on trusting a toddler

11:45 AM

I think these days some of our ideas about parenting would be perceived as "old school" by some. We believe in discipline. We believe in having children that are respectful towards adults, are polite and well mannered. We believe in having our kids do chores as soon as they are able to (now that Birdie is three she in charge of cleaning up her toys, occasionally helping with the dishes and making her bed in the morning). We believe in never asking our toddler if she wants to go to bed, take a nap, eat or play; we tell her. Discipline with Birdie has been especially difficult since the very beginning as she is a very strong willed and precocious child. But we've stuck to it and we've done ok.
I wanted to share this post because there were many times when we were in the thick of it, so to speak, and just feeling lost and helpless as far as how to go forward and what the right thing to do was. We read everything we could get our hands on and asked everyone we knew for advice in our quest to unlock the mind of a toddler. There are two specific lessons that we picked up that have been immensely helpful in creating a peaceful home and growing a rewarding relationship with our daughter.

Tip #1 "Address the need NOT the behavior"
This was a huge eye opener for me. We went through a stage with Birdie, actually we went through it several times, where she would tantrum three, sometimes four times a day. And I'm not talking about some crying and foot stomping, I'm talking exorcism level, hour long and completely draining kind of tantrums. It was breaking all of us. But we felt that the right thing to do was to punish the behavior (by punish I mean talking to her sternly and putting her in time out in her room). It wasn't working, at all. Then we started doing some research (namely reading a lot of Janet Lansbury) and we realized that she was not simply misbehaving she was going through some serious internal struggles that she either didn't understand or couldn't verbalize. Well wouldn't you know, as soon as we started approaching her with empathy, love and affection during these "episodes" we were able to shorten their duration and pretty much eliminate them altogether within two days. She will still have these sorts of episodes every few months and basically what we do now is just hold her and talk to have in a calming soft voice. It breaks my heart because sometimes she will literally dig her nails into me as she just cries and cries. Being a toddler is hard. For real.

Tip #2 "Trust your toddler to do the right thing" 
You know that hokey saying "speak truth" or "speak light" upon your life? Well my dad was a big fan of that long before Oprah made it a part of her repertoire. Even as teenagers he would always have "discussions" with us about relationships, drugs, sex, alcohol, etc and yet end it with "but I know you will make the right decision." LOL. And the ghost of his disappointed face haunted me all through high school and college and resulted in me earning a reputation for being fairly straight-laced. He started speaking to Birdie in this way pretty much as soon as she could talk and I would roll my eyes in return thinking "she's a kid, good luck thinking she knows what the right thing to do is." And yet... And yet I started coming across child psychologists and others backing up dad's theory and a few months ago I decided to give it a try. I stopped getting involved in fights between the kids, I stopped telling Birdie that she "must or must not do x,y, or z immediately," I stopped forcing the right response from her. Instead I would calmly suggest that she "share the toy with Teddy/return the toy to Teddy/not whine/not be demanding/not be rude." I would tell her that I believe in her and I believe that she will do the right thing and then I would step away. And you know what? After about a month of doing this now 8 out of 10 times she really does do the right thing!! She'll even come and tell me "mama I shared my toy with Teddy" or "mama look I'm waiting patiently!" And it has improved our relationship immensely and I find myself raising my voice so much less often. I can just see it in her eyes - how empowering this has been for her.

We're all still learning here and we are just on the cusp on beginning to discipline Teddy (which is turning out to be a whole different ball game both because of his gender (I think) and his personality). I've just always felt that the more information I have about this the better chance I have at not screwing things up. And it's funny because I think good parenting advice can come from experts, books and journals but it can also come from an old lady at the check out line of the grocery store, your neighbor or a fellow mama. I don't think I have all the answers and I'm always seeking advice because I think raising kids is hands-down one of the most difficult and grueling things I have ever gone through. I'm taking all the help I can get!

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