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A Good Helper (2-3 Years)

Will wonders never cease?

There is no magic moment when children become more likely to follow directions. But at around 12 months, something very important happens. They begin to develop the ability to control their urges, change their behavior, and do what their mom or dad says. Not all of the time, of course—but as children grow, so does their ability to stop themselves from doing something they want to do, like writing on the walls, and do tasks they don’t want to do, like picking up their toys.

What does research tell us?

Researchers call this wonderful part of early development “self-regulation.” Without it, children would have difficulty functioning, learning lessons in school, playing with friends, or getting along with people. Some children demonstrate self-regulation skills earlier than others. Just as some children tend to be shy while others are naturally bolder, the ability to manage impulses comes more easily to some children than others. Self-regulation begins between 12 and 18 months when children become more aware of social demands and develop the ability to change their behavior when a parent asks. In most cases, this early step in self-control requires an adult to be nearby. Between 24 and 36 months, children develop the ability to follow wishes even when mom and dad aren’t around. For all children, learning to be a good helper or resist temptations is a gradual process. 

The dos and the don’ts

For children, there are two sides to self-regulation: “the dos” (as in “Wash your hands before dinner”) and “the don’ts” (as in “Don’t throw daddy’s keys across the room”). For a child, the “dos” include doing things or finishing things he doesn’t want to. “Don’ts” include stopping himself from doing something he wants to do. As most parents and caregivers can attest, children deal with “dos” and “don’ts” differently. A firm “don’t do that” doesn’t always work, nor does an encouraging “please help me.”  On days when your child won’t listen, remember that self-regulation doesn’t develop overnight. It’s a skill that grows over time and with experience, especially during those crucial years before age four. Also, remember that asking your child to do or not to do something is just a type of communication between the two of you. When children have lots of positive experiences with everyday conversations, they are more likely to respond positively when parents make requests.

Helpful parenting tips

  • Don’t expect too much too soon.
  • Be aware of tempting settings and be prepared to help your child through them.
  • Create situations where your child can explore without hearing lots of “don’ts.”
  • Catch your child doing lots of things right and praise her.
  • Do chores, like picking up toys, together.
  • Make tasks as fun as possible.