If parenting were film acting, we’d always be brilliant because we’d have plenty of “takes” to perfect our responses (not to mention make-up, hair styling and ridiculously high salaries). But we are playing a part — the role of a lifetime for a lifetime. Luckily, we perform for an adoring, forgiving audience, and our children will usually accept our less thoughtful, less than stellar performances. In fact, even our bloopers can be blessings, because they teach kids the invaluable lesson that mistakes are okay since even superstars like their parents make them.
Here are a few of my “Take 2” suggestions for handling common infant and toddler situations and some of the reasoning behind them…
Instead of “Don’t cry”, “Shhhh”, “You’re okay”, “Okay, that’s enough now”, “It’s alright, nothing happened”…
Non-judgmentally acknowledge the child’s response and the incident that caused it. “Ouch, that hurt you when you bumped into the wall.” Or “oh, you are very upset that the dog barked.” Or “You are having a hard time relaxing your body. I hear you.” Then allow the child all the time he or she needs to finish crying with your full support.
Encouraging children to express their feelings is the key to fostering emotional health. No matter how unreasonable our child’s reaction seems, he or she needs it to be accepted. Remember, even adults can’t control emotional reactions, but young children are not capable of controlling the manner in which they express them, either. Discouraging the feelings or responding impatiently invalidates the child. When you’re feeling impatient with a tantruming toddler, stay present, relax and imagine all the future therapy bills you’re saving.
2. Minor accidents
Instead of running over to the child and scooping him up in a panic…
Take a moment to observe his response. If he cries, go close to him as calmly as possible, ask if wants you to pick him up, acknowledge what happened (as explained above) and his feelings about it.
When we respond frantically, we startle our child, which can make him fearful or cause him to become upset when he might have quickly recovered and continued playing. Our little ones are very tuned into us and benefit greatly when we can trust their competence. Allowing children to recover autonomously whenever they are able to fosters self-confidence and resiliency, gives them an opportunity to try to understand what happened and learn something from the experience.
Instead of “good job”, “That’s beautiful”, “You are so smart!” or a big round of applause…
You might say, “Thank you for helping me!” “You did it all by yourself!” “You pulled the plastic beads apart. That was hard!” “You struggled and struggled, but you didn’t give up.” “You must be proud of yourself.” Add specifics so your child knows you’ve been paying attention (and to aid language development).
These responses encourage children to own their accomplishments, protect intrinsic motivation, and are less likely to train kids to depend on others for validation.
4. Encouragement when a child is struggling
Instead of “you can do it!”
“I hear you getting frustrated, but you’re almost there.” “This is hard work you’re doing!” “I’m here and I won’t let you fall, but it is safer for you to climb down yourself. Try placing one foot on the bar below.”
“You can do it” can be perceived as pressure and make the child think he’s disappointed us if he ends up not being able to do it. Giving a little verbal instruction helps children learn to get down safely after they have climbed onto something. Children usually can do this themselves, but by taking them down, rather than just spotting and providing verbal support, we lead them to believe they can’t.
5. Undesirable behavior
Instead of distracting, coaxing, bribing, shaming, scolding, punishing…
Handle with care, confidence, respect, brevity (save the lectures for another time). Whenever possible, acknowledge the child’s point of view. “You wanted ___.” Give a brief instruction (and an option if possible). “I can’t/won’t let you ___. That’s not safe” (or “It’s not time for that now”, etc.). “But you can ___.” Physically block the behavior if necessary. Acknowledge again. “I know you wanted ___ and I wouldn’t let you. That’s upsetting.”
Infants and toddlers need help managing their immature impulses and understanding our boundaries. They are not bad kids who need to be reprimanded, punished or “taught a lesson”. The most vital lesson they must learn is that their parents are always in their corner (rather than sending them off to one), and that we will calmly, consistently and patiently remind them of the family rules and prevent them from harming us or themselves. When we do this, children learn our expectations and internalize them with amazing proficiency.
Instead of telling babies and young toddlers they must share or take turns…
Observe closely and calmly reflect (or ‘sportscast’) the situation and allow it to unfold. “Justin, you are holding the ball and Meredith wants it, too. Now Meredith has the ball.” Or, “Meredith are you asking Justin for the ball? Justin seems to be saying he wants to keep it for now. Maybe when he’s done. “
Infants and toddlers commonly socialize by taking and (less often) giving toys. From the child’s perspective it’s as if the toys suddenly come alive and become interesting when another baby is holding them. When we allow children to connect with and learn from each other this way, they may react negatively in the moment, but they are usually quite capable of working it out without our intervention. The big clue to the child’s perspective? After these little play tussles have ended, the desired toy is almost always left behind, no longer of interest to either child.
7. Learning language
Instead of correcting toddlers when they mispronounce words or use them incorrectly (for example, they call green “yellow” or a rabbit “a dog”)…
Don’t. It takes courage to speak words for the first time. Encourage your child to speak by treating him with the same respect you would a foreigner trying out English. If the child mispronounces a word, we can respond in a manner that provides a gentle correction. In other words, when your child points to the rabbit and says “bobby”, you could reply, “I see the rabbit, too!” If the child points to the rabbit and says “dog”, you could say honestly, “Yes, I see! That looks like a dog.”
When children begin using language, they are only able to say a fraction of the words they know. Chances are they know the difference between a rabbit and a dog but just aren’t able to express that yet. Trusting and supporting your child’s process means allowing him to be “right” as much as possible. And don’t forget to enjoy (and log!) your child’s creative use of language while it lasts.
Cut, print, that’s a wrap.
I share many more suggestions in
I also recommend…
Pondering Praise by Amanda Morgan, Not Just Cute
What To Say Instead Of “NO” – Six Ways To Gain Your Child’s Cooperation by Lisa Sunbury, Regarding Baby
( A BIG thanks to Erin, Vanessa and Fran for asking me to make this list… Hope this is what you meant!)