I am having a tough time with my almost two-and-a-half year old daughter Madeline. I have practiced Magda Gerber’s approach since before she was born while I worked in infant care, so your approach is what I am used to around children. She has, thus far, been brought up in a very calm, patient, encouraging, respectful home.
Madeline has always been an “easy-going” child – very empathetic, happy, independent … all around great. Recently, she has begun to start “back-talk”, and apparently it is the button to push! When I (or my husband) am trying to tell her something, she argues with us to the point where I don’t really know where to go before it turns into an argument or power struggle. A couple of examples:
Grampie was in the bathroom and she was standing at the closed door, yelling for him. I told her “Madeline, Grampie is just going to the washroom. He will be out soon. He needs some privacy. Please stop shouting at him.” She started shouting back to me “No! No, he doesn’t need his privacy!”
She hit me with a toy (half-by-accident, I think…), and I told her “Ouch! That hurts me. I don’t like it.” She replied (quite indignantly), “Yeah, ya do!” This happens quite often when I express my own feelings to her – she replies, with lots of attitude, the opposite.
I understand that it is a time of independence and she is learning how to be her own person. I understand that it is a very conflicting and confusing time for her because she wants to be independent but still needs us. We have always given her lots of space and time and choices, so this is new for us. I don’t really know what to do.
You nailed the issue here: “She has begun to start “back-talk”, and apparently it is the button to push! “ Madeline continues to push your button because it works — the back-talk is getting a rise out of you. The solution is simple: deactivate this button so the behavior loses its power.
I realize that this might not be as easy as it sounds. It may not even seem right to you. Yes, this is rude behavior, and if anyone other than your own 2.5 year old daughter treated you this way, you’d be rightfully offended. And then the fact that this is your empathetic, all-around-great little girl whom you’ve adored and respected makes it feel a million times worse. It’s surprising and alarming. How dare she? What’s happening to your precious girl? Where is this obnoxious behavior coming from, and how do we put a stop to it?
If you were a less empathetic, knowledgeable parent you’d probably spank her or put her in time out, but since you are respectful and enlightened I advise something far more effective: adjust your perspective. There is surely some good news here, so consider this:
1. As you know, toddlers need to test their power, express their individuality, try stuff out. Madeline’s right on track.
2. Toddlers commonly express their burgeoning independence by disagreeing with us, no matter what it’s about. Magda Gerber used to tell the story of a toddler shouting NO before eagerly accepting an ice-cream cone from her parent. Defiance is an almost automatic response, so when we say ‘yes’, toddlers have an overpowering compulsion to say no (and vice-versa), whether or not they really mean it. It’s nothing personal.
3. Madeline’s talking!
4. She has strong opinions and the attitude to go with them, some of which are going to be nutty and inappropriate, but the fact she expresses herself this way means she’s an assertive, self-confident girl.
5. I’m usually not one to compare young children to animals, but when I think of toddlers experimenting with their power, I see gorillas beating their chests. Woohoo! It’s a powerful time.
6. She’s testing these behaviors out at home where she knows she’s safe, loved and generally accepted, which means you’ve nurtured her well.
7. She’s tiny and 2.5 years old. I imagine you and your husband are quite a bit taller and at least…20? In other words, don’t take Madeline’s hollering and back-talk personally or feel the slightest bit threatened by your blustery little girl. See this for the healthy testing it is and rise above it.
Here are some “Take 2” suggestions for the example you gave me:
It sounds like you began to get a little wound up when Madeline was hustling poor Grampie out of the washroom, but you tried to keep your cool. How was your tone, do you think? Did you seem calm and unfazed?
Take a step back. Isn’t it kind of sweet that this commanding little toddler wants her Grampie so badly and thinks she might be powerful enough to eject him from the washroom? I know I’d be flattered if that were my grandchild. So, if I were you, I would say lightly, “Somebody really wants her Grampie! Madeline, I think Grampie may have heard you…and he might need another minute or two.” I’d leave it at that.
Besides, can’t Grampie fend for himself?
When Madeline hit you with the toy (which probably wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t sensed you were upset about Grampie), your response set you up for even more button pushing. Stopping her before she hit you would have been ideal, “Ouch!” is fine, and “that hurts me” is okay if you aren’t too emotional about it. But you might have taken the behavior a little too personally when you added, “I don’t like it.” Believe it or not, these few extra words could have been enough to indicate to Madeline that this minor incident had the power to upset you, when what she needed was reassurance that you were confidently in charge. So she continued her button-pushing barrage with her pugnacious response, “Yeah, ya do!”
When children do this it’s as if they’re saying, “Can you handle this? Can you handle me? Please prove that you can handle me with ease.”
Here are some other light-hearted (but not sarcastic) “deactivating” responses to bossiness and back-talk:
“Well, I guess we disagree on that one.”
“Hmm… Thank you for your opinion.”
“You seem to have strong feelings about (Grampie leaving the washroom, etc.)”
And when in doubt there’s always, “Interesting!”
So, take a step back, react and worry less, enjoy your daughter’s spirit!
Hope this helps…
For a complete guide to toddler behavior, please check out my new book:
(Photo by EF Photography on Flickr)