Toddler “Jeopardy”: Why we Phrase Directions in the Form of Questions

“Would you please clean up this toy so we can get our next one?”  When my toddler client shakes her head and smiles, I have to smile too.   What was I thinking?  I gave her a choice to clean up or not, and she chose, as they say in the Indiana Jones movies, wisely.   I wouldn’t choose to clean up if I were 2 years old.    Why did I make it sound like her participation was optional?

I forgot at that moment that she is not a little adult, not even a young child.  She is a toddler.  When we speak to an adult or older child, we often use this kind of complex but indirect request.  They know that you are really telling them to do something if they want a certain outcome.  You aren’t asking whether or not they would consider doing it.  Toddlers are the most literal people on the planet.  They hear your question as “Would you like to clean this up?  We are going to get the next toy.”  Then they consider your apparent request on it’s merits.

If you subsequently change your question into to a firm instruction, they will be highly offended that you seemed to change the rules.  It would be like being asked whether or not you would like to pay your taxes, and then being sent the bill.  So be very careful when you phrase a directive or a contingency to a toddler.  Peaceful coexistence with them requires understanding how they hear what we say to them.  Unlike the game show, your response should not be stated in the form of a question.

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