How do You Teach a Toddler to be Gentle with a Baby?
The first few days I watched my 17-month-old son interact with his new sister I realized that nothing is more precious than the newborn-toddler combination. It really is magical! On the other hand, one of my primary roles immediately became keeping my enthusiastic toddler from killing his sister by mistake! So. How do you teach a toddler to be gentle with a baby? I’m going to share a roleplaying method that works really well for me not only for teaching a toddler to be gentle with a baby but also for teaching a toddler not to pull the books out of the bookshelf or do other amazing feats such as how to whisper.
The first step is to think for a minute about where your child is in the process of developing empathy and use this information as you go through your roleplaying session. In my case my oldest was young enough that his empathy skills simply had not developed very much yet. In other words, neurologically it was not possible for him to understand the concept that what he was doing hurt or might hurt the baby. For most children, this ability begins around the age of two. If you are interested in reading more about how and when toddlers develop empathy, here is an interesting article on the subject.
Find a Volunteer
Next, I pick someone to help me do a really simple session of roleplaying. An older sibling or friend under the age of ten works best, but Dad, an Aunt, or even a puppet will work! Tell your role model you want him to alternate between being gentle and then not gentle, and you will respond with praise or redirection and correction. During the demonstration be sure to be dramatic in your praise and firm in your redirection and correction.This helps keep everyone’s attention and makes being gentle seem worth it to your toddler. The whole process should take less than five minutes.
I begin by coaching my volunteer. “Andrew would you help me teach Garrett to be gentle with the baby? Here is a soft toy. When I ask you to show Garrett the right way to treat baby, I want you to pat her gently and show her the toy. When I ask you to show Garrett the wrong way, I want you to try and throw the toy in her direction without hitting her. I am going to grab your arm before you can throw and tell you no. Okay, Andrew, show Garrett the right way.”
Andrew pats the baby gently and shows her the toy.
With a big smile I say, “Good job, Andrew!! That is gentle! You are being so gentle with the baby! Mommy is proud of you for being gentle!” Notice the repetitive use of the word gentle.
By now Garrett’s wheels should be turning, and he is watching closely.
“Okay, Andrew, now show Garrett the wrong way.”
Andrew throws one soft toy in baby’s general direction and is winding up for another throw, when I grab his arm firmly and say, “No, Andrew, don’t throw toys at the baby. You will hurt the baby. Throwing toys at baby is no.”
I look at Andrew and direct him saying, “Andrew, show us how to be gentle.”
Andrew demonstrates being gentle, and I respond with enthusiastic praise.
Three Important Tips
First, when you pick the “right” and “wrong” ways for your demonstration be sure to pick a “wrong” action that your toddler has already thought of. Otherwise, you may inadvertently give your toddler new ideas!
Second, make sure that in the role playing session the number of demonstrations of the desired behavior outnumber the demonstrations of the wrong behavior. Don’t forget that toddlers are imitators!
Finally, the example above is how this might play out with a toddler under the age of two. For an older toddler, you can add a bit more to the dialogue as his ability to empathize develops.
I like this method because it is an effective way of “explaining” a relatively complex behavior to a toddler who would not be able to understand a verbal explanation of that same behavior. Once your toddler understands what is ok and not ok to do with a baby, it’s practice, practice, practice! With supervision, of course! We are practicing over here, and have made so much progress in the last few months! Although, if you are wondering what we’ll be doing tonight, it’s doing a modeling session on eating your own snack and not trying to put anything in your baby sister’s mouth! Let’s keep this beautiful baby alive and healthy!
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Images used under creative commons license – commercial use (8/7/2018) vgm8383 (Flickr)