Why You Can’t Reason with a Toddler

      Amongst my group of close friends are 7 women who are also mothers of young children. The oldest is ten and the youngest 3 are due soon. Having a range like this around me has given me so much insight into kids that it’s like having an encyclopedia of parenting. There are numerous techniques to choose from and plenty of feedback on what works and what doesn’t. My favorite moment however is when I hear a mom trying to reason, or rather ‘over’ reason with their toddler.
      Now, this is not to say we shouldn’t explain things to them. After all, telling a 3 year old he can’t jump on the bed or he will get an owie is pretty much standard operating procedure and does work (if the kid actually cares that is). However, I hear myself and my friends all too often give our toddlers elaborate reasons why they can’t do something. For example, one friend told her son, “You can’t kick the car seat because then it will get all dirty and daddy will have to clean and you know that makes him mad.” Really? I’m pretty sure the kid stopped paying attention after the part about making the seat dirty. I know I did. Kids just don’t care about consequences five moves into the game. When I explained all this to my friend, she asked me with the typical frustration of a mother, “Why can’t they just understand us?”

      With that in mind, I watched how my son plays for a few days and I can say I learned this, toddlers can’t be reasoned with because they use a totally different logic than us. They don’t think about the same consequences as us. Here are a couple examples from my observations.

1: The chalkboard experience. My son has an easel with a chalkboard and free rein on two pieces of chalk since it is still the easiest medium to clean up. I am very thankful for this because the other night my son decided my black shirt looked so similar to his chalkboard that chalk must be meant to work on it. Now I admit that I am partially at fault. When I last checked, he had been ‘drawing’ shapes on my back using a clean toy straw as I watched the news. I never noticed when he paused, for if I had I would have known he had dropped the straw and decided to really ‘draw’ on me with some chalk. I didn’t get mad, after all it was part my fault, but I did tell him it was bad because now mommy had to change shirts and wash laundry sooner. What did he care? He just saw an expanse of black and assumed that chalk worked on it. So while I’m worried about laundry, he’s just excited he connected the idea of ‘black’. Attempt at reason: Failed. Resolution: I redirected him to the chalkboard, praised him for understanding what ‘black’ is, and told him to keep the chalk on the board.

2: My son was given a baby doll for Christmas because, as you might have read before, he will be a big brother in May. He takes baby to bed with him, makes sure it’s dressed all the time and even tries to snuggle it in his blanket or give it some of his juice. One day I noticed him undressing the baby as he sat on the kitchen floor. When I looked back over the baby was gone and my son was eagerly sitting before his toy oven, as if waiting for it to finish cooking something. As you might have guessed a second later he chirped, “Beep!” like a kitchen timer and opened the oven to reveal the baby. While I was impressed he used a toy hot mitt to remove the doll from the oven, I was still somewhat disturbed. I tried to explain that it was bad for the baby to bake it, (especially his baby brother) but to him it was a fun game and back into the oven it went. Attempt at reason: Failed. Resolution: I just took the baby away and said babies don’t go in ovens-period. We don’t want that game catching on.

     It was after that when I realized you can’t reason with a child who has no concept of our ‘adult’ consequences. They are curious by nature and everything is something to be done, touched, or in our case, ‘baked’.

      So, with those observations under my belt I’m trying very hard to keep my explanations short and sweet. I’m sure my husband will be glad; he loves stories that are short and to the point. Sure it takes all the fun out of it, but it does seem to sink in a lot better if you make your immediate point and end it there. We’ll work on long term consequences when he hits junior high.