After reading Janet’s book, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline without Shame, a parent has some practical follow-up questions about his daughter’s behaviors; specifically in regard to tantrums, mealtime boundaries, and cooperation in cleaning up her messes. This dad says there are certain “values/etiquette” he would like his daughter to learn, but he realizes these qualities must evolve organically and can’t be coerced. He describes his own upbringing as disciplinarian, and he doesn’t want to expose his kids “to the same feelings of shame and mistrust.”
Transcript of “No Bad Kids: Questions about Tantrums, Mealtimes, and Cleaning Up”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m doing something a little bit different. I have a note I received from a parent, a dad actually, who has read my book, No Bad Kids, and he has three different areas that he wants clarification on. So I’m going to do that and I’ll take the questions one by one.
Here’s the note I received:
“Hi, Janet. I just finished reading your book, No Bad Kids, and it was truly eye-opening. Coming from a disciplinarian family and not wanting to expose my children to the same feelings of shame and mistrust, this was exactly the guidance I was seeking. I do have a few practical questions as I felt the book dealt mostly with initial boundary setting and interactions, and there are inevitably slips and tantrums.
1. Question one: The book describes simply being present during a tantrum. Do most tantrums truly self-resolve and how long do you allow for them? While my wife and I don’t use distraction as a standard technique, we have certainly found that our daughter requires some level of ‘problem-solving’ or suggestions to help her wind down from a tantrum. Would you not recommend this?”
Okay, so there’s actually some interesting science on this, that it is not helpful to talk to a child during a tantrum, that that actually can increase the discomfort that they feel and make it harder for them to pass through these states. This matches up with what I’ve experienced over 25 years with my own children and in classrooms with parents and toddlers. I’ve witnessed many, many, many tantrums, and in my experience, they always self-resolve. And by self-resolve, I don’t mean the child doesn’t have our support. We are open, we are empathetic, we understand that this is a normal state of overwhelm that our child is in, that what’s going on here is healthy and important for them. So not only would I not distract and try to bring my child out of the tantrum, I wouldn’t do problem-solving at that time. When my child is in the eye of the storm, I would let it be.
It certainly requires a lot of trust as a parent to be able to let go of our feelings of wanting to put a timer on it and wanting to fix it. But letting that go and trusting that it will last as long as it needs to last… And if this is going on and on, we may be playing into it by being an impatient presence.
We can see when our child comes out of that state that they get lost in, in the tantrum, that they’re starting to come back to a consciousness where we can then maybe problem-solve or say, “Come here. I want to hold you. That was really hard. That was really uncomfortable.”
I’m not sure what problem-solving this father’s been doing. I’m not sure what that looks like or the suggestions, but I would be careful because that can prolong the feelings, make our child feel unsafe going there into the tantrum, and feel our judgment or lack of acceptance of it.
I have a lot of podcasts around this topic, a lot of written posts as well, because it does take practice. It does take a perception of the feelings and the tantrums as positive for a child and even necessary.
They can be very positive for our relationship as well if we can handle them with patience and trust. It is important for us to get to that frame of mind where we can allow this. And then you’ll see your child, and maybe this dad is seeing this, you’ll see your child come out of the state where everything seemed wrong and our world seemed all wrong, and they just kind of turn on a dime and they’re fine. We see that they have cleared something that they need to clear, they’re back to themselves. Now they want to play and off they go.
So that can help us, too, seeing: Oh gosh, she’s fine. She just needed to go there. It’s safe. The more that happens, the easier it is for us to trust and not get into problem-solving or helping her come out of it. So really this is less work for us. It’s maybe more mental work in our perception, that challenge of letting go. But we can let go of it being our job to do something here, which takes pressure off of us, actually.
2. Okay, so here’s his second question: He says, “Food and meal time have always been a struggle for us. Our daughter fell off the weight curve at one point, so it’s a mental barrier to discontinue a meal and she’s proven fully capable of skipping them. Your book discusses ending meals upon repeated boundary testing. Do you have a recommendation on when it is appropriate to re-offer food?”
So I’m just going to skip to that first. There’s no specific timeframe, in an hour, maybe, in 45 minutes. The point of this meal time approach that I recommend (and others recommend) is that we are clearing away all the emotions and power struggles — the agendas that we have around something that really does belong to our child and our child needs to completely control, and that’s what she eats and how much she eats with the healthy options that we’re providing. But within those options, our child needs to be the boss.
If we think about it, what’s our goal? What’s our goal for our child’s eating habits? It’s really the same as our goal for ourselves: that we listen to our bodies, that we can clear away all the noise and hear when we’re full and feel what our body needs to eat.
Children have this ability. We all do, but it can get lost in the noise and the emotions. And this is especially important if our child is off the weight curve or there are other issues. It’s especially important and, of course, much more challenging for us to trust her, let our child do her job to eat what she needs to eat. And if we’ve created a little bit of power struggle around this, then it’s going to be a little harder to dial it back. But it’s crucial that we let her know that we’re giving her this trust, that it’s not about us and we’re not interested in coaxing her to eat more or less or different. It’s not about pleasing us, it’s about the feeling that she has within herself.
This dad says it’s a mental barrier to discontinue a meal. So my advice around discontinuing a meal is to be reading our child in those moments. And if we are concerned about our child eating, it’s going to be harder for us to have some basic rules around it that are very common sense and reasonable. Like, “If you’re throwing your food on the floor, if you’re playing with your food, if you’re dumping out your drink, you’re showing me that you’re done with food for now. You’re not interested in eating anymore.”
And in the beginning when children first do these things, it would be rare for them to do them if they were actually quite hungry. When they’re hungry, they eat. When they’re done, then they try out things as a toddler. Oh, what do they think about this? What happens here? But if we’re concerned right there and we want them to eat more, then we are going to let them keep eating, which tells them this is okay. It is okay for me to stand up and run around with the food or to throw it down or play with it.
And right there, we’re taking our child’s mind out of what they’re doing into exploring with us: Hmm, what do they allow and what do they not allow and how many times will they allow me to do this? I sense that they really want me to stay here and keep eating, but as a healthy toddler, I’m going to be exploring why they’re pushing this. And even if we’re not pushing it, if we’re coaxing or if we’re just hoping that they’ll keep eating, most children will feel that.
So allowing those things that might feel kinder to us: Oh, we’ll give our child another chance or maybe they didn’t mean it, actually gets in our child’s way and then makes our job harder, because our child isn’t just eating purely from their own need anymore, they’re playing these games with us. They’re exploring with us. So I would encourage this dad and any parent to look at that mental barrier that he has, it really requires being kind of strict about these meal time behaviors.
And all of these rules that I recommend: sitting while they eat, not playing around, staying focused on the food, these are actually all centered around creating the healthiest eating habits. We as adults, we can multitask. Studies show that we don’t really do anything very well when we do that, and we might eat too much or not enough because we’re thinking about other things or doing other things while we’re eating. But young children, we have this opportunity to foster their mindfulness in what they’re doing. That means staying focused. Now’s the time we eat and, yes, we talk and we socialize and you have my full attention. I don’t have my phone here at meal times. I’m here for you and we’re here to eat, and that’s it.
In those moments when we’re setting the limit, we might say, “Oops, are you done? Because that’s showing me that you’re done.” And ideally, we’ll be there with our hand able to stop the action while it’s happening. So then right there, we’re going to get a very clear answer. Our child will either stop what they’re doing (getting up or playing with the food) and keep eating, or they will continue to do those behaviors. So when it’s really clear, then we can say, “Okay, it looks like you’re playing. That shows me you’re done. All right, my love, we’re done. We’ll try again later.” I wouldn’t be mean. I would be tuned in.
So it’s interesting because both these questions this dad has are actually about one of the main challenges for us and important goals for us as parents: trust, trust in our child to do what they’re capable of doing, expressing emotions fully, eating what they need. Both of those are about trust.
3. And the third question he has is a little different. He says, “Finally, your book discusses boundary setting, which with toddlers probably covers most of the corrective actions a parent needs to take. But what are your suggestions as far as behaviors you would like your child to actively learn? Specifically, my daughter has refused cleaning up after her messes and she won’t apologize. And those are certainly the types of values, etiquette I’d like her to learn. Outside of a direct request, it often feels like our only options are to let her move on, which feels too passive, or coerce her, which we fear leads to shame or the wrong lesson learned. Thank you for your wonderful book.”
Okay, so what my mind’s going to with the way that he describes the cleaning up, it sounds a little different from cleaning up toys. I’m wondering if this is messes around meal time. I’m not sure what other kinds of messes she might be making, but generally I would set a child up for success so that they’re not making the kind of messes that are going to upset us. So if that is around meal time, again, I would be stopping my child with my hand when they’re starting to dump something, because I am being attentive, and then seeing that for what it is, which is my child saying: I’m done. I’m testing now. I’m not eating anymore. How are you going to handle that? That’s basically what’s going on there. And again, if I’m worried my child isn’t eating enough, so I’m not comfortable ending the meal, then I’m going to be accepting the mess.
This dad is absolutely right. He says, “the boundary setting mostly covers corrective actions a parent needs to take” where we’re actually physically stopping our child while we’re letting them know, “We can’t let you, this isn’t safe,” but cooperation is voluntary. We can’t make a child clean up. Yes, we could threaten and bribe and do a lot of things that I don’t sense this dad wants to do, but those things will actually make our child feel less genuinely cooperative and will distance us in our relationship. And our relationship is the best tool we have for our child’s success in life and behavior and everything. So we don’t want to threaten that.
Apologizing takes a lot. For us as adults, saying sorry is an uncomfortable place to go to. It’s vulnerable, and that’s a lot to ask of a young child. But she will do it if she sees it modeled a lot and if we trust her to do it when she genuinely feels it.
To help encourage our child to clean up or do any voluntary activity, we have to be willing to do it with them, keep it light, not make a big heavy deal out of it. Again, set ourselves up for success. So if this is with toys, we don’t give our children access to a zillion small pieces that we don’t want to have all over the floor. We might say, “Well, if you want to help put these away, then we can take those other things out.”
We also don’t leave cleaning up for when a child is going to be tired, and we all know this is hard for us too. Late in the afternoon, that time between their nap and dinner, it’s a rough time to ask somebody to clean up. And then at night when they’re going to bed, very tough. Nobody wants to clean up then. So setting ourselves up for success might mean cleaning up earlier in the day and then not having, again, a million things out for them. Maybe leaving a mess until the next morning.
But if this is more like an immediate mess that happened during mealtime, then I would consider what I’m doing that might be creating this kind of testing. I’m assuming that these aren’t just accidents. If a child has an accident, I would say, “Oops.” And again, I wouldn’t expect them, “Well, now clean that up.” If a child did it on purpose, I still wouldn’t expect that they’re going to be able to clean it up themselves. In fact, I’d probably expect it less, and I would make even less of it so as not to give that behavior a lot of power.
And then I would, instead of saying, “Okay, you’ve got to clean this up,” I would request help with the details and that means I’m already committed to be helping here. She isn’t just going to be able to do it all on her own. They might be physically capable, but they need that helping hand. And as this dad is spot on in saying, “Coercing her, we fear that leads to shame or the wrong lesson learned.” So I’d say, “Okay, I’m going to get the cloth. Can you rub that part and I’ll rub this part?” Very communal, light, voluntary. If it’s cleaning up toys, “Oh, where do you want these? Should we put these over here? Can you put some of those in that bin for me? Thank you so much.” And what that does is it helps our child to want to do these things, especially when we really need them to. They come through, because we’re not nitpicking, because we’re not making a power struggle out of everything.
And all the time we’re doing that, we’re teaching. That’s how children learn. They learn through us. They learn: Oh, so when there are messes, we help. Because that’s what my mom does, that’s what my dad does.
So this dad’s right that a direct request won’t often be the ticket. The ticket is a request, a joining, us demonstrating what cooperation looks like.
Lisa Sunbury Gerber has a wonderful piece on her website regarding baby.org, it’s called “Clean Up, Clean Up,” and I’ll link to it in the transcript of this podcast, but you can also Google it. I recommend it.
I want to congratulate this dad and any parent who is shifting cycles from the way they were raised to the way they want to raise their children. It is challenging. I love that this dad is asking for these clarifications. Because oftentimes, we want to do it differently, but we feel frozen and it’s hard to know what it looks and feels like to be a respectful parent with very clear boundaries. I’m glad this dad thought my book was a good start and, yes, I would keep reading, keep listening, keep practicing. It’s a process for all of us.
So I hope that perspective helps a little bit.
And by the way, if my podcasts are helpful to you, you can help the podcast continue by giving it a positive review on iTunes. So grateful to all of you for listening! And please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, JanetLansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in.
And both of my books are available on audio, please check them out. Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame. You can even get them for free from Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast, or you can go to the books section of my website and find them there. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon, and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes And Noble, and apple.com.
Thanks again for listening. We can do this.