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How to make sure your child learns what you want him or her to learn

When children play they’re learning what they want.

Often these will also be the things you want them to learn, but for some things they may need extra encouragement, like using the potty (see potties and toilets), washing or dressing themselves, learning what not to touch, and where it’s not safe to run.

It’s worth thinking about how you do it.

  • Wait until you think your child is ready. Forcing something too soon usually ends in failure. You get cross and upset, your child gets cross and upset, and the whole thing becomes impossible. If it doesn’t work out, leave it for a few weeks and try again.
  • Try not to make it seem too important. Your child may learn to eat with a spoon because it’s fun, but still want to be fed when he or she is tired, or may enjoy the first few times on the potty because you’re so pleased, and then get bored with the idea. In time he or she will see that it is worth while learning to be more grown-up and independent.
  • Keep it safe. If your child is under three years old he or she can’t really understand why not to touch your stereo or pull leaves off your pot plants, so keep things you don’t want touched well out of the way and you’ll both be less frustrated. Time enough to learn about not touching when your child can understand why.
  • Be encouraging. Your happiness is your child’s best reward for good behaviour. If you give your child a big smile, a cuddle or praise when he or she does something right your child is much more likely to try doing it again. Giving your child attention and praise for doing something right works much better than telling him or her off for doing something wrong.

  • Don’t ask for perfection or for instant success. It’s safest to expect everything to take much longer than you’d hoped.
  • Set an example. Whatever it may look like, your child does want to be like you and do what you do. So seeing you wash in the bath, brush your teeth or use the toilet does help.
  • Avoid fuss and confrontation. Once something gets blown up, it can take longer and be much more difficult for everybody to calm down.
  • Be firm. Children need you to decide some things for them, and need you to stick to your decisions. They need some firm guidelines. So try not to waver. You might start something like potty training, decide your child isn’t ready, and give up  for a while. That’s fine. But a child who is in nappies one  day, out the next and back in them the next, is bound to  get confused.
  • Be consistent. For the same reason, it’s important that everybody involved in looking after your child is teaching more or less the same things in more or less the same way. If you and your partner, or you and your childminder, do things very differently, your child won’t learn so easily and may well play you off against each other.
  • Do what’s right for your child, for you and for the way you live. It doesn’t matter what the child next door can or can’t do. Don’t compete and don’t ask your child to compete. 

No parent is perfect, and some children seem to find these lessons particularly difficult to learn. See dealing with  difficult behaviour.


We are indebted to Health Promotion England for their help in compiling this section.