You’ve already gotten underwear, pants, and a shirt on your toddler who really prefers doing life in the buff. They have reluctantly acquiesced to socks and shoes, and you’ve managed to brush their teeth for the requisite eight seconds that qualifies as thorough for the age group. And now, you must get the most contrarian creature known to man into their car seat.
It’s no secret tiny people aged 2 to 3 are stubborn. And when you try to get them into a seat—with mandatory buckles—their defiance can skyrocket. Here are a few tips on how to strap them in without (as much of) a fight.
Make them think it’s their idea
Rather than telling them yet another thing they need to do, give them the chance to tell you. Play dumb and pretend you don’t know what comes next in the morning routine. “OK, we put on clothes, ate breakfast, brushed teeth…what do we do next?” This will likely throw a toddler off their game and pique their interest. Follow up with, “Do we go running around the neighborhood? Oh wait, I know, it’s nap time!” Silly suggestions can get them laughing and trigger their desire to correct you with, “No, we go to the car.”
(Results may vary. They might just play you at your own game and say, “Now we go poo-poo.” In which case, proceed to step two.)
Make it a game
As much as you may think, I do not want to make it a game, I just want them to DO it, anything that is fun makes a toddler feel less resistant. Saying, “I think I can get there faster than you!” can ignite their sense of play and give them the satisfaction of shouting, “I win!” Putting a special toy in the car the night before and asking them to guess what it is can quickly get them invested in trotting their hineys into the vehicle to check out the surprise.
(Other ways to generate excitement include: listening to their their favorite music, playing I Spy, counting school buses, or a “lawnmower truck hunt” where you try your darnedest to find a landscaping truck—or whatever they are currently obsessed with—and stop to watch for a minute.)
Give them choices
Like all of us, toddlers just want to feel like they have some power and self-agency. Asking them questions about inconsequential things like walking order, “Do you want to go first, or second?” what they’d like to bring, “Do you want this truck or that truck?” or how they want to get in the car, “Do you want to climb up yourself, or do you want me to put you in?” can make them feel like they are running the show.
Give them a job
Letting them participate helps them feel capable, which can curb their urge to rage against the machine (you). They can be the official “key-checker” (making sure you have your keys before leaving) or “buckle-clicker” once in their car seat. Anything that gives them a sense of purpose and contribution can lead to improved cooperation.
Take a moment to empathize with their situation. If someone rushed you to get ready every day when you just wanted to play, and made the overwhelming majority of decisions that affected your life, wouldn’t you be a little pissed, too? Relate to their emotions. Say something like, “I know you don’t want to get in your seat. I can see you’re mad.” Let that genuine compassion sink in. Then follow-up with, “But if we don’t get in our seats, we can’t go anywhere fun.”
Blame someone, anyone else
When a toddler sees you as the enemy, the basic tasks of daily life become way more difficult. Saying it’s not you making the decision can help lower their hackles. For example, “The doctor says we have to get in your seat so you stay safe” (benign) or, “If I don’t buckle you, I’ll get in trouble with the police” (slightly evil, but still true!) can help them defer blame—until tomorrow, at least.
Stay calm, yet firm
Admittedly, this part is tough when the kid is screaming, flailing, sliding like a limp jellyfish down the seat and doing full-on planks to avoid being strapped in. When you want to yell, “Just get in the GD car seat or we’re staying inside forever,” breathe.
Take a literal step back. Breathe again. Mutter swears under your breath if you have to. But as soon as you blow a gasket, you will be back to square one. Summon all your self-control and say, “We can’t go anywhere until you’re in your seat.” Some days, this will lead to a literal stand off. They stand. You stand. And you both wait to see who breaks first. This is what smartphones were made for. Tell them, “I”m going to sit down; let me know when you’re ready,” and scroll away your big feelings while you wait for them to get bored.
Tell them the alternative
When you’ve used up the other tools in your arsenal, (or you really must leave because your boss is expecting those reports at 9 a.m.) you can opt for, “OK. If you don’t get in your seat, I’m going to put you in your seat. Do you want to do it yourself, or do you want me to do it?” When they pull the ultimate power move and walk farther away from you, narrate what’s about to happen: “OK, I’m going to pick you up now…” The stubborn toddler, sensing their victory slipping away, may then get themselves into their seat simply because they’ll be damned if you take away everything they’ve fought for this morning.
Consequences and bribery
While probably no parenting experts would agree, every parent knows the swift efficacy of a desperate, “If you don’t get in the car, no treat later.” While the two things are completely unrelated, and you almost definitely will forget and give them a treat later anyway, it doesn’t matter. Because once the threat of a cookie-less evening is on the table, your toddler will be in that car seat before you can say, “It’s five o’clock somewhere.”
Alternately, you can skip all this and use the Almighty Snack. Let them take anything you would not ordinarily give them at 8:30 in the morning and dig in. Like a grown adult sneaking candy into the movie theater, they will feel victorious. And filled with this smug joy, they will likely deign to grant your car seat request.