, and books. Show your toddler how to put things away (you’ll probably need to show her more than once).

  3. Keep expectations reasonable. Toddlers are at the initial stages of developing their executive function skills and can only keep one simple task in mind at a time. Instead of saying, “Hang up your coat, put your shoes away, and wash your hands,” simply say, “Hang up your coat.” Then, go about your business, rather than hovering. If your toddler doesn’t comply, gently take your child’s hand, say, “Here, I’ll help you,” and demonstrate how to do it. When your child gets it right, offer a simple “thank you” or smile. Understand that your child will not do a job like you would. The books might end up next to the shelf instead of on it. Accept your child’s effort and avoid perfectionism, which is a sure-fire way to dampen enthusiasm.

  4. Make helping fun. As Mary Poppins said, “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun.” If you and your partner gripe about chores or fight over who should do what, children may get the message that work is something to avoid. Instead, make helping a part of your family culture.

  5. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Sometimes toddlers don’t comply because they can sense you don’t really mean it. If you waffle on follow-through, you’re setting yourself up for problems later. So, only make requests that you’re willing to follow through on. If you’re tired (or your child is tired), keep requests to a minimum.

The Work-Life Equation Podcast: Lemons to Lemonade with Four Ingredients

Need help taming your child’s tantrums?

On this episode of the Work-Life Equation, turn those parenting lemons into lemonade! It might not seem like it, but your child is more predictable than you think—and each stage of your child’s development, along with every meltdown, is a gateway to skill-building for your little one. We discuss common parenting challenges and the science behind parenting that can turn frustration into great skills for life.

More on Parenting Toddlers:

Bright Horizons
About the Author
Bright Horizons
Bright Horizons
In 1986, our founders saw that child care was an enormous obstacle for working parents. On-site centers became one way we responded to help employees – and organizations -- work better. Today we offer child care, elder care, and help for education and careers -- tools used by more than 1,000 of the world’s top employers and that power many of the world's best brands
Child at center playing with paint