I Wish I Knew: Toddlers

This is the final part in my series  “I Wish I Knew.” Read about what I wish I knew relating to pregnancy, birth, and babies in parts onetwo, and threeThis post contains affiliate links. Please read my disclosure policy for more information.

Culturally speaking, toddlerhood is equal to teenage years when it comes to least favorite times to be a parent. Toddlers throw tantrums without regard to location or convenience, refuse to move, refuse to eat, and are all around terrors. Add a hundred more pounds and you’ve got a teenager.

The narrative is this: when someone asks how old your little one is and you answer somewhere between 1.5 and 3 years old, you get that look of “may God have mercy on your soul,” and the question of “so how bad are they? they must be going through their terrible twos?”

I had a neighbor make a comment about Jai’s age yesterday when he was mad I wouldn’t let him put all his sidewalk chalk in water. He whined a little, but soon got distracted by the neighborhood cat who came to visit.

What I Wish I Knew

I am at the very beginning of the “terrible twos” stage so I still have a lot of naiveté when it comes to how Jai is handling the whole situation. But something I wish someone had told me?

It’s really not that bad. It’s not easy, definitely not saying that it is easy, but it isn’t as bad as I’ve been lead to believe.

My mother told me that parenting is only as hard as you make it out to be, so if you don’t take the necessary steps to help foster certain behaviors you want and help them manage the behaviors you don’t, then there’s a chance you will end up with an unmanageable child. There are other factors at play in this scenario: means, temperament, and patience.

Lots and lots of patience.

There were things I wish my parents did or did not do when I was growing up, so I am making adjustments to my parenting to reflect what I think might have made a positive difference in my life and therefore in Jai’s life. I am hoping to remain flexible enough that when I see something isn’t working I can adjust it.

Because I am currently involved with this developmental stage, I wanted to offer my thoughts on the questions I asked other mothers as well.

These are observations made in my personal experience with a mild-tempered child. I am offering my experience not as expertise but as a means to say “this is what works/doesn’t work for me.” If you find that you handle certain scenarios differently and it works for you, that is all that matters. I pass no judgment on different parenting techniques because there is no “right” way to parent.

Handling Difficult Moments

I know that personality can factor heavily in how a child behaves, so I try to build on that rather than work against it.  Jai has a very easy-going personality, something he got from Ash. With that in mind, I try to speak to him by being calm and firm when I need to be and deciding when it’s worth correcting his behavior:

If he’s being not being destructive, but pulling all the books down from the shelves in our house, I let him have at it because I can pick it up later. When he’s using chalk on a surface other than his blackboard, I will gently remind him of where he can draw freely and move him over to the board.

Jai does have his difficult moments.

His current trend is throwing things at or near living beings (cats or people), grabbing arms in an aggressive manner, and putting teeth on people (not quite biting).

From my reading of Simplicity Parenting by Dr. Kim Payne, I learned that these sorts of aggressive behaviors are his way of managing the intense emotions he’s feeling and incapable of expressing. In order to help him manage these emotions, I’ve been trying to work with him and increase his emotional vocabulary.

If I can intuit what he is most likely feeling: frustration, anger, injustice, or scared; then I will try to use the appropriate emotional words repeatedly so he can learn the differences in emotions. I read that the greater the emotional vocabulary, the easier it will be for them to express exactly what they are feeling.

While his expression of anger or fright might look the same on the surface, how I approach each emotion will be different. Anger might need a firm talking to and way to redirect, whereas fright might require a soothing voice and a hug.

Since he was just over a year old we’ve been instituting quiet times or timeouts for his more difficult moments. Starting out, these weren’t the hard and fast timeouts that you may recognize from childhood, but just moments where he is put in a space, free of distraction for a short period of time to remove him from whatever situation is getting him riled up.

As he’s gotten older we have moved him to a chair where he sits for a minute or so and when the time is up, I get down to his level to talk to him about what brought about the timeout. I always end it by saying “mommy’s not mad at you and mommy loves you very much,” because I want him to know that there’s nothing wrong with him, just that he needs to manage his behavior in a more appropriate manner.

It helps that I have found that his aggression level relates to his tiredness. The more ready for a nap he is, the more likely he is to lash out in an aggressive manner. When I recognize the signs for what they are, I will move him into a rest period to calm down. It may be from a missed nap or not enough nap time, but he needs a longer, nonpunishment-based cooldown period.

All of this said, I have yelled at him on occasion because I was personally frustrated, but I go back and apologize to him each time that happens. My frustration usually stems from fatigue when I don’t get a moment’s break. In those moments I give myself a personal timeout where I put him in a safe space (crib) with plenty of toys to occupy his time and give myself 5-10 minutes alone where I don’t have to think about wrangling a toddler. I find that even 5 minutes helps me in the same way 1 minute helps him.

Food Fights

So far we haven’t had any issues with food.

Ash and I have been exposing Jai to all sorts of foods and flavors from the very beginning: from in the womb, to breastfeeding, to when we started solids. I make sure to expose Jai to a variety of flavors to help stem the tide of picky eating, though I know that picky eating isn’t always from a dislike of flavors but about exerting personal control.

We have also maintained an attitude of “if he finishes his food, great, but we aren’t going to push the matter.” There can be a lot of anxiety surrounding food and toddlers, so we give him the freedom to eat as much or as little as he wants and make no big deal over what he is eating. I provide him with the options I want him to have and if he chooses to pick at only one food item on the plate, then I am fine with that. He will make up for it at a later meal or get supplemental nutrition from his nursing.

I know that, for Jai, if you make something into an issue, he makes it into an issue. 

So far he hasn’t refused to eat, but I do know that food is an area where toddlers exert control, so should he start to go through a picky stage, we’ll indulge it insofar as to make sure he’s fed. Unfortunately for him, it means he will be stuck with the options of what is in the house. I don’t plan to nag or coerce him to eat, but just provide him with the nutrients I can as much as possible and let the stage play itself out.

If I am really concerned he isn’t getting enough protein or nutrients, I’ll feed him some of this ice cream I made for him back in January to help him gain weight.

I do try to find other ways for him to exert his independence which I think helps the matter as well. There are days where he’ll walk into his room and shut the door behind him (I thought I had another 12 years before dealing with this scenario). His room is safe for him to play in alone and unsupervised (though I will peek in every couple of minutes to see how he is doing). When I do peek in, he gives me that look of “you’re invading my privacy mom!” but it’s clear that he wants time alone to play independently. I try to respect it as much as I am comfortable with it, and it seems to grant him that feeling of independence he needs.

Royal Flush

Though Jai is going to be 20-months soon, we have not begun the process of potty-training. We allow him to watch the toilet when we are dumping out diaper contents, but we really haven’t begun the process beyond initial talks of how we plan to handle it.

We bought a chair for the living room, though right now he loves dumping objects into the bowl, and a seat cover for the toilet, but these are meant as introductory objects and not the real deal.

Basically, while we’d both be more than happy to be done with diapers, we want to begin the training process when Jai is ready. He has begun expressing interest, but it isn’t something we’re going to push on him.

He isn’t going to go to college in diapers, so I am unconcerned with how long it takes at this point in time.

Advice

We haven’t gotten any bad advice when it comes to rearing a toddler, at most we’ve gotten comments from strangers and acquaintances about some of the techniques we are doing.

I was walking along with my mom and Jai a few weeks ago in a local town square when a strange man took it upon himself to comment on Jai’s appearance. Jai was wearing a shirt that was too big for him so it looked like a dress and hasn’t gotten his summer haircut, so his hair was a little longer. The stranger started talking about how inappropriate it was for a boy to be dressed like that and ended it with “I hope you don’t let him pierce his ears, otherwise people are going to confuse him for a girl.”

In that moment I saw some serious red, but knew it wasn’t worth confronting the stranger on the matter. I was concerned for Jai’s safety and the example I would be setting for him, so I just said a very loud, curt  “whatever” and continued walking. When we were far enough away from the man’s earshot, I turned to Jai and said the following:

“If you want to get your ears pierced, I will let you when you are old enough to take care of them. If you want to wear a dress, I don’t care. You can wear whatever you want to wear as long as you are happy.”

I am not sure how I will handle other scenarios where I get unhelpful advice or rude comments from strangers, other than taking it on a case-by-case basis. If I feel safe enough to confront the matter, then perhaps I will try to do so unemotionally (that’s a hard one for my hot-blood). If I feel it’s not worth it, I will have a side conversation with Jai if I need to at a later point in time.

Recommendations

The major recommendations I personally have on dealing with a toddler is embrace being patient and decide which battles are worth fighting. A toddler is a little human being that has very little experience in a huge world and they don’t have the training to handle themselves. That’s the parent’s job to train them. Trust in their abilities to understand, on some level, what you are saying to them.

I asked some mothers about their experience after giving birth and the first year of life and compiled their responses below.

What others had to Say

I asked mothers and grandmothers about their experiences with newborns and what they wish they knew. They provided some thoughtful and interesting responses that never came up in my own situation or I had forgotten about.

What were your preconceived notions about toddlers and did they change once you had one?

I had few preconceived notions, but those I did have came from my courses in child development and psychology. My child has developed as I thought he would, basically. My own responses to that development have surprised me, however. – Anonymous

I was terrified of the terrible twos.  I had heard and seen tantrums and was not looking forward to it.  But I had determined that we would face it with the attitude that discipline (or for a better description, the setting of boundaries) was in her best interest.  I tried to not be idealistic or to think that it wouldn’t happen to me. It was as I expected, she tested our resolve to set boundaries.  She wanted to know if we were serious when we said “no” (we were).  But I also realized that I had to pick my battles.  If pulling out every toy from the toy box was her task for the day, so be it.  As long as when bath and bedtime rolled around she cooperated. – Michelle M.

My pre-conceived notions were that they were wild and crazy and clingy or always throwing a tantrum or crying.   I never liked being around children because if it.   I honestly just felt bad for parents especially if their children were out of control. My first child was calm for the most part but he had his moments.   The second one was a little wilder.   But in comparison to my friends and families children I thought they were pretty awesome.   I am actually sad when I see kids that won’t leave their parents or cry all the time or are just so quiet and disciplined because I feel that they might be missing out. – Lara J.

I don’t think I really believed that all those things you hear about terrible twos, etc. were true. I remember thinking that my kids wouldn’t be like that. So naive. I realize now how dumb I was now, of course. But honestly, I don’t think that anyone could have told me how hard it would be to have your heart running around outside your body being a terrorist all the time and the unending sense of responsibility in any possible way that would have made me believe them. You have to feel it to understand. Besides everyone always hushes the moms that try to tell their baby-less friends how hard it is. Like you’re ruining something magical, but actually we’re just keeping those poor women in the dark. I don’t think the autonomy of little humans was something I truly understood.  I was the kind of kid who wanted to be good and make everyone happy.  I hated being in trouble and loved being praised. I never thought about the fact that I was making a completely autonomous person who had all their own thoughts and desires, who might not share those traits. I thought you were supposed to have angels until the terrible 2s started, no one told me that they start around 15-18 months. – Theresa S.

I imagined the twos and threes would be toddlers trying to assert themselves. Tantrums when their needs were not met. My toddlers were surprisingly meek I don’t recall a single tantrum. Not sure why, could be I gave into them. – Anita M.

How do you manage difficult moments?

We set firm boundaries and allow feelings to happen. We don’t do time-outs or other “punishments,” opting instead for natural consequences. – Anonymous

One thing that I felt was essential was that she knew and understood expectations.  We did not “punish” on the first offense because I believed it was committed in ignorance.  Once the offense and expectation was explained as well as what would be the resulting punishment, I felt it was fair to allow her to decide if the offending action was worth the risk.  One of the most vivid memories I have was when she was probably 2- 2 1/2, we were eating dinner at a restaurant.  She had finished and wanted to walk around.  We asked her to sit back in her chair or we would leave.  She got down again, I picked her up and went outside to the car while my husband paid the check.  She fought sitting in her car seat  but eventually she did and she cried as we drove home.  However, I don’t recall ever having that problem again.  We mostly disciplined with actions appropriate for the situation such as leaving a location, ignoring a tantrum if it was safe to do so, etc.  […]I have recently seen that time-out in a time-out chair can be just as effective.  The toddler has to be old enough to understand that the action is punishment and not a game or it won’t deter anything. Once they understand that, any form of discipline will work as long as it is handled without anger on the part of the parent.  If I felt exasperated then placing her in her crib or other safe location until I could deal calmly with her was the best solution temporarily. – Michelle M.

Time outs worked with my kids more than anything else.  Something about having to sit in a corner made them so sad that they wanted to listen. For me ignoring and not engaging during emotional moments worked the best. – Lara J.

We used correction and redirection mostly for the first year or two.  We instated time outs the day my son hit the tv. That was a line for us. He was about 2.5 yrs old. He got 20+ time outs that day. It was a battle of wills. We were stern and consistent. It may have been one of the few times we managed to out-stubborn him. You don’t mess with the tv.[…] We actively turned to positive discipline a little later on. I remember talking to a mom who was saying that her little girl (maybe 3 at the time) used to be really bad, but *they* stopped treating her like she was bad and started treating her like she was good and couldn’t believe the change.  We earn things (positive reinforcement); we start out our day with a number rewards (pokemon cards, dimes, etc.) that are removed for agreed upon infractions (negative punishment); we try to ignore unwanted behaviors (negative reinforcement); and help them fix their mistakes and clean up their messes (positive punishment). We talk a lot about choices and making good ones. We have a team of resources that we have worked with on coping skills. We yell a lot. But we also apologize. – Theresa S.

We never did time outs for toddlers.  I remember saying no multiple times. I have no advice, I believed one could hurt a child if disciplining incorrectly but one could not hurt with too much love, so I probably did not discipline at all. – Anita M.

What are your little one’s eating habits and how do you deal with picky eating?

He is picky. We let him make choices. – Anonymous

Food was an area where I chose to not pick a battle and therefore I never had a problem with her eating what was on her plate.   Our requirement was that she try the new food.  One bite was enough.  To my delight there was very few foods which she had a problem with and as she grew, I would later discover her dislike might have been linked to an allergy. A toddler can’t always express or put into words what the problem is so what  appeared on the surface to be a taste issue in actuality might have been nausea.  By respecting her preferences I gave her the control over her food. – Michelle M.

It’s still hard to get my kids to eat.  However I learned from my pediatrician that kids won’t starve themselves.  So I never pushed them to eat. They eat what I give them or they don’t eat.   Sometimes we gave in when we wanted a peaceful night.  But for the most part we would not make separate meals. – Lara J.

Toddler eating wasn’t so bad. I had two kids who loved to try new foods and feed themselves.  It wasn’t until later that they became extremely picky. Grazing can be a way of life for toddlers. It’s ok. I once read this great article on how toddlers appear to be living off air.  It helped me realize that as long as they were growing, they were surely eating enough. I know plenty of grown ups who say their parents shouldn’t have made separate meals and catered to them. I know people who never forgave their parents for making them eat things they hated or requiring them to finish their plates. There has to be middle ground somewhere. I haven’t found it. – Theresa S.

Very difficult, both my children did not eat and needed be fed by hand, and it was not considered a bad thing to do culturally. I did offer a variety and when they got picky I tended to make them what they liked. – Anita M.

How did potty training go for you?

Approximately 3+.  Pressure from grandmother and others didn’t deter me from waiting until I felt she was truly ready to understand the concept. Seriously, my attitude was as long as she wasn’t still in diapers when she went to college, I didn’t care! Once she reached the age where I felt she was ready it only took 2 weeks. We had tried putting the potty chair in the bathroom but she never had to go when we put her on it.   So we put it in the living room where we spent the most time, took her diaper off and told her when she had to go potty to sit on the chair.  She, daddy and I were all sitting around reading when suddenly I heard what sounded like water running.  I looked up and she was sitting there, with her book, very matter of fact. – Michelle M.

We began at 3 for our oldest.  His birthday is in October so there was no rush to potty train because he was almost 4 when k3 started.  With the youngest it was before 3 so we could get him into k3 as soon as possible.  His birthday is in August.  There was a lot of reading my first potty books…letting them run around naked…taking them to the potty even hour.   Cheering and rewards for every positive outcome.   Just letting it happen instead of forcing it as both my boys were a little stubborn. – Lara J.

We put off potty training till 3 with both kids. I had heard people say “start at 2 end at 3, start at 3 end at 3.” My son wasn’t interested and we weren’t ready to start my daughter because we were drained by her brother. It took my son about 3 years to fully potty train during the day. We tried the 1-day potty training program and, other than almost causing a divorce, we got nothing out of it. We tried putting him on a schedule, we tried reverting back to pull ups for short periods of time, we tried running around naked, we tried leaving him in wet (presumably uncomfortable) clothes longer, stickers, charts, prizes, we tried everything. There was absolutely no magic trick. He went to kindergarten, and I was terrified he’d be having accidents all the time. He had 1 or 2 in kindergarten and first grade, but mostly they stopped around that time. His body was ready. He wet the bed fairly consistently in first grade. We just put a plastic zipper cover on the mattress and did laundry. By 2nd grade, he hardly had any night time accidents. When my daughter turned 3, she basically potty trained herself in two months. We just switched her to undies, had little potties available, and reminded her before we left the house. She used bedtime undies with changeable pads until she turned 5, now we periodically change wet sheets but we don’t worry about it. – Theresa S.

At age 2-3 and I tried the potty training in a day or two.  I kept the toddler bare bottomed and made frequent trips to the toilet. – Anita M.

What advice do you have for potty training?

We had a kids potty in the living room and the bathrooms.   So they were easily accessible and read “A potty for me” – Lara J.

  • Travel potties are a necessity!
  • We had a few potty books and a couple froggy potties. Love the froggy potty.
  • The 1-day program failed us.
  • We used charts to varying degrees of usefulness.
  • We had a poopy prize bag that was super helpful. Anytime they pooped on the potty they got a prize, candy, small toys, all sort of stuff. My son withheld a lot so this was a big incentive. We did this much longer than one would expect. I have no regrets. I think it kept the withholding to a minimum and kept my kid from being traumatized by things like enemas. – Theresa S.

Not too many  tricks, i have done more with the grand children, books, videos songs. – Anita M.

What does your nighttime routine look like?

Bath, then a nighttime bottle/cup of milk while we read a book.  Then three songs, her choice.  She loved the bedtime ritual and therefore we never had a problem getting her to bed. – Michelle M.

We always read a book or two.   Kisses and hugs. And snuggles.  But other than that no routine.  There was no bed time when we had to do something but that works for us because we as parents had things that would change our schedule.   So we wanted to make sure our kids would be flexible.  The kids could take a nap in a crowded room with noise.   They wouldn’t get testy if it was past their bed time because they didn’t have one.   But everyone has what works for them.   We didn’t want to be put on a schedule so we never put our kids on one.  We didn’t want to have a very specific ritual that the kids would miss so we didn’t create one and therefore they didn’t need one. – Lara J.

We brushed teeth, read, and sang. We sang the Ants Go Marching every night for 2-3 years. It was his favorite thing. Singing was both of my kids favorites for the first few years. When we were having a hard time with bedtime, I read something about making your routine and always “giving in” to one request to avoid all the things kids might ask for. This worked well for us with the first toddler. When we transitioned to a toddler bed with the first child, I wound up half in the toddler bed, half on the floor until he fell asleep for a month or two. I left if he talked but would stay as long as he was quiet and lying down. It was so tedious, but he had just turned 2 and was throwing himself head first out of the crib so we swapped the crib for the bed out of fear. – Theresa S.

Bath and Reading. They always woke up and wanted to get into bed with us. – Anita M.

What was the best piece of unsolicited advice you’ve received?

Choose your battles. I don’t know where I first heard it but it also applied to how I raised her as a teenager. – Michelle M.

I don’t remember from who.  But it was…when you walk in the door after work no matter how tired you are to take that first 15 min and just give it to your kids.  They are so excited to see you and they have missed you and if you give them those precious moments they will then feel good and loved and then let you do what you need to do.   If you walk in and say mama’s tired or mama’s busy, or wait mama doesn’t have the time, or mama needs a minute, the impact it has on them can be something that’s tough to overcome when you are ready to spend time with them. – Lara J.

Get your kids a full size bed. You’ll spend so much time in it, you’ll be grateful it’s not a twin. That was the advice of a friend with an older child. I never regretted that bigger bed. – Theresa S.

What was the worst piece of unsolicted advice you’ve received?

They have to be on a schedule.  I tried it.   None of us were happy.   We went back to our version of happy chaos. – Lara J.

Advice on eating, “if your child does not eat give the child the same food that it had not eaten over and over again until it was gone!” Bad I would never try it. – Anita M.

Any final recommendations?

Be consistent and follow through.  Toddlers are smart and they do know how to manipulate situations if parents aren’t consistent.  Give choices both of which  you want them to have (example: “Do you want apple or blueberries?”) so they feel like they get the chance to make decisions.  Respect them for the human beings that they are. – Michelle M.

There is no perfect way to raise a toddler.   Do what works for you?   Share what works for you but only to show how we all can have success and challenges with what we do.   Not because our way is better.   Just because something works for someone else doesn’t mean you are a failure if it doesn’t work for you.   Our children are not cookie cutter copies. – Lara J.

Get Toddler411 by Dr. Ari Brown and Denise Fields. It’s a great resource and is written to be skimmed for the questions you actually have. I received it from our pediatrician and used it all the time. – Theresa S.

Safety issues, be very attentive to hazards around the house, it is amazing what toddlers can get into. – Anita M.

I want to say thank you to all the wonderful women who took the time to answer my survey questions and were open and honest about their personal motherhood experiences. I have learned a lot from them and appreciate the tools they provided to help me through my own journey through motherhood.


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