Encouraging Cooperation in Toddlers: Gentle Parenting Tips for Teaching Litter Etiquette

Encouraging Cooperation in Toddlers: Gentle Parenting Tips for Teaching Litter Etiquette

Today I saw a two-year-old child drop a piece of litter on the ground. The mother angrily ordered the child to ‘Pick that up! Now!’. The child ran off. The mother retrieved her and again ordered her to pick the litter up, telling her she was ‘naughty’. She also told her where the bin was, upon which the child happily picked up the litter and put it in the bin. “She has to learn to put her litter in the bin”, the mother commented to a bystander, whose gaze I suspect she was very conscious of throughout the incident. True. I’m sure anyone practising gentle parenting would agree with this. But how do we go about it? Here’s a few ideas:

Try speaking kindly

The anger is unnecessary, and it creates disconnection between parent and child. Disconnection leads to lack of cooperation. Mutual respect is the goal here. Instead of barking orders like a dictator, creating natural resistance, give respectful guidance, creating willing cooperation. The way we speak to our children becomes their inner voice into adulthood. Choose your tone wisely.

Don’t label

Choose your words wisely too. Negative words like ‘naughty’ or ‘messy’ become part of a child’s self-image. Again, they’re unnecessary. Simply explain why we don’t drop litter, focussing on how it affects others. If a child is very young, keep it simpler still; ‘We put our litter in the bin’.

Try modelling

A very young child will take a while to learn all of life’s etiquettes, let alone understand them, and will tune out if there are too many corrections and lectures. Role-modelling, however, is a far more powerful tool for teaching desirable behaviour. Sometimes it may be better to pick the litter up ourselves, and ‘showcase’ this as we’re doing it. ‘I’ll put this in the bin where it belongs’. The child will likely even offer to help, and be delighted to do it themselves in future. It’s always nice to feel capable and responsible, and to be like mum or dad.

Give information, not commands

Notice how in the above example, the child cooperated with her mother’s request when she was told where the bin was. Orders are often unnecessary. When we maintain a positive connection with them, a child’s natural disposition is to please us and do the right thing. Really. We just need to give them the information they need, be it new information, a reminder or a subtle hint.

Have age appropriate expectations

A two-year-old dropping something on the floor is not being naughty. Think about it. Their behaviour is not bad, it’s normal, natural and understandable. They just don’t get it yet. If we keep this in mind, we’re less likely to feel angry in the first place. We need to guide and teach, but not blame or shame, and that’s a key difference between gentle and more conventional parenting. Yes, the child needs to learn not to drop litter, but there are different, and actually easier ways of teaching this that promote a positive and happier relationship, and a child with a positive self-image. It’s just a small example, I know. But if we think about how many interactions like this take place with our children every day we start to get the overall picture. Let’s make that a positive one. For more on the difference between gentle and punitive parenting, see this post, http://parentingwithunderstanding.com/2013/08/15/punishment-or-limit-setting/ Learn more Attachment Parenting UK’s accredited Positive Discipline course, suitable for parents, carers and anyone working with children, includes modules on cooperation and a wide range of positive discipline topics in 10 flexible interactive modules.