I’ve been told that I “understand” toddlers (and nothing could be a greater compliment). This might be because my own emotional development was partially arrested as a toddler for reasons I haven’t yet unraveled, but it’s probably also because after all the time I’ve spent observing toddlers, I’ve begun to identify with them.
Sometimes, for example, when a parent in one of my classes asks her toddler not to throw toys, I’ll be unconvinced by her delivery and feel like joining the toddler in throwing more toys. Other times, a child will say he wants to leave the class as soon as he’s arrived. He’ll persist with the issue until his parent says decisively, “I hear you wanting to leave, but we won’t be going until class ends.” I’ll be feeling the toddler’s edginess while the parent is thinking, “Uh, oh, now what?” or is afraid to take a stand.
If toddlers could share their thoughts on discipline, here’s what I think they’d say…
1. Make me your ally. Don’t think in terms of “getting me to do” something. Don’t trick, bribe, shame or punish me. “You against me” is scary when I desperately need you on my side. So, please tell me politely or show me what you want. And stop me kindly (but definitively) from doing things you don’t want, way before you get mad. Your calm demeanor and the positive options you give me (“I see you’re playing, so would you like to come in to change your diaper now or after you play for 5 more minutes?”), will help me to accept your instructions more gracefully.
2. Don’t be afraid of my reactions to the limits you give me. It’s discomforting for me when you are timid, tentative or evasive. How can I ever feel secure if the people I desperately need to depend on waver or tiptoe around my feelings? So, please put periods at the end of your sentences and then calmly accept my displeasure. Your directions are more welcome than you’ll ever know. They don’t hurt my fragile spirit. They free me, help me enormously, and are essential to my happiness.
3. Tell me the truth in simple terms, so that I can feel very clear about what you want. I may need several reminders while I’m learning, so please be patient and try to stay even-toned, even if you’ve already told me. (Really, I don’t want to be annoying.)
4. Don’t get upset or angry if you can possibly help it. Those reactions don’t make me feel safe. I need to know that my behavior doesn’t “get” to you, that you can handle my issues with care and confidence. If not you, then who?
5. If I keep repeating the behavior, it’s because it doesn’t feel resolved for me. Either you aren’t being convincing enough, or you’re being too intense and emotional. When you give me “the look”, or there’s anger in your voice when you say “don’t hit!,” it unnerves me and I’m compelled to keep behaving that way until you can give me a calmer response. I need to know that those kinds of behaviors aren’t allowed, but I also need to be assured constantly that they are no big deal at all and can be easily handled by you. You’ll show me this by being patient, calm, consistent and giving me brief, respectful, direct responses so that we can both let go and move on, knowing that our connection is still solid.
6. Consider my point of view and acknowledge it as much as possible…even if it seems ridiculous, wrong or crazy. There are no wrong desires or feelings, just wrong ways of acting on them, right? I need to know that it’s okay to have these feelings and that you’ll understand and keep on loving me. Let me feel.
7. Remember that I don’t want to be in charge, even though the toddler creed is to never admit that. I am convincing. I can make you believe that your simple request to sit down while I eat is pure torture. Don’t mock me or call me out, but don’t believe it. Keep insisting — with love. My strong will is going to make you proud someday. When you give in all the time, I feel less strong, far more wobbly.
8. Give me lots of YES time when I have your full attention and appreciation for all the good stuff I do. We all need balance.
9. Let me be a problem solver. If our wishes are at odds, consider me capable of helping to find a solution, especially as I get older. (This post and video provide a brilliant example: Belief Behind The Behavior: Volcanoes And Cops )
10. Thank you for doing all of these really, really hard things in order to help me be the kind of kid who is enjoyed by his friends, is welcome in their parents’ homes, appreciated by teachers, and is (most of all) one of your favorite people to be with in the whole wide world…forever.
Your toddler might also like you to read:
My guide to respectful discipline: No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame
The excellent, user-friendly guidebook: 1, 2, 3, The Toddler Years
A Toddler’s Point Of View by Lisa Sunbury, Regarding Baby
Conflict Resolution by Genevieve Simperingham, Peaceful Parent Institute