Children learn from those around them, whether adults are aware of it or not.

At this age children don’t miss a thing. They are not only listening to what is being said around them, they are also picking up on their parents’ feelings and watching their actions.

What parents do can influence their child’s behaviour as much as what they say. Their children will imitate everything they see their parents do. They’ll also notice what other people do and say, both inside and outside of the whānau. This includes people in supermarkets, in early childhood centres, in church, on the marae, in music groups, and whānau or friends they stay with.

Learning language

Parents may think their children are too young to notice what is going on around them but they are both noticing and copying. How they learn language is a good example of this. We know babies and young children understand much more language than they can say and this happens from them being exposed to language and hearing it spoken around them.

Knowing this, parents and whānau shouldn’t be too surprised if their toddler starts using swear words if these are used around them. How they respond to these more colourful words is important. Getting upset or angry with their child, or laughing and seeing it as something humorous, is to be avoided. Even if parents or the whānau think it’s funny, it may not be so funny when they are out and about. Their child could be frightened or upset by negative responses from others.

Children will notice this cause and effect process. They soon work out they can get the attention they want if they throw in a couple of swear words! At this stage, ignoring any swear words is the best strategy. Better still, don’t model language or behaviour that the parents don’t want their toddler to copy, because children will always do as their whānau does.

Influencing behaviour

How people are behaving around them will also influence their behaviour. Parents may not be intending to teach their toddler, but if there’s a lot going on at home, their little one is learning anyway. They will naturally absorb things, like little sponges soaking up everything going on around them.

They’re learning how men and women treat each other, and how parents treat their children and their elders. They are also learning how to treat animals and others around them. This type of learning may not be apparent until the middle years, but will be solidly learnt by the time they are adults.

When parents and whānau understand how much influence their behaviour can have on their children’s development and future outcomes, they might want to think about ways they can improve the potential outcomes.

Positive attention and modelling behaviour

Toddlers are responsive to praise and positive attention. Being specific with the praise is most helpful for them. Avoid statements like,‘You’re a good boy’, as this can mean different things at different times. Being specific helps toddlers to understand exactly what they did to deserve the praise, so they will be more likely to repeat the behaviour in future.

Taking time to think about what goes on in their toddler’s environment can help parents to see if they are modelling behaviours they want their child to copy. Thinking about what sort of examples they are giving their child can help, by asking themselves questions like:

  • How do we treat each other in our home?
  • Are we kind to each other most of the time?
  • How do we show that?
  • Do we have appropriate expectations for our children’s ages and level of development?
  • Do we know what they are?


Attention-seeking is a natural behaviour for children. If they don’t receive any attention they will develop a series of behaviours to get it. These behaviours can become permanent if they are the only way a child gets attention. They may be used right through their childhood, teens and into adulthood, and many of these behaviours will not be helpful to them.

Focusing on the behaviour that parents want to see influences young children more effectively than focusing on the unacceptable behaviour. Using consistent language also helps children understand better, for example, ‘Gentle hands’ rather than ‘Don’t hurt the baby’.

Another key component for influencing children at this stage is to notice when they are following requests. ‘Catch them’ behaving as they’ve been asked and tell them how wonderful and cooperative they are.

Including children in household jobs

Toddlers are able to help with jobs, with encouragement. They love to be helpful at this age. Parents should make the most of it, as it might not last! Giving toddlers little, manageable tasks helps them to feel important and capable. When giving young children things to do, it can really help to use the word ‘we’ – for example, ‘Shall we pack up the toys together?’ With this approach children feel connected, relationships are strengthened and day-to-day tasks can turn into a shared family activity.

Parents can add another learning dimension to any household job. Toddlers can be passing pegs to their parents when they’re hanging out the washing. If appropriate, parents can play the colour game – ‘Pass me a yellow peg’. Folding the washing can involve ‘matching’ pairs, identifying whose clothes are whose brings early maths into play.

Toddlers will enjoy jobs like cleaning the bath or the shower with a spray bottle and water. Dad could do the scrubbing while their child does the spraying. The shower may not get a perfect clean but they will have a glorious time doing this together, watching and learning.

By always working in the ‘we’, parents can monitor how challenging or easy a task is for their child and provide support if needed, or let them go if it isn’t. Small children cannot tidy a whole room — they need assistance to do this. When parents break tasks down for them and ‘we’ do it together with encouragement and praise, they are more likely to remain interested.

Parents are their children’s first teachers, so thinking about the ‘curriculum’ they’re going to provide for them is important. It may help parents too, to remember to expect their child will naturally do ‘childish’ things, as they are children and still have a lot to learn. They have all of their childhood to learn the social skills needed for their lives, and they will learn these from all of the people around them.