mom and child sitting face to face at each other's level

How to engage with your toddler

Once you learn to REALLY interact and listen to your toddler you can have meaningful exchanges all day long. You and your toddler will be happier and will feel closer to one another.

I have cared for children all my life and have found music to be the best way to engage with them. Children love music. I want to share my knowledge of how toddlers think and interact so you can enjoy your child more and your toddler can be more content. I know you will feel like a better parent after trying these tips and tools.

THIS IS A FREE Mini-course: Parenting School 101: How to Engage with Your Toddler

A toddler is full of surprises. You truly begin starting to get to know the person they are as you watch your child. 


Watching is also very important for learning what your child likes and wants. In my experience, my two year olds already had unique personality traits that they now have as adults. My oldest, Kay, was an independent thinker from the get-go. She didn’t care what I thought, she wanted to do things her way. Rules were restrictions for her. She was sweet and generous when it was her idea. She is fun and spontaneous today, always full of fun ideas. Everything is funner when Kay is around. 

My second, J.D., on the other hand, cared about my opinion. Rules were no big deal. He kept them and moved on. He was naturally in tune with others needs. I remember when he was 2, he was in a little toddler class when a fellow toddler toppled a foot and a half off of a short crawling toy. He went over to her and helped her up. That kind of outside awareness of self is very unusual for children that young, but is consistent with who he is today as a 25 year old man. 

My third, Clark was my most affectionate child and still craves eye contact and hugs as a grown man. I could go on and on, but you get the picture. This is the time that you can start to “get to know” your own child. 

By watching your child you also learn what they like and what they don’t. Just because they don’t like it right away, doesn’t mean they don’t have to do it. You are their guide by introducing them to new and important things (vegetables and classical music, for instance). As you notice activities they like doing over and over and words they learn first, you can use these interests to teach them valuable lessons and to show them you respect them in enjoyable ways. For example, my son Curtis loves running. He has from the time he was a toddler. He still loves running. If I want some quality time with him, I go running with him. He has my attention and I have his. I communicate that I love him more effectively when I am doing what he loves, with him.

All children like music. That is why engaging with a toddler (and teaching them new things) is so easy through music.

Watching – After watching your toddler, you know what they like. There are songs about anything your child likes. If your child likes animals, use animal songs to challenge them, teach them boundaries and strengthen their literacy and confidence. There are an endless number of songs about trains, balls, babies, nature, and whatever else your toddler likes. When you see what songs your child wants to sing over and over again, or what dances or instruments your child asks for you are learning what they want. 

Listen and Follow

You will be emotionally present while engaged in these songs and finger plays with him/her and can express love in many ways throughout your musical exchanges. Love is expressed by hugging, rocking, and complimenting his/her efforts in music. BUT love is also expressed as you let him or her explore the song, the instrument, and his/her voice. Praise your toddler. Trust your toddler. Listen to your toddler’s ideas (with your eyes and ears) and follow his lead by copying their voice and their movements. This also shows respect to your child and builds their confidence. I am a firm believer that a parent should say “yes” as often as they can so that when they need to say “no” it really matters. Be careful that your first reaction to their ideas isn’t negative. 

These active listening skills during a musical activity will strengthen your relationship with the child in ways that are not as easily arranged during the normal rush and grind of the day. So, you can see that taking the time to learn music and then integrating it throughout your routine, really pays off. 

Of course, you must also expose and teach your child new songs and movements to expand their world. This is part of pleasing their need to be challenged. They will delight in learning new songs, which brings new words, new movements, and important lessons about their world. Many elements of dance and instruments will stretch your child’s abilities. Introduce these things with enthusiasm. Modeling the best way, while being patient and open to exploration and individual expression. 


Lastly, boundaries can be set and maintained in music experiences that pay large dividends in practical everyday applications. For example, when a child is introduced to instruments (which starts with simple rhythm sticks) I teach toddlers that these are not toys. They are special and need to be treated properly. After teaching the way to care for an instrument, then you must be consistent in imposing a consequence to mistreatment. Remember that positive feedback is a much more effective motivator than punishment. 

An example of this is, when I teach a toddler how to treat rhythm sticks, I say (while holding them, but before letting them hold them), “These are rhythm sticks. They are not toys. They are special. We will keep them in this tub, not in the toy box. We don’t throw them. We don’t step on them. We don’t put them in our mouths or leave them hanging around. If you throw or misuse your instrument I will take it away. I love you. As you use these rhythm sticks correctly, you will have so much fun making super cool music with them.” After setting these expectations, it is your job to stick to it. (no pun intended) by putting the sticks away if your child throws them. If they leave them on the ground they need to pick them up. When they put them in their mouth, you need to remind them they aren’t for our mouths. YOU set the boundaries and then keep them. When the child knows, from experience, that you keep your word, they will believe you in many other areas of your day. 

Let’s take 2 year olds for instance. The phrase terrible twos was not true in my experience. I don’t know if it is because of the respectful relationship I had with my 5 toddlers or if it is because it is wrong. Regardless, you should not think it or say it. Your toddler is more independent than ever before and naturally wants to be trusted (similar to a teenager). 

You can listen and let the child have his or her way when deciding on actions for “Clap Your Hands til the Music Stops” for example, but you may not as easily actively listen to your child’s every whim when you are late for an appointment or when it is time to go to bed. The time you invested throughout the day to listen at convenient times will pay off on the rare occasion that you need the child to obey without asking questions.

You will be that happy parent with the interactive, satisfied, happy child.

Music Does it All!

So, to engage with your toddler, I suggest:

  • watch to see what your toddler needs and likes,
  • listen actively,
  • follow their lead while keeping,
  • boundaries.

All of these methods are easily done within the context of singing together. You have completed “Parenting School 101: How to Engage With Your Toddler.” Here is a video of me modeling watch, listen, follow, and boundaries within the context of singing a song with a child.

More about Kristin:

Kristin with her 10 siblings. She is the oldest.

I have had a lot of practice. My 10 brothers and sisters were all funny cute kids that taught me a lot about what children are all about and how to get along with them. (I am the tallest one in this photo, but not anymore…)

Kristin interacting with a toddler.

Interacting with toddlers starts with watching them. Who is this unique person? What do they want? What do they like? What do they understand? What do they need?

Kids are people with ideas, feelings, and seriously cool abilities.

My nephew was bummed out. I could tell. After getting down to his level and listening to him for a long time, I came to understand how hard is morning had been. He felt so much better after being heard. (P.S. His mom is really good at listening to her kids. I am glad I got a turn this particular day.)

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