How To Teach Your Toddler To Come When Called

It almost seems inevitable, right? You call for your toddler to come to you, and she turns around and runs the other way!

This stage is like almost any stage of parenting. It's complicated and exhausting. But it's NOT TRUE that it has to be a losing battle.

We taught our children to come to us, when we called, in a few different phases. We don't mean to suggest that this is the best or only way to teach your toddler to come when called. We share the details hoping that you'll glean and modify the tips that work best for you and your family.

Phase 1 (for crawlers or babies who have just started walking)

The purpose of Phase 1 is to help a baby learn what the phrase, “Come to Daddy/Mommy,” means. 

  • Clear out a big space on the floor.
  • Remove every distracting item.  By doing this you’ll be setting yourself up for success because...
    • ...her attention can be more easily focused on you.
    • ...she no longer has access to things she wants.
    • ...you’ll be the ‘gate’ that allows or disallows access to the things she likes.
    • ...you’ll be the possessor of things that the baby desires.
  • Put the baby/toddler down about 10 feet from where you are.  The distance may vary depending on the child’s mobility.  If she can barely crawl, decrease the distance.
  • Hold a desirable food item (or toy) in your hands or lap.
  • Choose one phrase that you’ll repeat and always be ready to reinforce with appropriate consequences.  It’s important to pick a phrase like, “Come to Daddy,” that you’ll use every time you are serious about having your toddler come to you.  Avoid changing phrases.  (i.e. don’t say, “Come to Daddy,” sometimes and other times say, “Come here you little rascal!”)  A parent can easily confuse a toddler by doing this.  Make a clear difference between ‘come-to-Daddy time’ and ‘play-with-Daddy time’.  One way you can make this clear is by using the exact same phrase every time you are SERIOUS about having the child come to you.
  • Since the baby is in a large space (with nothing else to do) and since you are holding the only desirable item in sight, the baby will come when you say, “Come to Daddy.”  She won’t be coming because she knows what “Come to Daddy means.” She will come because she wants the toy/food.
  • When she comes, give positive reinforcement like verbal praise.
  • Repeat the steps of Phase 1 several times a day for a series weeks (depending on the age of the baby)
  • Phase 1 training will allow your child to start pairing up, “Come to Daddy,” with the action of crawling/scooting/walking to Daddy.
  • You are teaching your child what the sounds/words, “Come to Daddy,” mean.
  • During phase 1, it’s okay to repeat the instruction, “Come to Daddy,” more than once.

Phase 2 (For babies who have graduated from Phase 1 or for toddlers who haven’t started learning to come to Mom or Dad at the sound of their voice.)

When you feel like your baby has become familiar with what you mean/want when you say, “Come to Daddy/Mommy,” change the focus of your training by doing the following:

  • Clear the room/area of desirable toys/objects.  (It’s very important that the child has no hope of accessing something desirable.)
  • Set the baby/toddler about 10 feet from where you are.
  • Intentionally DON’T hold something desirable.  In Phase 1 the child has always come to you because you are holding something desirable.  In Phase 2 you should say the same phrase but NOT HOLD ANYTHING DESIRABLE.  The purpose of this is to teach the baby the difference between, “Come to Daddy,” and, “Come to the only desirable toy/food that’s available to you.”
  • While not offering any desirable toy/object, say, “Come to Daddy.”
  • If the child comes, reward her behavior with excited positive reinforcement (verbal praise, hugs, affection, applause)
  • If the child crawls towards something else, pick her up or scoot her back to where she was when you said, “Come to Daddy.”  Your child may cry or protest when she feels you keeping her from crawling away.  It’s okay.  Pick her up or move her back to the original starting location and try again.
  • If the child still crawls towards something else, move them back to the starting location again.  Do this until the child gets tired of getting scooted back.  When she’s tired enough of getting scooted back, she will give up and finally go to Daddy.  This is VERY IMPORTANT.  It’s important for the child to be the one giving up.  It’s equally important for the parent to be the one NOT giving up.  The younger the child is the easier she will give up and finally go to Daddy.  Older toddlers, who have had many experiences of doing what they want (who haven’t had practice doing what Mom or Dad says) will require much more ‘scoot backs’ in order to finally give up and go to Daddy.  Even if it takes lots of repetition, and even if there are many screams, DON’T GIVE UP.  Do it patiently and gently until she gives in and comes to you at the sound of your voice.
  • Praise the child when she comes to Daddy.
  • Like I mentioned in Phase 1, it’s important for the child to know the exact words that you’ll say when you’re wanting her to come to you.  Be consistent!  It’s also important for the child to be clear on where she has to arrive in order to successfully ‘Come to Daddy.’  Does, “Come to Daddy,” mean arriving within 1 yard of you?  Does, “Come to Daddy,” mean arriving within 1 foot of you?  Does, “Come to Daddy,” mean standing directly in front of you and looking at your eyes?  I decided that I wanted to be consistent with the following expectation for my daughters: “Come to Daddy,” means touching both of Daddy’s outstretched hands.  I don’t celebrate her reaching me until she’s touched both of my hands.  If she comes within one foot and stalls: no celebration.  She must touch both of my hands without me having to reach towards her in order to make up the space she choose to leave between us.  Sometimes parents reward ‘almost obedience’ because they think, “This is good enough.  I don’t want to make a big deal about this.  If I do, she might freak out.  ...so this is good enough.”  This is a very negative pattern because ‘almost obedience’ (many times) is generally ‘silent defiance.’  ‘Silent defiance’ is when a child thinks thoughts like, “I don’t really want to obey you.  But I don’t want to get in trouble either.  I’ll come to you, but I’ll come really slowly.  Or I’ll come to you but I’ll stop when I’m just out of your reach.”  When your child does things like this, she is asserting her will against yours.  It will be destructive for you to ignore it or reward it.  If you think your child may be silently defying you, mention it to them.  Say something like, “It seems like you might be trying to disobey,” and re-clarify the details of your expectation.  Tell them (with details) what the difference between ‘obedience’ and ‘almost obedience’ is.
  • During phase 2, intentionally try to reduce the amount of times you repeat the verbal instruction, “Come to Daddy.”  By Phase 3 it will be important to only tell the child ONE TIME to, “Come to Daddy/Mommy.”

Phase 3 - Introduce negative reinforcement (consequences) to a noncompliant child.

In Phases 1 and 2 coming to Daddy has only been an experience followed by reward.  In Phase 3 the child will start receiving an undesirable consequence for neglecting to do what the parent is asking her to do.

When should a parent move to phase 3 of training?

  • ...when the child has demonstrated a consistent and definitive understanding of what, “Come to Daddy,” means.
  • ...the child does not show confusion regarding what is expected of her in this situation.
  • ...the child knows that something positive will happen if she enthusiastically responds to the instruction, “Come to Daddy,” by moving close enough to Daddy that she can reach out and touch both of his outstretched hands.

In Phase 2 a child that was hesitant to come to Daddy would be put back at the starting point as many times as needed until the response to the instruction was: child moves from starting point to Daddy’s outstretched hands. In Phase 3 the focus is on what the child does immediately after hearing the verbal instruction, “Come to Daddy.”  After hearing the instruction, does the baby immediately and energetically redirect movement towards Daddy’s hands?  Does the baby stop, wait and THEN move towards Daddy’s hands?  Does the baby move in a direction further away from the location of Daddy’s hands?

In Phase 3, I suggest introducing an undesirable consequence to the baby if she makes any movement (significant or slight) away from the location of Daddy’s hands.  As soon as you say, “Come to Daddy,” or “Come to Mommy,” if the baby moves further away from you (or turns in any direction that’s not towards you), introduce an undesirable consequence. An undesirable consequence could be any of the following (or others) and should be chosen based on the child’s age and the degree and consistency of her defiance.

  1. Gently and firmly taking both of the child’s hands in yours so she experiences an inability to freely walk or do what she desires.  With her freedom to be mobile removed, repeat the instruction in a serious and slightly louder tone: “Daddy says, ‘Come to Daddy.’”
  2. Gently, firmly and slowly taking the child’s head in your hands and bringing her face within 1-2 inches of yours.  Hold the child’s face even though she protests.  With the freedom to be mobile and to look around removed, repeat the instruction in a serious and slightly louder tone: “Daddy says, ‘Come to Daddy.’”
  3. Gently take the child’s hands in one of yours.  Gently, and firmly, apply a measured, squeezing pressure to the back of the child’s thigh or the side of the child’s thigh.  Measured means squeeze until it gets the child’s attention and the child starts to nervously wonder, “What is going to happen next?”  You should NOT squeeze until there are inappropriate amounts of pain; only enough to cause discomfort.  To know how much pressure to apply, I squeeze only if my child is standing or sitting still (not flailing).  I squeeze with my palm and all my fingers (not just two fingers).  I squeeze over the span of 5 seconds moving from almost no pressure and slowly increasing the pressure while I watch my child’s face to gauge what kind of effect the squeeze is having.  Never apply an immediate, uncontrolled squeeze so that your child is shocked by what’s happening and so that you’re unable to gauge how hard your squeeze is.  Right as your squeeze gets the baby’s attention, repeat the instruction in a serious and slightly louder tone: “Daddy says, ‘Come to daddy.’”

After administering an appropriate and undesirable consequence, and after the instruction has been repeated in a serious tone, return the child to the starting point where the, “Come to Daddy,” instruction was originally given.  The parent giving the instruction should also return to his or her original location.  Don’t make the mistake of administering an appropriate consequence and then letting the child go.  If a child disobeys, don’t move on to other activities until she has successfully obeyed. Once the child and parent are in place, repeat the instruction. If the child’s response is satisfactory, praise her.  Sometimes it’s so important to say phrases like these after she has needed an undesirable consequence to motivate compliance:

  • “It’s so important to come to Daddy.”
  • “It’s happy when you come to Daddy.”
  • “You should come to Daddy all the time.”
  • “It will be happy in our house if you learn to come to Daddy.”

If the child moves in any direction, that is not towards the location of the parent’s hands, repeat the steps listed under administration of an undesirable consequence.  Be consistent and repeat these steps until the child is successful at responding to your verbal instruction.

Make sure you give your child enough ‘Come To Daddy’ practice.  If your child only gets a chance to practice once every few days, it will not be enough to successfully train her.  Your child should have the chance to practice at least once a day.

Make sure you train your child when you have enough time to be effective.  It’s not a good idea to ask your child to come to your hands as you’re flying out the door on your way to a doctor’s appointment.  1- The child will not respond well to the rushed environment of the moment.  2- You won’t have the time or undivided attention to follow through.  You won’t be able to administer undesirable consequences enough times to encourage your child to succeed in responding to your verbal instruction.

The space is also important.  In Phase 3 you should try to follow the space recommendations listed in Phase 1 and 2.  Don’t expect your child to come to you (in Phase 3) if there are lots of her favorite toys in the immediate vicinity.  Don’t expect your child to come to you (in Phase 3) if their favorite playmates are running wildly around them.  Train your child in an environment where there is little distraction or motivation for them to move towards things besides you.
In Phase 3 of training, the parent should only say the verbal instruction, “Come to Daddy,” one time.  Do not try to encourage the child to obey by repeating the instruction multiple times.  Do not try to encourage the child to obey by counting backwards from 10.  Say, “Come to Daddy,” ONCE and then expect energetic compliance and administer undesirable consequences for noncompliance.

Phase 4 (Start expecting your child to come even when multiple distractions are competing for her attention.)

Once your child has demonstrated consistent compliance with your, “Come to Daddy,” instruction, move on to Phase 4.  Start training your child to come to you, at the sound of your voice, when there are other desirable things to move towards in their immediate surroundings.  Expect your child to come to you when they might have a toy next to them that they’d like to have.  Expect your child to come to you when there are friends or cousins close by.  Expect your child to come to you when they are in the middle of doing something fun.

How should your training be different in phase 4?

  • Give your child a ‘heads up’ before giving the instruction.
    • Give your child preparation that you are about to tell her to come to you.
    • Tell your child that their current, fun activity is about to be done.
    • Verbally rehearse the Come-To-Daddy routine and remind them of the appropriate response.
    • Before you ask your child to come to you (and they’re in the middle of one of their fun activities) it’s good to be with them for a minute or two to experience what they are doing.  Unfortunately, it’s easy for me to forget this tip.  Sometimes I might have a plan in my head while my daughter is playing a game.  I’m not even watching what she’s doing.  If I start saying, “Come to Daddy,” it could come as a shock to her and she could easily be upset.  She might think, “I can’t believe Daddy doesn’t think these dolls are important right now.”  Part of her frustration is my fault.  I haven’t taken into account that she’s in the middle of something precious and fun.  In order to acknowledge to her that I value what she’s doing, I should get down at her level and affirm what she’s doing for a few moments.  Then, when she realizes that I like what she’s doing, I can give her orientation regarding the transition that’s about to happen.
  • Teach your child what you’d like their attitude to be like when the Come-To-Daddy instruction is given.
    • Expect that she will not be verbally oppositional.  She should learn to come to you without saying, “But I don’t want to.”  She should learn to come without crying manipulatively.  She should learn to come without objectionable body language (i.e. stomping feet, folding arms, rolling eyes).  She should learn to come immediately and energetically. (i.e. not tiptoeing or controlling the situation by coming at a slow or exaggerated pace)  These are all examples of silent (or not so silent) defiance.  Don’t ignore them.
    • If your child successfully comes to you, but comes to you with a wrong attitude:
      • teach her what you want different about her attitude and body language
      • ask her to repeat the process from the start, but with an honoring attitude.
    • If she consistently comes to you with dishonoring words, attitude or body language, conduct practice sessions.  Practice sessions will allow her to spend extended times coming to you with a good attitude.  It will show her that you value not only obedience but honor and respect.  The practice sessions can occur during an activity that she would’ve normally enjoyed.  During practice sessions remind her of how good Daddy and Mommy’s leadership is.  Remind her of how important it is to WANT to do what Mommy and Daddy say.
    • Once she successfully comes, reward her with verbal praise.  Phase 4 praise shouldn’t be exaggerated.  It’s okay to be overly energetic with your verbal praise in early phases.  However, in Phase 4, don’t exaggerate.  Don’t try to hope your child into obedience by bending over backwards with praise.  Expect it and enforce it consistently and lovingly.

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