As a teacher, I easily discerned when my fourth-grade students were trying to pull a fast one on me. But when it came to my own toddler, it wasn't so obvious. Sure, a sly smile or sideward glance was a dead giveaway. But there were times — a lot of times — when there was no clear indicator. Was the container of flour knocked over due to innocently inquisitive fingers? Was the oatmeal on the wall due to a defiant flick of a fork?
When I learned how to decipher my son's behavior, it made correcting and teaching him a lot easier. He avoided unfounded scolding, and I avoided massive amounts of guilt. Here is how I did this:
Consider the circumstances
Is your little one experiencing a new situation or environment? If so, it's OK for your toddler to make mistakes. Help him navigate new situations by providing simple guidance.
Let him touch that fluffy cat, but tell him how to do it with a one-word prompt such as "gentle." Guide his hand in yours, petting the cat front to back so that your child not only hears the right way, but can feel and experience it. Toddlers who hear and experience the correct way to navigate a new experience are far more able to recall.
Know your toddler's triggers
The demands of life rarely yield to the schedule and preferences of a toddler. Your knowledge of your child, though, can stave off behavioral challenges. If running errands must occur in the middle of naptime, take along comfort items, such as a favorite toy or blanket. If you know your toddler is likely to be hungry, bring easy-to-eat snacks. If sitting still is required, pack small activities to keep your child's hands and mind active.
Know what's developmentally appropriate
There's no getting around it: Toddlers are egocentric. As far as they're concerned, the world revolves around them. And why not? They don't know any better. They have to be taught better. Avoid overreacting to normal, albeit annoying, self-centered toddler behavior. Toddlers will reach out and take toys from others. Little hands will lash out in anger because they don't yet know what do with feelings of anger and frustration. This isn't defiance. This is typical toddler. Approach such situations as normal opportunities to teach what is appropriate and what isn't.
If your child has any prior history of the offending behavior and has been warned, the action could be forgetfulness or defiance. Trust your gut and your memory. If you believe your child should know better and can do better, then it's probably true.
Remind your toddler of past good behavior
When correcting, help your child recalls a time that he made a good choice in a similar situation. For my boys, I often caught myself saying things such as, "We don't throw that. It's fragile like the eggs when we bake," or "I remember how well you shared with your brother yesterday. Can you do that again?" This approach establishes a pattern of behavior that doesn't just say, "Don't," but corrects the behavior in an encouraging way. Toddlers may not be able to make the connection yet, but if they are not being defiant, they will respond by correcting their behavior.
Young children often act out because they simply don't know what to do with their emotions. This reaction stems from frustration, fear or uncertainty, not defiance. When appropriate, give your child a word for how she is likely feeling. Then explain how she responded inappropriately and what she could have done instead. This doesn't necessarily help in the moment, but it trains your child to recognize her emotions and offers her a positive way to express herself. Once again, this needs to be repeated many times before a toddler will begin to accept a new pattern of behavior.
As a parent, you will find yourself repeating things over and over again. It comes with the territory of parenting a toddler. For your own sanity, keep corrective statements short, simple and positive, as often as you can. Then wait to see how your toddler responds. Disobedience becomes easier to spot when you know that your toddler has heard and understood your expectation.