Please May I Clean Your Teeth? Nonviolent Communication and Toddlers


Don’t mix up that which is habitual with that which is natural.

[Gandhi, on how we have been trained to communicate]

Raising Children Compassionately

Yesterday I was taught a lesson, by my two-year-old. One of the few non-negotiable rules in our house is that they have their teeth cleaned twice a day, and recently Amber has been protesting loudly at this. We were engaged in a minor battle in which she – lying on a beanbag – was wriggling and turning her head from side to side while I was sitting over her holding the toothbrush saying things like “Amber, open your mouth“ and “come on, you have to have your teeth brushed”. We reached an impasse and, tired, I said “ please Amber”. Then after a pause for thought I added, “please may I clean your teeth?” At this point she rolled over onto her back with a slight smile and a twinkle in her eye and said “yes”. Then she opened her mouth and lay quite still while I cleaned her teeth thoroughly.

Why am I recounting this story? I was taken aback a bit. We have been trying to teach the girls to say please and thank you; to ask nicely for things they want; not to scream or whinge or make demands. Let’s just say we have been having only limited success. It suddenly dawned on me just how often we make demands of them; how often we are ending up in conflict because they won’t do what we are asking them to do; and just how little we probably practice what we preach. In that moment, with that look and that one word – yes – Amber told me that she was a fully conscious human being able to make choices, with feelings and needs – for autonomy and recognition – and for respect. Suddenly she was not just a difficult and obstructive toddler but an intelligent other person in the world. Touché!

In my search for a better way to parent than simply telling my children what to do all the time, then telling them off when they refuse or have other ideas of their own, I picked up Marshall B Rosenberg’s Raising Children Compassionately: Parenting the Nonviolent Communication Way (PuddleDancer Press, 2005). This is a slim booklet – I read it in an evening – but it is written as an addition to his much more extensive and well-known writings on Nonviolent Communication (NVC). I wondered how much this system could be applied to pre-verbal toddlers or young children for whom language is an emerging entity.


Here are a few of the key points, paraphrased, as I understand them:

  • The label “child” frequently leads to dehumanization and a lesser degree of respect being afforded to an individual.
  • All people will naturally resist being told what to do by another, as this is a threat to their autonomy and freedom – their right to choose what they do. Even young children have a strong sense of autonomy, and will often resist any form of coercion, including reward systems aimed at behaviour modification.
  • Both reward and punishment are ways of achieving power over people. NVC instead emphasises power with people.
  • Punishment may appear to work by getting children to do things we want them to do, but they never do them for the reasons we would want them to do them (inner motivation and understanding of the importance of doing said things).
  • Our objective as parents, rather than getting our children to do what we want, should be to create the kind of connections with them that enable everyone’s needs to be met.
  • This requires a shift away from the judgemental use of language (right/wrong, good/bad) towards a language based on needs, and we need to develop the ability to listen empathically.
  • After listening, we may reflect back the feelings that are being expressed, before stating what might be wrong or needs to be done.
  • When we have been trained by our upbringings and society to think in terms of blame or guilt, punishment and reward, it takes a conscious effort to transform our way of thinking to one that is based on joy, trust and mutual respect.
  • It is important to communicate unconditional love to children, rather than love metered out for good behaviour. Also to give them age appropriate choices that foster their own independence.
  • Occasionally it is necessary to employ the protective use of force, where there is an immediate danger of harm to self or others. This is distinct from the punitive use of force, in which force is used to deliver a punishment once a judgement has been made that the recipient is deserving of this.
  • Individuals trying to make this transformation may find themselves criticized by others in society and lacking support. A supportive community is very helpful in this process.


How different this is from most mainstream parenting advice currently being delivered, which focuses heavily on reward systems, now that physical punishment is frowned upon. Marshall B. Rosenberg (PhD) has taught parenting classes that give people concrete tools to make his theory a reality. I wonder how different the outcomes might have been for some of the children I’ve encountered in my work, if we as professionals had access to a comprehensive programme based on these principles?

As for my two two-year-olds, not all of it is applicable yet, but some of it is. If they can grow up through and into an atmosphere of mutual respect for autonomy, feelings and needs, then I think we will be doing okay. It is the intention – the heart – that is most important.

[For more information on Nonviolent Communication, visit the Center for Nonviolent Communication]

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