This post was originally published August 2018.
Toddlers are too young to understand deep, philosophical lessons. They are too young to understand moral quandaries. They are too young to really grasp right from wrong.
As parents, we know that just because they can’t understand it, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taught. I feel like this is a “no, duh” moment many parents are saying to themselves right now.
Yet an issue I run into as I parent Jai with Ash is knowing what lessons to teach and how best to teach them. Questions I ask myself on a daily basis: is this something worth correcting Jai on? How do I correct him, with a warning or straight to time out? Should I follow the mainstream recommendation or go with my instinct?
A mentor once told me years ago, well before I met Ash, that you are never truly prepared to have a child. So if you want to have one, you have to just jump in and learn as you go. It won’t be easy, but the payoff will be worth it in the end when you have a functioning, well-adjusted adult that wants to have a relationship with you after they’ve moved out of the house.
But in order to achieve this, I have to begin training Jai to be polite, thoughtful, a good listener, able to share, and comfortable with adults as a toddler. The list is a bit longer than that, but those are the main concerns I have on a daily basis with a toddler.
As I am training Jai, I have to be mindful of several things: I’m an adult, what battles to pick and being humble throughout the whole experience.
Being the Adult in the Relationship
What follows in this section isn’t judgment towards other parents, especially if they are struggling. I do not know what goes on in private, but I do have a reaction towards what is expressed in a public or semi-public forum. I am using real-life examples and my immediate emotional response to these scenarios to highlight the importance of a parent’s role in their relationship with a child.
I, like many parents, am a part of parenting groups on Facebook. One of the most frequent posts I see made by other parents are complaints about their toddlers. I am not referring to “my child won’t listen to me, what do I do” sort of complaints, but genuine “I don’t understand how to handle my toddler and they are really making me angry” types of complaints.
I get it. Toddlers are hard. They don’t call them “terrible twos,” “threenagers,” and “fournados” for nothing. I am not one of those mothers who will pretend that being a parent is all sunshine and happiness. It is hard work and there are days where you need to vent over how frustrating it can be.
I get uncomfortable with public or semi-public complaints that place the blame on the toddler for undesirable behavior. Especially when it’s made crystal clear that the parent isn’t joking and they expand on their thoughts within the post and comments.
Reading these complaint posts by other parents makes it clear that being the adult is the key to parental success when handling a child (of any age). It’s hard to do, especially when feeling tired, overwhelmed, and completely unsure of what I am doing. I find in the moments that Jai’s behavior is particularly bothersome if I remain level-headed and in control of my feelings and thoughts, I am able to navigate the situation quickly and more effectively than if I start to snap or show frustration.
Many times, if he is throwing a tantrum or ramping up into one if I talk in a soothing, but firm voice or don’t give in to what he wants (sometimes ignoring a tantrum is necessary to not validate it), he calms down quickly and we are able to move on with minimal fuss. I recognize that some of this may have to do with his easy-going personality, so it may not work with a different child or if he’s going through a needy stage.
That said, remaining patient and calm helps keep me from feeling overwhelmed if he’s having a particularly rough day.
In the moments where I bring myself down to a toddler level mindset, and they do happen when I am exhausted or dealing with a bad MS day, Jai and I start to butt heads more often. I am not able to speak in a soothing voice, but rather snapping at him (which I feel endlessly guilty about afterward), and moving him without much discussion from spot-to-spot. On those days I get so overwhelmed that I need to take a break from him, so he plays quietly in a safe space where I go to another room to get five minutes to collect my thoughts and emotions.
Anecdotally, I have found that if I want to teach and train Jai to behave a certain way, the only way I am going to be effective is if I remain the adult in the situation. Venting about him to Ash or some friends is fine, but as long as I keep the blame off of Jai for his behavior. I try to recognize that he’s only two without the same training I’ve had, therefore the venting will release my frustration in an effective manner so I can be a parent to Jai.
Picking My Battles
If I am going to train Jai to behave or stop an undesirable behavior, I have to pick and choose the moments I put my foot down.
I feel awful if I spend an entire afternoon chasing after Jai saying “no!” “stop that” or “you can’t do x,y, z.” I know it frustrates him. Part of being a toddler is exploring your boundaries and abilities, so if a parent is constantly saying “no” and offering no alternative – it’s frustrating to the point of a tantrum.
I’ve had to break down my battles into two categories: behaviors worth dealing with in a firm manner and behaviors that may just require a word or two in correcting.
Behaviors worth having a conversation or training moment, including timeouts and removal from the situation:
- Drawing or painting outside pre-determined boundaries (i.e. a floor or wall)
- General destructive property behavior, particularly for property that isn’t his
- Not listening when I say “no” or “stop” if there’s a clear and present danger to his well-being
- Not listening after I said not to do/touch/interact with a particular item
- Doing something to harm another being (i.e. throwing sand, rocks, or toys at another person/animal)
Behaviors that might merit a conversation, but nothing intensive:
- Making a mess of his paint or paint area provided it’s within the pre-determined boundaries (but understanding that mistakes do happen)
- Destroying his own toys or books however he sees fit
- Not interacting with me when I am having a benign or unimportant conversation with him (social skills come later)
- Getting distracted in the middle of a task that he spills something or makes a mess (recognizing his intent)
- Throwing his toys around in a safe space provided the throw isn’t directed at another being
It really boils down to the intent of a toddler. If he is being willful in his actions, knowing that he knows he shouldn’t be doing something, then I will correct it more firmly. But if he is trying out a new concept or doesn’t recognize what he is doing is problematic, I have to decide if it is worth making a big deal to teach him how to do it differently.
For example, we went to the park the other day. We’ve had several days of rain and so there was a huge mud patch off to the side. Jai found it, because all toddlers find the mud, and rather than getting upset and stopping him from playing in it – I made the following rationalizations:
- I don’t need to run any errands after the park, we can go straight home to take a bath.
- He never gets to see mud like this at home and mud is fun to play with (I would have joined in if I could have).
- I have the means to clean him up in the car and mud washes out.
Provided he didn’t sling mud at me or another child, I couldn’t see the harm in letting him play in the mud. Inconvenient? Yes. Messy? Yes. But in the grand scheme of things, would it really negatively impact my life if I gave him the opportunity to play in the mud? No.
Because I allowed Jai to play and explore in the mud when I told him I was setting a timer to leave, he did not throw a fit. It was a bit awkward to try and pick him up without me getting messy, but with a thorough wipe down in the back of the car, he was ready to head home.
Now, if I needed to run some errands after the park I would have distracted him or moved him into another area because I’ve done that before.
Learning Deep Humility
Becoming a parent is a lesson in humility. Nothing is more humbling than getting peed on or stopping a child from playing with the contents of their diaper during a change. It makes you appreciate what our parents went through when raising us.
As much as I’d love to believe I came out perfect and was always perfect, I know my parents had to go through all the same stuff I do with Jai. Given the differences in our personalities (Jai and me), I know it wasn’t easy for my parents.
Humility also comes from the moments I need to teach Jai something important. It requires me getting down to his level, empathizing with his feelings, and being a toddler once again. For all my age, life experiences, and perceived clout – none of that matters when dealing with a child. While I may be the most important person in the world to him, everything I’ve done up to that point in my own life does not matter.
It’s humiliating to be standing over a child kicking and crying in front of Daddy’s workplace because they want to go back inside to see Daddy. People are walking by me, giving me “the look,” and I know what they are thinking because I had the same thoughts myself before I had Jai: “why can’t she get her child under control?”
In those moments it’s tempting to snap at Jai and not be an adult in the situation. It’s more important that I humble myself to the fact that my child needs the moment to get his emotions out in a healthful way. I set a timer, tell Jai he has so much time before I am picking him up to go, set my jaw, and wait until enough time passes.
Once I have ensured we are not negatively impacting others, like being in a confined space with a loud child or in the middle of a busy walkway, I have to ignore all external stimuli in those moments. It is just Jai and me – there aren’t any other adults or children around us, staring. I am aware of their presence but I cannot let what I think they are thinking effect how I parent my child. No matter how humiliated I am, I must hold firm in how I want to manage his emotions and behavior, and follow through.
What helps me in these moments? Remembering that this moment will pass. This stage will pass. The people we encounter (unless with friends or on a playdate) will never see us again so none of it matters. Everyone, including strangers who may be obvious in their judgment, has been in this situation before either with their own children or as a child themselves. My embarrassment should not be taken out on Jai, but rather, I should feel humbled in a positive way as I teach my child.
Humility, no matter where it comes from, keeps me grounded.
How to Effectively Teach a Lesson
When it comes time to train Jai into a behavior I want to encourage or one I want to discourage, I draw upon the period in my life when I binged the British “Nanny” shows on TV. I loved watching out-of-control American families receive stern but sensible advice from no-nonsense British nannies.
I picked up a lot of great tips from these women for teaching Jai important life lessons:
- If Jai is exhibiting a behavior I don’t agree with, give him a warning so he knows that I don’t want him to repeat it. (No, do not throw blocks at the cat)
- If Jai continues the behavior, offer an alternative that is similar but more acceptable. (I know you want to throw blocks at the cat, but why don’t you throw these balls into this bin instead?)
- If Jai refuses the alternative or continues the behavior, offer a consequence for his actions. Make sure the consequence fits the behavior, don’t take favorite things away for a minor infraction. (If you throw another block at the cat, you will go into timeout)
- Follow through with the consequence no matter how inconvenient it may be. (Because you threw a block at the cat when I asked you several times not to, you will go into a 1-minute timeout).
- After the consequence, take a few seconds to explain what action led to the consequence, why he received the consequence, and what I want him to do in the future. I also affirm that I am not mad at him, I just want him to change the behavior. We move forward with a clean slate, but I am mindful that the behavior may happen again. (Mommy put you into timeout because you continued to throw blocks at the cats when I asked you not to. Throwing blocks at the cat or another person can hurt them. Please do not throw blocks at anyone, including the cats. I am not mad at you, I just want you to listen to me when I ask you not to do something.)
- If Jai still repeats the behavior, I skip to steps 3 – 5 but making the consequence a little longer. At that point, he needs to be removed from the situation so I try to distract him with another activity or we go home.
My motivation is to make Jai aware of what he’s doing, that there are real consequences for his actions and that he isn’t a bad person for his actions. I want him to think about what he is doing, not feel shame for it. He isn’t perfect, nor should I expect or imply that he needs to be.
Many times I have to remember that some of his behaviors or actions are occurring for the first time. He’s either not experienced it before or he’s just discovering it. I cannot jump immediately on him for doing something I don’t want him to do if he doesn’t even know he shouldn’t be doing it.
That’s why I try to work through the steps slowly instead of going straight to consequences. I cannot fault someone for doing something I don’t like if they aren’t even aware of how it impacts me, so it is the same as a child. A warning also serves as a speed bump for my emotions if I find that I am struggling to maintain my perspective as the adult in the situation. When I warn Jai, I can use that moment to breathe for a few seconds and remember that I am dealing with a toddler, not an adult.
As Jai grows older, how I deal with his behaviors will change, but I have found that this works for now while we are in the toddler stage.
Being Okay with Repetition
Unfortunately, just like with adults, lessons take multiple times to learn. Even when we learn the lesson, we still have to learn it again when we forget it. Children are the same way but require more patience and understanding.
Although one should be patient and understanding of themselves as they learn life’s lessons. We are imperfect creatures and that’s what makes us beautiful.
We have gone several days where Jai hasn’t needed a timeout or anything beyond a firm conversation and then all of the sudden we have a day where we’ve had three timeouts for the same thing that I thought we learned not to do two weeks prior. The fourth one is for a new action he’s discovered that’s fun but could hurt someone or himself.
While Jai may have learned the lesson, he is testing to see if that lesson still stands. I cannot get frustrated by this exploration but understand that we have to repeat the process until he’s moved on to something else. Repeating the lesson isn’t indicative of a failure at parenting, but actually a healthy exploration of Jai’s boundaries.
Children thrive on structure and Jai needs reassurance that I will provide it for him. Would he love it if I let him do whatever he wants, whenever he wants? Yes, but that will cause issues down the road.
Again, in these moments where I have repeated my explanation why throwing blocks at the cat is not okay, I have to remember that I am the adult and my child needs me to act like one and not blame them for their actions.
Take a Break and Take the Pressure Off
Teaching a child acceptable behaviors is a lot of hard work. It is frustrating and venting is a productive way to keep your cool. When I have to vent about Jai, I make sure not to blame him for his behaviors because he hasn’t done anything wrong, he just doesn’t know what is acceptable and what isn’t.
It’s my job to teach him that distinction.
Remember that if it gets to be too much, and you are privileged enough to do so, pass the child off to a partner for a moment or two. Place the child in a safe space if you aren’t able to do that and walk away for a moment while you catch your breath and re-center and remember that you are the adult.
In those breaks, I always tell myself that I am doing the best that I can; Jai loves me and appreciates me even when he’s mad that I am teaching him how to behave; I am a good parent and I am raising a happy child who will appreciate all that I’ve done even if they won’t say it to me; and bedtime will eventually arrive so I can get a much longer break.
And most importantly: all of this will pass and we’ll move onto another interesting stage where he will have a better understanding and reasoning for his actions. While teaching him important lessons will happen into adulthood, he will eventually be able to reason in a way that requires less effort on my part.
How do you teach little ones important life lessons? What has worked for you or hasn’t worked? Comment with your thoughts and experiences below.
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Featured photo credit: Michelle Melton