Getting a toddler dressed: An exercise in Self-Determination Theory

Raising a toddler is a daily experience of motivating a tiny person into doing what you want them to do. You can motivate your toddler through extrinsic motivation by offering prods, promises, or threats for accomplishing and performing certain tasks that you, as a parent, want them to do.

Toddlers, though, are quite self-determined and extrinsic motivation only goes so far with someone who is trying to find their own place and voice in life. To achieve true success with a toddler, you must convince them that what you want them to do is the same thing that they themselves want to do, thus tapping into their intrinsic motivation.

Self-Determination Theory puts forth that people will be intrinsically motivated to act if the three psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness are being met.

Therefore, to have a toddler act appropriately out of their own self-will, they must be provided with activities that provide freedom and choice, a chance to develop their skills, and connection to others (Ryan & Deci, 2000; Wentzel & Brophy, 2014).

Almost from the birth, my daughter made it clear that she was not interested in wearing clothes. It began when she was about five months old. She would scream and go completely stiff every time we put clothes on her. At first I thought she was protesting the simple act of being handled and moved about in the way you have to in order to put clothes on a newborn. Soon, though, it became apparent that it wasn’t the process but the clothes themselves that she took issue with. I had heard that dressing a wiggly baby was difficult, but it is nothing compared to trying to dress a stiff and screaming baby.

Around her first birthday, she started taking her pants off during nap time. I would occasionally wake her in the morning to find she had stripped sometime at night. Now, at two and a half, with over two years to master her techniques for avoiding clothing, I find I have had to equally master my techniques for motivating her to get dressed. I see performance-avoidance techniques in full force when we get to that time of the

morning to take off pajamas and put on clothes for the day.

She will try throwing fits. One of my favorite memories of this struggle was when she screamed “I hate pants!” at the top of her lungs while I attempted to wrestle pants on her.

She will try negotiating. “No, Mommy, I’ll get dressed tomorrow,” is one of her go-to phrases.

And sometimes she’ll even try just a calm, direct approach and simply say, “Nope,” when I tell her it’s time to get dressed.

My techniques have ranged from negotiating to rewarding to just wrestling clothes on her while she fights to get them off at the same time. I have promised food treats for after she gets dressed, threats for what will happen if she doesn’t, and I have had days where I simply give up and we have a “no clothes” day.

I have found, through all the good days and bad, that the successes come when I offer her choices, allow her to exercise her growing abilities, and relate to her personally.

In reading about Self-Determination Theory, I discovered that what I have already been doing is meeting her needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

To meet her competence needs, I will give her a time line over which she has perceived control. I might say something like, “When you’ve finished your orange juice, we will go get dressed,” or “Play with one more toy, then we will go get dressed.” She doesn’t have control over whether or not to get dressed, but she can control when it happens and can feel like it is happening on her terms.

I can also fulfill her need for competence by letting her develop the motor skills of getting herself dressed. The clothes process became easier and more satisfying when she could put on her own pants, socks, and shoes. In order to motivate her further in this regard, all I have to do is threaten to take away this competence. I will say, for example, “It’s time for you to put on your socks. I will count to three and if you don’t put your socks on, Mommy has to put them on for you.” This has worked like a charm since not being able to do things for herself is equivalent to disaster in her little world.

I can meet her autonomy needs by giving up on the battle to pick her outfit for the day. By the time she was eighteen months old, she had opinions about what she wore for the day. I discovered that what she was wearing didn’t matter as much as the fact that she was wearing something.

Giving her the freedom to choose her own clothes for the day has saved so many headaches. Again, if she will not choose, I threaten to choose her clothes myself and she quickly comes around. This has resulted, of course, in some very interesting combinations.

Just last week, as I was in the hospital with our newborn son and Daddy was on morning duty alone, she showed up at the hospital wearing a grey R2-D2 shirt, pink paisley pants, purple checked socks, and leopard print shoes. My husband and I looked at each other, shrugged, and said, “She’s not naked.”

The outfit Addison chose for a warm day in April near her 2nd birthday.

Finally, on those mornings when things are just not going well, I try to meet her relatedness needs by having a little “no clothes snuggle time.

After taking off pajamas we crawl back into bed and snuggle. It only takes a few minutes, but the benefits are huge. Usually after these times of connection, she is ready to put on clothes and face the day with no fighting, negotiating, or manipulating. Those are the days when I see the true benefits of self-determination theory to intrinsically motivate our tiny people.

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