My toddler does everything I ask, has impeccable table manners, never throws a fit, or whines, or bites, or hits, or screams. Yours too? Then read no further, my fellow perfect parent.

Anybody left? 

I don’t know a single parent who feels they’re always in control of their kids. My son is 20 months old and a great toddler all around. But, like most parents, I struggle to come up with the right responses in the moment, I question my approach to common “misbehaviors,” and I feel like a failure when I can’t figure out what he needs.

I’ve done my fair share of Googling, conferring with friends, and reading various parenting blogs and books. My column today will highlight my favorite resource so far in hopes that the lessons I’m learning might strike a chord with other parents out there. The book I just finished is called No Bad Kids – Toddler Discipline Without Shame by Janet Lansbury, who also has an incredibly helpful website. I have no affiliation with this person other than the fact that her messages and approaches ring true for me and fall in line with inherent beliefs I already hold. 

Lansbury is an early childhood and parent educator who has over twenty years experience working directly with small children. She teaches the RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers) approach, rooted in showing infants and children respect from birth. Lansbury’s philosophy is based on the belief that, “Babies are whole people – sentient, aware, intuitive and communicative. They are natural learners, explorers, and scientists able to test hypotheses, solve problems, and understand language and abstract ideas.” 

Basic principles of RIE:

  • Kids want and need boundaries
  • We should commit to respectful, honest, first-person communication
  • We must acknowledge our kid’s feelings and opinions
  • Kids need us to be confident, capable, effortlessly-in-charge leaders

My takeaways below are a non-exhaustive list, and trust me when I say there are many more gems to discover. If any of this piques your interest, I highly recommend checking her out: 

Respond like a calm CEO: I have to start with this one because it really works! I’m usually pretty good about keeping my cool, but when we’ve been cooped up all day because of the weather, and he’s breaking new molars, and neither of us have slept enough – it’s hard not to get annoyed, raise your voice, or expect too much out of our little ones. By playing the role of the calm CEO, we can gently support and redirect our kids. We are in control, we’ve seen this before, this doesn’t phase us. Even if I’m secretly losing it on the inside, the outside of me is cool as a cucumber. Kids need to know they’re in good hands, and most of the time when they “act out” (and we’ve determined it’s not due to hunger, pain, or tiredness), it’s usually to test their boundaries and to make sure we can contain them. 

Learn from your irritation: Getting irritated or annoyed with your toddler is a good indication you haven’t set clear boundaries. Example: The other day I gave my son a bowl of pasta to eat while sitting on the couch and as I was handing it to him I knew it was a bad idea. I then proceeded to get annoyed every time he would knock the bowl over, or spill it, or wipe his grubby little hands on the upholstery. And the whole time I knew it was my fault! I had not set a clear boundary.

Ditch the royal “we”:  I don’t do baby-talk, and I don’t do much talking in the third-person (I hardly ever use phrases like, “Mommy doesn’t like that”). But what I do say all the time is “we.” “We don’t pet the cat that way,” “We don’t throw our food on the ground,” “We’re gonna take a nap now.” Kids do best when we speak to them clearly and directly using first person pronouns – you, me, I. It establishes an honest person-to-person connection and is much easier for them to understand. Lansbury explains that when parents say, “We don’t play with blocks that way,” your toddler is thinking, “Who is this ‘we’ you speak of? This is how I play with blocks!”

“Okay?”: Don’t end directives with a question! It makes us unconvincing and is confusing for a child who is looking for a competent leader who is sure of themselves. I do this ALL THE TIME and it’s hard to stop you guys, but I’m trying. I can’t tell you how many times I catch myself saying, “It’s time to brush your teeth, okay?” “You can’t have any more crackers, okay?” “You can only use your hands to pet the cat, okay?” OKAY? OKAY!? No wonder he’s confused. I give a directive, then ask him if he agrees. What if he says no? Am I really asking for his compliance? No. I’m telling him what he needs to do in a loving, calm, competent way. Saying okay at the end of every statement undermines my authority. 

“That’s not nice” or, “That’s mean”: When we tell our toddler it’s not nice to take someone’s toy, or it’s mean to hit their brother, they can easily interpret this to mean they’re not nice and they’re mean, instead of just the behavior. Rather, focus on the action itself, ex. “I won’t let you hit your brother.”

Don’t interrupt play: A child’s play is their work. How would you like it if someone scooped you up while you were in the middle of writing an important email and took you over to change your diaper? We can show our toddlers respect by giving them advanced notice when something needs to happen or by offering choices. Ex.”I see that you’re playing with your trains, but I need to change your diaper. I’ll give you three more minutes before we go do it.” Or, “I notice you need a new diaper. Do you want to change it now, or in five minutes?” Either way you are acknowledging the importance of their “work,” while also maintaining your control.

Don’t overdirect or lecture: Thinking I was a super respectful parent, I would constantly give my toddler too much information thinking he would understand and appreciate all my careful explanations. Wrong! Lansbury explains that concise and simple directions are best for conveying your wishes and having your toddler comply and understand. By over-explaining or lecturing it creates a narrative that could actually exacerbate the problem. What your toddler learns is that this particular behavior really gets you interested and you talk a lot about it, so maybe they should do it again! So instead of expounding on why I want to preserve our butcher block counters, and how time consuming it is to sand and refinish them, and that’s why he can’t pound on them with a butter knife . . . I need to say, “I won’t let you whack the counters with the knife.” Period. 

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