You’re the Decider

“So, honey, do you want to go to the park now?” 

Wait: Let’s pause for a moment. 

Toddlers tend to enjoy going to parks, right? In fact, your toddler (let’s call him Max) this very morning demanded a visit to the park. Of course, you didn’t appreciate his whiny tone, and you reminded him that polite requests can get you far in life. 

You might as well have been addressing a stone wall. But what else are you going to do today — watch 12 more episodes of Daniel Tiger? 

You tell Max you’ll go the park as soon as he picks up the junk strewn all over the floor. And, what do you know, he actually picks up the junk!  

Then he starts acting cute and sweet instead of petulant and sociopathic, and you think, “Man, this kid is the greatest.” 

Overcome with feelings of affection and generosity, you decide Max has really earned his visit to the park today. 

So, is he ready to go now? 

Well, what do you think? 

Toddlers and etiquette 

One thing about toddlers is they haven’t internalized all the day-to-day etiquette conventions that underpin polite society. Can you blame them? Think about it — after all, these are humans who, in some cases, are still measuring their age in months, not years. 

One of the conventions I’m talking about is the command-as-question politesse. For example, imagine you’re at work, zoning out while you scroll through your emails. Your manager suddenly appears, breaking the spell. 

“Hey,” she says, “Ready to head down to the conference room for that two-hour compliance meeting?” 

Could you ever really be “ready” for that? But since you’re a full-fledged adult, you say, “Yes! Let’s go.” 

Toddlers do not yet understand that they’re supposed to be agreeable and not make waves. As anyone who’s spent some time with them will know, toddlers are all about making waves. Their desires are front and center, and they’re more than willing to share their “big feelings.” 

Of course, Max doesn’t want to go to the park. The park desire has been replaced by some new, more absorbing desire — the desire to decorate the headboard of your bed with Justice League stickers, perhaps. 

Whatever the reason (as much as “reason” plays a part in the toddler world), Max says no — he does NOT want to go to the park. And now you’re in a position of weakness. Either you press on, grimly stating, “Well, we’re going anyway,” while he wails and moans as if you’ve just informed him that you’re going to an injection-skills clinic for nurses in training. 

Or else you might start pleading with him: “C’mon, Max, let’s go. You said you wanted to,” as you struggle to keep a subtle whine from creeping into your own voice. 

Navigating chaos

One of the first things we parents learn as we lurch into the toddler phase is that there are new power dynamics to be navigated. You’re still the nurturer, the provider, the giver of unconditional love, but now you’re also, to quote George W. Bush, “The Decider.” 

And so I present my No. 1 toddler tip: “Statements, not questions.” 

As in, “Let’s go to the park now.” 

If commands make you nervous, keep in mind that you can always make them sunny: “Time to go to the park!” 

But are you asking a question, as if your child has a choice in the matter? 

Absolutely not. 

I’m not saying you won’t get any pushback to your commands, but you’ll maintain your position of power. And at this point you can start allowing your toddler to make unimportant (to you) decisions — like whether his snack will involve cherry or blueberry yogurt. 

Will you struggle to embrace this new, despotic manner? Perhaps. But I encourage you to be strong, and think less in terms of “manipulation” and more in terms of “guidance and frameworks.” 

The tyranny of choice is real, man: Set your kids up for success.


Shannon Keough lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two children. Send questions or comments to skeough@mnparent.com.