You can stop asking your toddler this one question

Written by: Elizabeth Jones

Stop saying this to your toddler

We hear it all day long: at storytime, at the playground, at music class, at toddler birthday parties. It’s become so ubiquitous, you probably don’t even think twice about it.

I’m talking about “can you...?”. As in, “Can you put the bean bag back in the basket?” “Can you clean up that spill?” “Can you share a piece of your snack?” It’s parent-speak for many different situations and in almost all of them “can you” is the wrong phrase. It’s not what we mean and with toddlers, we need to be literal.

We almost always know what our kids can and can’t do; we’re acutely aware of when they are able to grasp objects, take a step, pick up a toy or understand where the trash can is. Which is why we don’t need “can you” unless we really don’t know. “Can you” is wishy-washy, a suggestion. It’s not even a proper request.

Of course, “can you” has its place: Maybe you don’t know, maybe your toddler is trying something new: “Can you take the lid off that jar?” “Can you get up on the swing without me?” In those moments, “can you” may be appropriate. For all the other times, I offer seven alternatives:

  1. You can… This is the easiest substitute, just flip your usual “can you” and it becomes an empowering “you can.” “You can put this in the wastebasket.”
  2. Now we… We are constantly teaching toddlers how we do things around here: what’s polite, what’s protocol, what’s the process. When we’re done with the crayons, we put them away. “Now we put them back on the shelf.” 
  3. Let’s… When you’re helping your kiddo or you’re doing something together. “Let’s draw a dog! Let’s take out only three crayons.”
  4. Try to… When you’re really not sure if they can. “Try to spread the butter on the toast.”
  5. It’s time to… When it’s part of a process. “It’s time to put on your shoes.” 
  6. Please… A polite, direct request. “Please take your dish to the sink.”
  7. Do you want to… When it’s totally optional. “Do you want to pop the bubbles?” 

Starting with these alternatives, you will find what feels natural to you in each situation. Your child will feel empowered and you can feel like the confident, in-charge parent you aspire to be—for the moment, anyway.

Elizabeth Jones is a stay-at-home-mom of two boys, including a busy toddler and a (mostly) smiley infant. They live in Old Town and can often be found at Farm in the Zoo, scootering around the playground and library storytime. 

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How I got my toddler to eat like a normal human

Strategies for winning toddler sleep battles

The NPN blog gives voice to our members' thoughts about parenting in the city, and the views expressed don't necessarily reflect our own. Want to write for us? Email with your topic ideas.

Posted on October 21, 2019 at 2:11 PM