“My toddler is a terror”; “my toddler thinks it’s hysterical when I say no”; “my toddler refuses boundaries”; or even more commonly, “my toddler is sassy as BEEP!” I’ve literally heard it all (often times a little more candidly than I’ve paraphrased here—with a touch more explicit language).
With toddler-hood there are variables added to the mix which make discipline, or let’s call it—goal focused parenting, a little more challenging than with older kids.
You have to think about things like….
In being a bit of an...ahem...a** (and I mean that in the most affectionate way possible) your toddler is kind of hilarious—as a parent, you have to keep your reactions to minimum even though in defiance your kid is actually often outrageously funny (sometimes more in retrospect and sometimes exactly in the moment). You soon realize you can be both furious and trying to hold back laughter with every ounce of self-control you have.
You realize that though they push your buttons (on purpose…you think?) you also realize they are just on the cusp of childhood, still incredibly dependent on you and still basically a walking, talking, baby (for lack of a better term)—they are the team rookie. You realize they are often simultaneously “too smart for their own good” and yet also incredibly unaware and you’re not sure where that leaves them cognitively…can they actually understand the boundaries I am setting here?
You realize that they haven’t yet (and won’t for a while) learned the self-control needed to resist impulse; couple that with a copycat learning style and you’re left with never ending opportunities for goal focused parenting (and potential frustration)! UCH! How can you possibly get into trouble THAT quickly? You begin to notice that in their copycat attitude you can spot the good, the bad and the ugly in your own parenting (and general adult-ing)---where on Earth did she learn that?! Oh wait…
As your toddler goes from loving and giggly baby to unpredictable, mischievous and boundary testing toddler—it’s not uncommon to feel a little defeated (and a little…what the heck?!).
I remember when my daughter first started talking (back), I gave some one step instruction (can’t remember what—“put away _____” “get the ____” “give mommy your ____” ); I am sure I persisted a few times because she usually didn’t listen the first time, without missing a beat she turned to me and said “STOP!” with her hand extended like she was a crossing guard.
I remember thinking, “it’s begun”.
In the moment, I didn’t pay attention to the sass, and proceeded as I would if I was working with any of your kids (which, for the record, comes a lot easier than following through with my own kid). I ignored the rude retort (didn’t love, or want to reinforce, how she chose to express that darling opinion), acknowledged her perspective “I hear you, you want to keep playing but Mommy said ______________ so you need to _______________. “ She looked at me, paused for a second and then did what I asked.
Phew! Dodged a bullet there—but this was the first refusal in a long line of refusals that would eventually give way to epic meltdowns over the most (seemingly) ridiculous things (like…how could I be so callous and take her muffin out of the paper liner?! How could I be so insensitive as to remove her banana from the skin?! How could I be so disrespectful as to clear her plate when she insisted she was “all done!”?)
I didn’t care that she tested, tried to avoid the demand, or generally ignored my intention! Here’s the thing that really got under my skin…she didn’t learn “Stop!” from watching Peppa or Dora, she learned it from me! I can’t tell you how many times I had tried without success to get her attention (while she was doing something silly, dangerous, or otherwise not paying attention to me); I wouldn’t hesitate, in those moments, to firmly say (not yell, I feel the tone of my voice speaks much louder than the volume) “Stop!” (and I guess I also extended a gesture, like a crossing guard?! Why did I do that?!)
So there you have it, the first time (and not the last) my own words would be used against me…
Obviously this isn’t a colossal parenting mistake with irreparable damage, but it pretty clearly illustrates how “insignificant” parent behaviour becomes child behaviour, for better for worse. (I am sure you all know what I mean—like when my daughter started picking up my phone and saying “Hewwo? Hewwo?” started exclaiming “NO NO NO” and shaking her finger at my cat, or when she started grunting “uch” when the IPAD didn’t do what she wanted).
So where does it leave us?
Given everything we’ve said so far, here are some practical tips from my experience with other people’s kids, and my experience rearing my own little toddler monkey.
Use clear, concise and consistent language when communicating expectations. Don’t be wordy; mean what you say and say what you mean!
Focus on getting compliance on one step instructions first, moving onto two step instructions later. Don’t think of compliance as a “drill sergeant” or authoritarian kind of thing—think of it as life made simpler. Wouldn’t it be amazing if you only had to ask once (ahem, only a few times) before something got done? You’ll never have a perfect toddler, but help them understand that even though we can all express our opinions (or dissent), there is a certain chain of command in the house. [If this is an area of challenge for you, check out this post: "But my kid doesn't listen!" http://www.magnificentminds.ca/single-post/2015/07/08/But-my-kid-doesnt-listen
That said, don’t be a jerk! Picking your battles means focusing on what matters. Don’t overdo it on rules or you’ll set yourself up for failure (and your kid will think you suck).
Rules for the sake of rules=NOT GOOD!
Rules for the sake of structure, instilling values and safety= GOOD!
When all else fails, focus on consequences that make sense. Clear cause and effect is so important at this age. Avoid generic punishment like “time out” or “go to your room” and stick with consequences that “fit the crime” to establish clear connections. “If you colour on the walls, the markers are finished” “if you hit mommy, mommy walks away and we don’t play”. (As opposed to…”if you colour on the walls, go to your room” or “if you hit mommy, you don’t get your Ipad ”).
Reinforce, don’t bribe. Focus on reinforcing good habits rather than bribing them out of doing bad habits.
Be very consistent and clear with your affect. Sometimes with toddlers we say “you better not xyz” but we’re totally kidding and playing that game where we basically teach them not to listen and then get mad when they don’t (why do we do that anyway?!). You can play this game, because we all do, but make sure there is a clear (clear to a toddler) difference between your “’I’m joking and being silly” voice and your “I’m not kidding don’t even think about throwing another carrot” voice. It’s about facial expression, tone, context and delivery.
Give transitional warnings. When you know a meltdown is imminent (i.e. you’re leaving the McDonalds playplace, the park, the party; you’re taking something away or you know the phone is about to die) give warning. “In 5 minutes, we’re all done”, “3 more minutes” “almost finished” “OK, we’re done now.” You won’t avoid the meltdown every time but you will eventually and you will begin to establish a clear relationship between what you say will happen and what will happen (this is really important!). Despite the meltdown, if you said it was “all done” you have to follow through (see #1…Say what you mean, mean what you say!)
Finally—realize that despite your best efforts your toddler is going to have forgotten everything you’ve taught him/her after spending time with his/her grandparents—ok this is a sidebar thought, but has to be said—AM I RIGHT?! Accept it, because it’s fate unless you have a very special breed of parents/in-laws; this is the circle of life and your parents dealt with it with you and they feel it is retribution. **OK this one was kind of a joke, but also kind of not.