elevating child care

5 Reasons Toddlers Won’t Follow Our Directions

Parents often ask me, “Why won’t my kids listen?” What they really mean is, “Why won’t they follow my directions?”
Children are ready to listen, primed from birth to begin decoding our words and intuiting our unspoken messages. They are also unique individuals who quickly develop ideas, opinions and wills of their own.  Babies and toddlers often understand exactly what we want but choose to do the opposite.

So why won’t our kids just do as we ask?  Here are the most common reasons:

1. Disconnection

Children feel disconnected for a variety of reasons. Perhaps we’ve been punitive and manipulative (sometimes without even knowing it), rather than the respectful, benevolent guides our children need in order to learn our expectations.

We might have made the common mistake of taking our child’s age-appropriate resistant behavior personally. How could this child for whom we do everything, and have essentially given our lives to, deliberately disobey or disappoint us (hit her baby brother, for example) when we’ve told her hundreds of times. Does she not love us?

Children often repeat their resistant and rebellious behaviors because they aren’t feeling our love. They sense they are out of favor with us — misunderstood and blamed when what they need is our help. Our behavior control tactics (usually applied with a dose of anger or frustration) can make our children uncomfortable, confused and even fearful, and this is manifested in their increasingly erratic behavior. These impulsive behaviors tend to continue and repeat themselves until we recognize the intense message our kids are sending us: be my gentle leader and help me feel safe again.

2. Words are not enough

Parents are often taken aback when their adorable 11-month-old infant hits them in the face and then smiles and does it again after they say, “OW! No, we don’t hit“, or “you’re hurting me!” Has this baby suddenly become evil or stopped loving us?  Of course not — she is simply expressing something she cannot verbalize, and this is a crucial time to demonstrate that we have a handle on these behaviors, that we’ve got her back. We show her by calmly holding her flailing hands while assuring, “I won’t let you hit me. That hurts.”  And if our little one is in our arms and continues to flap at us, we might add, “You’re having a hard time not hitting, so I will put you down.”

Then, perhaps after placing our child down she bursts into tears. Since we’ve taken the action necessary to prevent her from upsetting us, we now have the presence of mind to realize, “Aha, Josie didn’t sleep well last night, and even though it’s too early for her usual naptime, she’s exhausted. That’s her message, and no wonder she wouldn’t stop hitting.”

Once we’ve understood that our words are not enough for most young children (and how difficult it is for them to understand and express their needs), we see the ridiculousness of taking their refusals to follow our verbal directions personally. It’s on us to make our expectations clear by following through with firm, but gentle actions.

How our reticence creates guilt

Sometimes when parents believe their words should be enough or they are otherwise reticent to follow through, they try appealing to their child to do (or stop doing) whatever it is out of pity for them. For example, parents tell their child she hurts their feelings when she won’t clean up the playroom, or they get vulnerable and cry whenever there are power struggles (which usually only happen when parents are reticent to take charge by setting a clear boundary).  These responses are not only ineffective, they can also make children feel guilty and cause an unhealthy sense of responsibility for (and therefore discomfort with) the vulnerable feelings of others.

3. We are unconvincing or way too exciting

“If a parent does not really believe in the validity of a particular rule, or is afraid that the child will not obey, chances are the child will not.”Magda Gerber

The manner in which we give directions will determine whether or not our children follow them.  Some parents need help perfecting their confident, matter-of-fact delivery, remembering to put a period (rather than a question like “okay?”) at the end of their sentences.

Parents might also need to perfect what I call the “ho-hum stride” and use it to replace lunging towards the baby about to touch the dog’s dish and shouting, “NO!” Or charging after the toddler who runs away when it’s time to go home from the park (emergencies like running into traffic are a different story, of course). The moment we might save by rushing rather than sauntering confidently can cause numerous repetitions of the undesirable behavior, which has now become a thrilling game.

“Ho-hum responses” are also helpful when children whine, scream or try out the profane new word they heard at preschool. Kids are much more likely to forget that word and stop whining or screaming if we dis-empower the behavior by ignoring it (which doesn’t mean intentionally ignoring our child) or give a ho-hum, nonchalant direction like, “That’s a bit too loud”, or “That’s an unpleasant word. Please don’t use it.”

4. We over-direct

No one likes being ordered around, especially when they are toddlers (or teenagers). Whenever possible, give children (including babies) choices and autonomy. Children desire to be active participants in life beginning at birth. Include toddlers in decisions and ask them to help you problem-solve.  (Lisa Sunbury, author of Regarding Baby offers thoughtful suggestions in her post “Let’s Talk”. )

Balancing our instructions with plenty of free play time with children calling all the shots means they will be more willing to listen when we direct them. It also helps when we remember to always acknowledge our child’s point-of-view, for example: “We’ve been having such a blast outside and I understand not wanting to go back in, but we must.”

5. Our child has better things to do

Sometimes not following directions is a good thing, because it reflects our child’s healthy, delightful instinct to learn the way young children learn best — through play, exploration, and following inner-direction:

“My daughter is 2.5 years old and when we go to activities (structured playgroups, mom toddler stuff) she does not follow direction (or very rarely will follow direction). Maybe she will to a degree, but generally speaking she is the wild flower that is rolling around, running and dancing circles in the big open room while all the other kids are sitting quietly by their moms’ side….should I be concerned about this? or leave her to her own exploration ( it’s winter here so the big open space to run is a really treat!) or keep on trying to get her to listen to the ‘animator’ who is trying to run a session?”

Hmmm… listen to an ‘animator’? Or roll, run and dance? That’s a tough one.


I offer a complete guide to respectful discipline in
NO BAD KIDS: Toddler Discipline Without Shame

(Photo by Umesh Behari Mathur on Flickr)

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97 Responses to “5 Reasons Toddlers Won’t Follow Our Directions”

  1. avatar Priyanka Naib says:

    Hello Janet,

    Greetings from Priyanka. Thanks for very nice post and interesting subject. I live in India. My 2.9 month old daughter goes to playgroupsince 2 months- daily two hours. She is very active kid, and loves nature and outside things..

    She has around 12 kids in her class, and she is the only one who does not sit in the classroom, and remains in the lawn or on swings. It is not a problem to me at all. However, every month in parent meeting, I get a feedback from the teachers that my daughter was not set well yet!! Reason: she only roams outside, plays outside, does all activities other kids do – but not in the closed room. She hardly sits in the class for 10-15 minutes, and just jumps outside, where there is a lawn and open space. This is described as her ‘problem’..They even tried to threaten her for sitting inside, but she is not scared.

    I am not sure how to response them in the next meeting, and make them understand what she does is perfectly all right. Please let me know if her likings for outside is ok? Also, is it ok, if she plays outside then sitting in a closed room seeing the teacher doing some acts?

    Another ‘problem’ is bit real problem. At a moment, when she remembers me during playgroup, she starts crying hard, and none can lift her pin back from that point of record..It is difficult to turn her to some other act, once she has some strong urge. Even at home, if I’ve promised to take her out, and for some reason, I cannot fulfill, It become difficult to later on convince her. She has remained crying whole night missing to go out.

    Please guide me for both the points.

    Many thanks,

  2. avatar ceci says:

    My 20month will not obey direction from me,but when others tell him to do any thing he obeys easily,and he will not stay in daycare or kids class in church all he does is cry all day,he whins alot.

  3. avatar Ruth Barker says:

    Hi Janet,

    I would also add to that list – we may have not prepared the environment enough for the developing brain. That is, it may not be ordered and may fee chaotic to the child. They may feel lost in an adult world.

  4. avatar Joel says:

    Your articles make me feel like a terrible parent.

    • avatar janet says:

      I’m very sorry to hear that, Joel. That is certainly not my intention. My only goal is to help.

  5. avatar Nancy says:

    I am having a hard time trying to get my 4 year old brush his teeth and get dressed in the morning. He just runs around, sneaks away from me and laughs. Sometimes it can take 40 minutes just to get him ready by which time I am late for work. I tried naughty chair. But when the time is over, he seems to be really hurt. He refuses me to hug him and pushes me away. The next morning it can be the same. I am a single parent. This gets me so exhausted.
    Just for this situation, what do you suggest I should do? I tried not ignore his behaviour but just grab him into the bathroom without talking to him and get him brushed, washed and dressed. I simply do not have the time. I have been late for work almost every morning.
    The rest of the time, he could behaviour really well, like stop playing in the playground and going home etc.
    Please help. Thanks,

    • avatar Pascale says:

      What I do is prepared my son the night before for the next day. When it is the end of bath time, I get him ready with clean underwear, pants and shirt. Thus the next morning, this step is already done…it save me lots of time and frustration. Hope it helps!

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