How to Parent a Toddler

February 28, 2023

Also Available on:

Apple Podcasts
Listen on Spotify
Google Podcasts
Amazon Music

Today's question says, "do you have any advice for parenting a two-year-old and how to engage her? She can't sit still and does not listen. I have a hard time even taking her to the grocery store or department store because all she wants to do is run and hide in between the close racks." In this episode, Elizabeth Urbanowicz shares advice and insight on how to train a toddler, ages 2-3 years old, to meet your expectations.


Note: The following is an auto-transcript of the podcast recording.

Hello friends, and welcome to the Foundation Worldview Podcast where we seek to answer your questions so that you can equip the children God has placed in your care to carefully evaluate every idea they encounter and understand the truth of the biblical worldview. I'm your host, Elizabeth Urbanowicz, and I'm so excited you've joined me today for another episode of the podcast. Today's question says, "do you have any advice for parenting a two-year-old and how to engage her? She can't sit still and does not listen. I have a hard time even taking her to the grocery store or department store because all she wants to do is run and hide in between the close racks." Now, I'm sure this is a question that many parents of two and three year olds, maybe even four year olds are asking because kids don't come with an instruction manual, and sometimes it's really difficult to figure out in these young developmental stages, what do we do?

Because you don't have to be a parent for very long to realize that children are just programmed, pre-programmed to say no and to do the exact opposite of what we ask them to do. So in regard to this question, I think there's two important things for us to think through, and the first thing to think through is what is developmentally appropriate? Because we want to make sure that our expectations of our children are developmentally appropriate. We don't want to set expectations that are so high and unrealistic. Our children can never attain them, but we also don't want to just set very low expectations and not set proper expectations for how our children really should be behaving at this age. The second thing that I think we need to think through are what kind of things have we done to help the children in our care actually meet these developmentally appropriate expectations?

Because it's one thing to set an expectation, it's another thing to actually equip the children in our care to meet that expectation. So first, let's talk through what is developmentally appropriate for a two or a three-year-old? Well, anyone with a two or a three-year-old or who has ever had or worked with a two or a three-year-old, that they have so much energy, so what is developmentally appropriate for them? Lots of running, lots of movement, lots of playing. Okay. So we need to make sure that our days are structured in a way where our children have lots of time to run and move and play and be creative, that they need a lot of space to do these things. They need to be able to move their bodies. That's just how God has designed their bodies. And then with playtime, it's important for them to have a lot of unstructured playtime, and I don't mean playtime without any rules, but playtime where they can be creative, where they're actually working with things, with toys that weren't necessarily even designed for a specific purpose but can just be played with creatively.

I always think several years ago, my parents took all of the siblings and their spouses and grandkids to Disney World, and the first day that my oldest nephew got there, I think he was either three and a half or four at the time, I think he might have been four. The first day that we got there, he was so excited because there was just so much external stimuli and there were so many things for us to do. There were so many places for us to go, so many rides to go on. But by the end of our third day there, he said, I just want to go home. I just want to play with my toys. And all he wanted to do was go back to the hotel room and just play with some of his toys because that's the developmental stage that he was in, that he didn't need a whole lot of entertainment.

What he needed was time to be able to run and jump and move and be creative. And so that's very developmentally appropriate. Also, at the ages of two and three, kids have a shorter attention span that in general, a two year old's attention span is two minutes long. A three year old's attention span is three minutes long, and so we shouldn't expect them to be seated and still for 20 minutes at a time. That's just not developmentally appropriate for a two-year-old or a three-year-old. Now, just as a word of caution here, if the children that God is placed in your care are already exposed to screens at the age of two, and especially if they're exposed to screens for a long amount of time, and what I mean by a long amount of time is more than 20 to 30 minutes per day. So if your child is seeing a screen for more than 20 or 30 minutes per day, their attention span probably will not even be up to two or three minutes at this point.

Because what happens with screens is the creator of the creators of shows are not thinking what's most beneficial for this child. On the other end of the screen, what they're thinking of is, how can we make more money? And we make more money by having someone exposed to this content for longer because then there's more advertising dollars spent. And how do you get someone to spend more time looking at a screen? You give consistent dopamine hits. And so what the creators of shows do is they make them high in energy. They make them switch between screens, between characters, between music, between images every 10 to 20 seconds so that there's constant dopamine hits. So if your children are exposed to screens, even if it's something like the Mickey Mouse Club, that's something that there's bright colors and there's lots of music and noise, and it's constantly switching back and forth between angles.

They're just used to these dopamine hits. So their attention span is not going to be developmentally what it should be. So you're actually going to have to do some back pedaling and actually work to lengthen their attention span. A great way to do this is through reading, and we'll talk a little bit more about that in the second half of this podcast. Just a few other things that are developmentally appropriate for two and three year olds is for them to be able to use a signal to get your attention. I hear so many two and three year olds when they're with their parents and they want their parents' attention and their parents are doing something else or are talking, they're just like, mom, mom, mom, dad, dad, dad. And they just shouted over again until the parent is tired of ignoring them and just says, what?

Okay. A really good thing that our children at two and three are capable of doing is when they want your attention, you can just train them to come over to you and to put their hand just gently on your leg, and that will just be a physical symbol for you that they need your attention. So you can train them to use a symbol like that just coming over and putting their hand gently on your leg. And then for you to very quickly talk to the person you're talking with to say, hold on one minute, and then look down at your child and acknowledge that he's there or she's there, and then either ask what they want or say, mommy or daddy needs another one minute, stay right here with your hand on my leg and then I'll get to you. They're able to follow these basic signals.

They should be able to follow some very basic one or two step directions. You should be able to say, okay, I need you to go in the bathroom and bring me your toothbrush. A two-year-old or a three-year-old should be able to follow those directions. Another thing they should be capable of doing is learning from consequences. Now, it's very hard to reason with a two or a three year old. So if you sit down and try to have a long conversation about why what they did was wrong, they're not at a place developmentally yet where they can reason through that by four, they should be, but a two and a three year old. The consequences a lot of times have to be more physical, whether it's a timeout, whether it's a gentle spanking, whether it's a taking away of a toy that they really like, but they should be able to learn from consequences.

So these are just some general outlines of things that should be developmentally appropriate for a two or a three-year-old. Now, the second thing that we have to think through once we've thought through what is developmentally appropriate for this child God is placed in my care? Next, we need to think through what kind of training have we done to help these children meet our developmentally appropriate expectations? Because if we have these expectations, but we haven't equipped them with the training that they need to meet them, they're going to consistently fail. We're going to consistently get frustrated. Now, this is not an example with a two or a three year old, but it is an example with older children that I saw this in my classroom when I was teaching third grade. It's impossible to run a classroom by yourself. You know, need to make sure that things are going well.

And one thing that I was consistently frustrated with is the fact that when I would give students jobs to do in the classroom, whether it was to put up the chairs at the end of the day, or whether it was to sweep the floor or to take out the trash or to wipe down the computers or something like that, I was consistently frustrated because my students just not meet my expectations. I would explain to them, okay, here's what you do. I want you to go around the classroom. I want you to put all the chairs up on the desk, or Here's what I want you to do. I want you to take a wipe, wipe down the computer. I would give them the instructions, but they would just always seem to fail to follow them in the way that I wanted them to. And several years into teaching, I realize if I want my students to meet these expectations, I need to actually invest time training them to meet these expectations.

So what I would do is when I would give out a classroom job, I would actually train my students for five days in a row. I would have them stay in for the first five minutes of recess, and I would train them in the job I wanted them to do. The first day, I would just model it for them. Say, here's how you put a chair up on a desk. This is what you grab. I want you to grab the legs. I want you to flip it this way so that you don't injure anybody else in the process. This is how I want you to lay it on the desk. You know I would model that for them, and then I would have them try it once then I'd release them to recess. The next day. I would ask them, what do you remember about what I told you?

And I'd have them verbally explain to me what they remember. Then I'd model it for them again. Then I'd have them practice it twice. The next day, I'd have them come in and I'd say, "here's what I want you to do. I want you to show me how you put up the chair the right way, or how you wipe down the computer the right way." And they would do that. And then I'd have them explain to me why they were doing it that way. And then the last two days, they would come in, they would just practice. They would prove to me that they would know how to do it. And I would say, "I expect you know that for the next month as you have this job, everything is done this way and it's done correctly. If it's not done correctly, then you're going to have to start staying in for the first five minutes of recess again to get some retraining."

And you know what the amazing thing was? It was almost never that I had to retrain a student because I had invested that time training them to do it well. And I told them, okay, here's what the consequences are going to be if you don't follow the instructions. Every once in a while, I would have a child that would want to pull something over on me and they'd try to do their job in an incorrect way or try to cut corners, and then I would just say, oh, I think you need some retraining in this. We're going to have to spend another week of the first five minutes of recess inside. And very quickly, amazingly, they would learn how to do everything correctly. So just thinking through just how we can train our children to meet these expectations. If we have an expectation that they're going to be able to play for 10 minutes on their own in a room without getting into anything that they shouldn't be getting into, what we should do is we should set the expectations.

Here are the three toys that you can play with and take out those three toys, practice playing with them together, have a lot of fun. Then put them away after 10 minutes. Then the next day, take out those three toys again and say, okay, here we have our toys. What are we allowed to do? That's right. We can play with these toys. What are we not allowed to do? Right? Whatever expectations you have set, whether it's not throwing the toys, whether it's not getting any other toys the next day, have your child do that. Say, okay, it's our playtime again, what three toys are you allowed to get? Okay, I want you to go and get those and just watch them as they're playing. Let them play with the toys. The next day, do the same thing. Have them go and grab the toys by themselves.

Can then the next day say, okay, what do you have to remember? What can you do? And go through what they can do. Okay, what can you not do? And then say, mommy or daddy is going to go into the next room and make lunch. Do you think you can follow those rules and then make sure you're in a place where you can hear them and you can jump in if they do not meet any of the expectations? And if they don't meet any, they don't meet all of the expectations, go in and stop and say, oh, I'm so sorry. What were you supposed to do? Yeah, what did you do? And said, yeah, you didn't obey. So you know what? There's going to be a consequence. And whether that consequence is putting the toys away and being in time out or a gentle spanking, or they can't play with the toys for the next few days, make sure there's a consequence right away so that they understand, oh, I didn't meet the expectation.

If they meet the expectation the whole time you're gone, make sure that you praise them and that you celebrate that they've met the expectations and that they understand they've done what they were supposed to do. Now, when talking about situations like going to the grocery store or going to the department store, it's really important that they understand what those expectations are. Because if we just take our child into the store and then they run away from us, and we're like, "no, get back here." We haven't set any expectations. We haven't told them what the expectations are. So we need to make sure, okay, when we go to the store, there's three things that we're going to do. One, you're going to stay by mommy or you're going to stay by daddy the whole time. Number two, we are going to have a smile on our face the whole time.

And number three, we're not going to have any whining. And then practice saying those over and over and over and over again. And then after that role play, pretend like you're going to the grocery store. Say, "we're going to pretend that we're going to the grocery store and sit on the sofa and pretend that you're buckling your seats." And then you're driving to the grocery store and you're getting out and say, "what are the three things you have to remember?" And talk through those three things. And then pretend that you're going to the grocery store and you're going grocery shopping. And at the end, when your child meets all the expectations, have a snack or give a sticker, do something fun, and then practice that role. Play that two or three days in a row before you go grocery shopping, and then say, "we're going grocery shopping today."

What are those three things we need to remember? Go through the three things and then go into the store with your child. And if all the expectations are met, make sure that you praise him or her for meeting the expectations. If the expectations are not met, make sure that you have very clear and immediate consequences. Because here's the thing, when we've trained our children to do something, and they deliberately disobey what they know they should have done, and most of the time if we're like, did they deliberately disobey? Did they not? Most of the time, it is deliberate disobedience. We need to make sure that immediately we have a consequence. Because if we don't, we're training them and saying, well, mommy didn't really mean that. Daddy didn't really mean that. So I saw this even just recently. I had two little boys from my church come over my house after church, and it was the first time they were coming over and I thought, you know what?

I want to have them over again and again and again. I want to be able to give their parents a break. I want to be able to invest in their lives. And they were three and four years old, and I knew if I didn't set expectations, things might be a mess. Because we're talking about three and four year old boys. They have a lot of energy. So in the car ride home, I gave them three rules. I said, "the first rule is obey Miss Elizabeth. The second rule is no running or screaming in the house. And the third rule is have a smile on your face." And then I just coached them, "tell me what's rule number one?" And at first they couldn't remember, but we went over it again and again and again and again. And then they got it, and we got to my house.

We started playing. We had a great time. Then I went to make a lunch while they were still playing in the living room. And then I said, "lunch is ready. I need you to come here right now so we can wash your hands." And one of the little boys said, "not yet. I'm still playing." And I stopped immediately what I was doing. I said, "oh." I said, "do you remember what rule number one was?" And he looked at me and he said, obey Miss Elizabeth. I said, you're right. I said, "did you just obey Miss Elizabeth? No, you told me that you were still playing." So immediately I had him go into a timeout, and I just said that he was three years old. So I just set the timer for three minutes and I said, I'm sorry, but you know what? After that, I've had those little boys over my house multiple times.

And do you know what? Now, every time I give an instruction, they obey it immediately because that first time when they disobeyed, I said, an immediate consequence. And they understood. I meant what I said. If I had just let that slide, I would've continued to have problems every time they were with me at my house.

So if you're thinking about your child being in the grocery store with you, what's an immediate consequence? Well, it sounds like from the person who's asking this question that the child is not in the shopping cart, maybe the child doesn't like to sit in the seat in the shopping cart. So that might be the consequence. What if you run away from mommy? Or if you touch something on the shelf that mommy told you not to touch, you're going to have to sit in the cart. And immediately, as soon as they make that mistake, as soon as they disobey, put them in the shopping cart. Maybe they throw a tantrum, they don't want to be in the shopping cart, and they're screaming, and you say, "If you don't stop screaming right now, we're going to have to leave." And if they don't, leave. And you might think, but there's things in the cart. It's okay. It's okay that there's things in the cart. If there's frozen things, go put 'em back in the frozen section so that they're not going to go bad and cost the store money. But take your child out to the car and drive home.

And then if you need to, the next time you can have somebody watch your child while you're at the grocery store while they're having not fun consequences, not playing with the babysitter, not doing something fun. But mommy really wants to take you to the store. Daddy really wants to take you to the store, but you know what you showed me that you can't obey. And so until you can obey, you're going to need to stay home, and you're just going to need to be in a timeout until mommy gets back from the store.

Now, this may seem very overwhelming if you're thinking, oh my goodness, Elizabeth, these kind of consequences, this kind of consistency. Yes, it is a lot. It is a lot, because we as humans have stubborn rebellious hearts because we are in rebellion against our creator. And so training our children to do the right thing, training our children to be obedient, training our children to be good listeners, it takes time. I said before in the podcast that if you want to grow your child's attention span, practice with reading. Practice growing their attention span through reading. Just start off with reading to them for 30 seconds or a minute, and have them sit near you on the sofa, have their hands folded and their eyes on the book, and then gradually grow that by 30 seconds to a minute every day. Just train their attention span.

You can do this. I know it's very overwhelming and it requires a lot of consistency, but if you put in the time up front, training your children in these areas, it's going to pay dividends in the future. I saw this even in my classroom when I was a third grade teacher, that the first six weeks of school, I spent so much time training my students in expectations. Even from the first hour of the first day of school, the first day of school, I would stand outside the classroom and I would hug each child as he or she came in. I'd learn their name, I'd introduce myself, and I'd say, "here's what I want you to do. Here's the instructions." I said, "you see that rug over there on the floor with the map of the United States? I need you to go sit on that. I need you to sit with your legs, crisscross applesauce. You can have a smile on your face and no talking. Okay?" And so I set those expectations. And then when everybody's in the classroom, I'd say, oh, you did such a great job. Now here's what I need you to do. And I would give instructions for a game that we were going to play. I would give three simple rules. And I would say, "if you don't follow those rules, you're going to have to sit out and not be part of this game." And sure enough, just because kids pushed the limits, there was always one child and every group of students that would push the limits and would not follow those three instructions that I gave, and I wouldn't embarrass the child in front of the class. But I'd just say immediately, as soon as they stopped following those instruction, I'd say, oh, I'm so sorry.

Do you remember those three rules that I gave you? Yeah, you broke rule number two, or you broke rule number one. I'm going to need you to go sit over on floor over there. And they would sit out. And during the first six weeks of school, I would just be very, very strict with my expectations. I would never raise my voice. I wouldn't yell at them, even if I felt frustrated inside, but I would just implement consequences. And that paid dividends throughout the rest of the year.

Now, I'm sure that some of you that are watching or are listening, that you may have very unique sets of circumstances. You may have a child that has some developmental delays. You may have a child that's going through a particular illness or an autoimmune disease. You may have a child that has autism or down syndrome. You may be working with a child who's not your biological child and there's just different things that come up with that. And so what I'd really encourage you to do in that situation, God has given us the gift of the local church. And in your local church, there will be people who have walked this road before you. And so go and find those people in your local church. Be honest with them. Here's what I'm dealing with. Here's what I'm struggling with. I know that you've walked this road before me. Can you please help me and start to develop a relationship with that person and learn from them? God has given us the gift of the body of Christ. We were never meant to do this Christian life or this journey of raising up the next generation of disciples on our own. So really start to invest in the local body of Christ and glean wisdom from those in your local body who have gone on this journey before you. Well, that's a wrap for today's episode. If you found this content beneficial, please consider liking subscribing, writing a review, and sharing it with others in your sphere of influence. Our goal is we want to equip as many adults as possible to reach the next generation with the truth and goodness and beauty of the biblical worldview. As always, my prayer for you as we leave this time together is that God would continue to richly bless you as you faithfully disciple the children he's placed in your care. I'll see you next time.

Share this article

Related Posts and insights

Helping Kids See Their Bodies the Way God Sees Them

How can we help our children view their bodies the way God sees them in a world with comparisons, fad diets, and body shaming?

Did God Change Between the Old and New Testament?

How can I teach my children that the God of the New Testament is the same as the God of the Old Testament?

Why Can I Not See God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit?

In today's episode, Elizabeth shares how parents can help answer their child's question, "Why can't we see God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit?" Listen to learn how to respond to this profound question to help our kids grow in their understanding of God.