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How to ‘Train’ a Demanding 2-Year-Old

Understanding your child’s style of play will help him become more independent.


Question:
I work part time so that I can be at home with my 2-year-old Ben two days a week plus weekends. I really love to be with him, but sometimes I wonder, will the time ever come when I can finish a phone call or read the paper or even take a shower without him wanting me to play with him instead?  

Answer:
It sounds like you are like many devoted parents of young children: as much as you take pleasure in playing with your little guy, toddler play can be exhausting for an adult! You may be wondering, and rightly so, whether it’s realistic to expect Ben to entertain himself, and if so, for how long. You may also wonder if other children play more independently, and if they do, is there something you should be doing differently? After all, you’ve seen the advertisements for expensive and “educational” toys that promise that they will give your child “hours of fun and learning.” Of course, the ads don’t mention that the hours will probably be spread out in three-minute bits over the next year or so.
First, it’s important to accept that most 2-year-olds can’t play alone very long, even though some manage better than others. Some children have a lot of focus: they are able to get involved with one activity and are less likely to be distracted. Often, these are children who require less back-and-forth interactions. Sometimes these children are tactile learners and love to play using their hands and fine motor skills. Give them a box and a pile of small objects and they are content for a long time. In toddler time, that might be 10 minutes!
Other children are more interactive in their play and want to be talking or sharing activities with other children or adults. Wherever they are, whether it’s with you or with other children, their learning style may be more verbal and social. These children can have more difficulty playing alone, so parents have to learn to stay engaged without having to be a constant playmate.
The good news is that no matter what the starting point, all children will gradually be able to increase the length of time they play alone if parents help them learn to enjoy their own company.
What is his Style of Play?
Since you’ve noticed that Ben has difficulty playing alone, take some time to observe his current pattern and style of play at home and in other settings. If he’s in a share or group setting for childcare, ask the caregivers what he likes to do there and whether he sometimes plays alone. That information will help you figure out how much your own style of play is influencing Ben’s expectations of you at home.
If you see that he doesn’t stay involved in an activity for more than a minute or two without wanting to do something else, you can help him learn to play longer by gently refocusing his attention. For example, you might notice that Ben sometimes picks up a toy, plays with it for 30 seconds, and then throws it aside, looking around for something else. Instead of introducing him to another activity, you can pick up the discarded toy yourself and let him see you examine it, move it, stack it, whatever you like, so that he can observe different things he can do with it. If he still moves on to another activity, you don’t have to follow his lead. You are simply doing what you want him to be able to do eventually, and he’ll learn by watching.
Sometime parents think “play” means that they should follow their child around the room, trying to engage and switching the activity whenever a child switches. A child might enjoy himself but the parents will be quickly worn out. Instead of helping the toddler to learn to play on his own, they are teaching him to expect a parent to follow him until she drops. When a parent stays still and waits for a child to return, she is showing him that it is possible to stay interested in one activity for a few minutes. Even more important, the parent is telling a child, “I can be with you without entertaining you”.
Ask to Play Before He Does
Sometimes a child feels that if he doesn’t demand his parent’s attention he won’t get it. For parents at home, a good strategy for dealing with a 2-year old who demands that you play with him is to offer to play before he asks. If Ben is sometimes demanding that you play and other times plays alone, it’s easy to get into a pattern of giving him more attention when he asks for it and ignoring him when he’s quiet. Even though this response makes sense from a parent’s point of view, your child winds up being rewarded for just the kind of behavior you want to discourage.
If you’ve gotten into this pattern, you can turn it around by frequently initiating play with Ben, before he has a chance to demand it. Set aside at least five minutes to play together, doing anything that you both enjoy. Tell Ben that you have some time to play now, until it’s time for you to make breakfast, change your clothes, or to do some other task that he knows is part of your daily routine. Give Ben your full attention while you are playing--multi tasking doesn’t count. Then, after you’ve played for five to ten minutes, tell Ben, “I have to go do some work now. We’ll play again later.”  Even if he protests or follows you around demanding more, take care of the task you said you were going to perform, and then tell Ben, “Now I can play with you again.”  Keep offering Ben your full attention when you are playing together, but end the playtime yourself. If you keep the playtimes and your own activity times short, he won’t have to wait too long for you. Although this kind of structured play will at first feel more time consuming than what you are used to doing, over time Ben will learn to accept your coming and going.
If Ben is very sociable and interactive by nature he’ll enjoy playing with anyone, whether his playmate is a parent, a sibling, another child or a babysitter. A child with this kind of personality needs companionship, and it may be hard for any to keep up with his demands all day. Ben’s not old enough for you to let him play with a friend without close supervision, but you can try to arrange play dates where you and another parent watch each other’s children for a few hours. You might find that offering to babysit for a 4- or 5-year old for a couple of hours is a win for you and the other parent. Many parents find that it is less work to watch two young children than one because close supervision is less work than having to be a playmate.
Keep in mind that any two year old is at the age where his curiosity and need for stimulation will exhaust the patience of most parents. Try to get some relief for yourself and diversion for Ben by going with him to the park, on short errands, or to a playgroup. You may not want to hire a sitter on the days when you can be at home with him, but some parents invite a school-age child to come over and “babysit” in the afternoon (offering a modest payment is a good idea). The older child may be too young to take care of your child independently, but he can amuse your toddler while you get some time to yourself, and you are grooming him for an eventual real job.

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