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Teaching Toddlers Good Habits

August 23, 2016

We all want our children to learn good habits. But how do we teach them? Here are some simple, practical ideas to help you teach your toddler how to incorporate healthy, happy habits into their daily life!

“Hands? Hands?” That’s what my 19 month old says to me after he’s done eating his dinner one night. At first, I have no clue what he’s talking about. “Hands? What about your hands? Are you showing me your hands? Wow, look at your hands!” I say, hoping to appease my moody, yet loveable, toddler. He’s not satisfied. “Hands!” He whines, and his eyes shift towards the kitchen sink.

That’s when it clicks. “Oh! You want to wash your hands!” I exclaim, proud of myself for solving the “hands” mystery of 2016, but also proud of my son for knowing that we wash our hands after we finish dinner. It’s a skill we’ve been working on for a while now, and, in true toddler fashion, it finally sunk in the moment I wasn’t expecting it.

We all want our children to learn good habits: wash their hands, say please and thank you, brush their teeth, the list goes on and on. They are important skills to master in order to become a successful member of society. However, it can be difficult to wrap our brain around how to "teach" these skills to young ones who don’t have very long attention spans. We can’t tell them to take notes, show them detailed charts and diagrams, or deliver grandiose lectures. So how can we help ensure our toddlers are learning the good habits we want them to develop?

  • Be consistent. Consistency is critical to teaching young children how to develop healthy and good habits. Remember our little guy that was learning how to wash his hands? That was something that we worked on after every meal. Even when it was time consuming, even when it was messy, even when he was screaming and crying, we stuck with it. It’s important for children to associate that the two ideas go hand-in-hand (no pun intended). In our case, after eating meant hand-washing.

  • Have a routine. Children thrive on routines and schedules. Having a routine helps children feel a sense of order and control over their day. They know that first comes x, then y. Always. When a healthy habit is woven into the fabric of a child’s day, it becomes a natural part of their schedule. For example, when teeth brushing always happens after bath time, it becomes less of a battle of wills and more just a natural progression of events.

  • Be positive and patient. Remember friends, Rome wasn’t built in a day. And perhaps more difficult than building a city might be trying to teach a wiggly toddler to stay still on the changing table. It’s easy to become frustrated and angry (trust me, so easy), but frustration and anger are not the emotions we want to project in these moments. Imagine this: you’re learning how to ride a bike from a teacher (parent, friend, sibling, etc.). You’ve tried several times and still aren’t quite getting it, and you’re discouraged and agitated. Does your teacher yell at you, throw up their hands in exasperation, and walk away? Hopefully not. Because learning how to ride a bike takes time. It takes repetition. And, it takes encouragement. If we want our children to learn good habits, it’s important to associate them with positivity, patience, and praise. Make learning a fun, enjoyable experience, and it’s more likely to stick with your child long term!

  • Set an example. You are your child’s first teacher. And they are learning from your every move (or word!) whether you realize it or not. So why not use your unique position to reinforce those habits you want them to learn? My husband brushes his teeth alongside our little boy every night. He talks to him about what he’s doing, and why. “We brush our teeth so that they will be nice and clean.” Modeling the behavior you want your child to perform is the most effective tool in your toolbox when it comes to teaching your toddler.

  • Utilize resources. There are lots of songs, books, videos, and other resources available that can help you reinforce these positive habits you are teaching at home! We like singing the “Clean Up” song at our house while putting away toys. Or check out some books from the library about healthy, happy habits!

The most important thing to remember is that these skills aren’t learned overnight. They take lots of practice, patience, praise, consistency, and reinforcement. And you can do it! You know your toddler better than anyone, and, as a result, you know how to teach them better anyone. Find a rhythm and routine that works for your little one, implement these simple strategies to help teach those good habits, and before you know it, they’ll be telling you to wash your hands!

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Sammie is an outreach assistant with the Bringing Books to Life! program. When she’s not busy reading childrens' books to preschoolers all across Davidson County, you can find her curled up on her couch with a good book and a cup of coffee, or chasing her toddler Emmett around the backyard.