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How to teach toddler to come when called?

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I have tried coaxing and firmness but neither work. I did read your advice on one of the threads here and learned that at this age, she wants to be in charge, which explains what may be going on here. I am at my wit's end as to what to do and my dh isn't sure what the answer is, either. She is generally a very cooperative type child but simply will not come when I call her the majority of the time (though occasionally she will). We have taught her by showing her what it means to come when called, but she still doesn't seem to get it. I am concerned if she is ever in a dangerous situation and doesn't listen to me it could cause her harm.

Thanking you in advance,


Dear Mary,
First, you should know that the behavior you describe is completely normal for a 21 month old. The fact that she is generally a very cooperative child is terrific, and indicates that she is simply going through a very predictable stage.

Let's look at it from your daughter's point of view. She's happily engaged in something when she hears you call her name. She knows you are calling her, but she doesn't yet understand the“rules” of human conversation, so she doesn't know that she is being rude by not answering. She knows that whatever she is doing is more important than anything you could possibly want from her. She may not even look at you, because why should she? She is busy. Unless you are saying her name followed by “Come to me right now!” she doesn't really understand that's what you expect when you call her.

Let's assume you do say “Sweetheart, come to me right now please!” in a fairly urgent voice, and she understands you want her to come. She still doesn't know why it would be nearly as important as what she is doing. And if you happen to be standing next to the bathtub, which is filling with water when you call her, she knows that what comes next is being stripped down and plunged into the water. At that point – even if she likes baths! – she is likely to run in the other direction, because transitions are hard for toddlers. In fact, if you think about it from her perspective, why should she come willingly to take a bath, eat dinner, put on her coat, clean up her toys, or most anything else you are calling her to come do?

From your perspective, of course, you want your child to obey your directives. You especially want to trust that if there were a dangerous situation, she would hear your call and race into your arms. And, someday, she will. But at 21 months it may be too much to expect.

There are things you can do, though, if you want to hasten the day when she comes running. And since these are fun games that will strengthen your relationship, there's no reason not to put a little time into teaching your daughter to come when she's called. As always, the best teaching is when the student finds the lessons totally entertaining. Here's how:

1. Stop calling her from across the room. If she doesn't come, that just reinforces that you call and she doesn't need to come, so it trains her to ignore you.Wait a month to reintroduce this, and then do it as a game, as I explain below.

2. Be aware that in a dangerous situation you would need to grab her to get her out of harm's way, and in any situation that could potentially be dangerous, rely on your arms rather than your voice to whisk her to safety. Stay as close as necessary.

3. Begin “training” your daughter to respond when you say her name by getting down on her level, right next to her, and saying her name. If she looks up, reward her with a big smile and hug, and say “I love to see your eyes!” That way you are at least training her to make eye contact when you call, which is the first step toward her coming. Don't interrupt what she's doing, or that will penalize her for responding to you. If she doesn't look up, make it into a game by saying her name over and over in a teasing, loving voice, and at the same time kissing her on her head, arms, etc. If you make this into a game that she enjoys, she will associate your saying her name with your loving touch and having fun with you. Obviously, don't initiate this game when it will irritate her because she's trying to focus on something else, like watch her favorite video.

4. If you actually need your daughter to come to you, don't call her. Go over to her, stoop down to her level, make eye contact, and explain what's next on the agenda. Then take her hand, or pick her up, to move her physically. It helps if you go over five minutes in advance, look her in the eye and give her a warning that “In five minutes it will be bath time and we'll need to stop playing.” It helps even more if you give her a choice: “Do you want to take your bath now or in five minutes? Five minutes? Ok, in five minutes I will come back for you and we will stop playing and go have a fun bath with no fuss, right?”

5. Start “educating” your daughter to come to you by using stuffed animals to act it out. It works great if you have a mom and baby bear to do this, but it is fine if you just use a big stuffed animal and a little one. Have the Mommy animal call “Come here please, I NEED you!” to the Baby. When the Baby responds to the Mommy's call and comes to her, have the Mommy give her a huge hug and make a loving fuss over her. Then have her help the Mommy do something, such as find something that's lost. Give your daughter one of the stuffed animals and have her act it out with you. Make sure she plays both roles.

6. After a month, reintroduce the idea of calling your daughter to come to you. Pick a time when she is not focused on something that will make it hard to get her attention. Start by calling from right next to her so she won't actually have to move to come to you. But instead of you calling her, hold the “Mommy” stuffed animal in front of you and have her do the calling, using your daughter's name and saying “I NEED You!” In other words, make it into an irresistible game. If your daughter comes into your arms, both you and the stuffed animal should hug her and make a loving fuss over her. If she doesn't come, scoop her up in your arms and say “Here you are! I NEED You!” and make a loving fuss over her anyway, as if she had come. Keep doing this until she will reliably move into your arms for her hug, and then begin moving just a tiny bit away as you call.

7. Never punish or be stern when your daughter doesn't respond to your call. Remind yourself that she's a toddler. Continue to reward the behavior you want, and ignore the behavior you don't want. But if you call once and she doesn't respond, just say to yourself “Not today, I guess,” and go over and pick her up. Say “I called you because I NEED you!” She will be very happy to be interrupted and in your arms.

8. After awhile, you'll find that your daughter will come running when youcall, and say “You need me, Mommy?” At that point, find something you need her help with, to make her feel valued and indispensable to you. Even if you're calling her to come take her bath, reward her with a big hug and say, “I do need you! Only you can tell me if this water is the right temperature. What do you think?” You'll always be able to think of something she can do to help you (Find her shoes so you can leave the house, turn on the faucet so she can wash her hands for dinner, help you figure out which toys go where). Kids need to feel valued, and she will gradually learn that the payoff for responding to your call is that she gets the very wonderful feeling of being needed and valued by the most important person in her world.

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