It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Raising a Happy, Unspoiled Child

While the “terrible twos” are indeed a reality, they are by no means inevitable.
Isn’t that a lovely thought? Now let’s try this description of a “well-developed” three-year-old on for size:

  1. She is happy…rather than being a chronic complainer.

  2. She is secure and comfortable with all people nearly all the time.

  3. She is able to share and be content with equal treatment.

  4. She is civil and accepts her parents’ authority…except under extraordinary circumstances. (Illness or extreme fatigue.)
  5. She is socially competent.
  6. She is able to express her feelings easily [in socially acceptable ways].
  7. She is able both to lead and to follow another child her own age.
  8. She is aware of what a “good job” is and confident that she is capable of performing well.

And what if I further suggest that most of these characteristics are in place by age two, and only refined in the year between the second and third birthdays. That a well-developed two year old rarely if ever has tantrums, is reasonable, and can be taken out in public without parental nervousness.

So, you may be asking yourselves, does Mary actually believe all this? And for my part, I’m wondering how many of you think this is completely pie-in-the-sky nonsense, designed only to torture normal parents with needless guilt.

These are all quotes and concepts taken from a book I finished this week. Yes, I believe all this. No, it’s not nonsense. Given a child with no developmental handicap, EVERY parent can have a cheerful, happy, largely obedient two year old. Every single one.

So what is the book that promises such heaven on earth? It called “Raising a Happy, Unspoiled Child”, by a long time favourite author of mine, Burton White. This book is terrific. Easy to read, easy to follow. Each chapter covers a stage of your child’s social development. There is no doubt, when you come to the end of a chapter, what your child’s interests are likely to be at that stage, what its pitfalls are, and how best to manage it to produce the paragon outlined above.

(I have only three quibbles with the book: I think he suggests starting toilet-training a bit early; I would modify his contention that no parent should be at home full-time with an 8 to 22 month old child; and I think his advice on dealing with sleep problems is absolutely, dead WRONG. The first and the last issues are minor points in the book, taking no more than eight pages of 238. The second point is a theme that runs through the book, but as I say, while I don’t accept it 100%, I can see his point of view, and would only add a corollary or two to make it acceptable to my perspective.)

Those are minor issues, though, given the wealth of sound, sensible, grounded advice in this book. I strongly suggest you all go out and take it out of your local library. (I hardly ever buy a book I haven’t been able to try on for size first!) And then: buy it, apply it, and love it. The man is brilliant.

How does one achieve this parental nirvana? Here are some pointers:

Birth to 5 1/2 months: no fear. You CANNOT spoil a child of this age.

5 1/2 to 7 1/2 months: hold down the development of excessive crying by providing lots of good stuff for baby to do. (Guidance provided as to what “good stuff” constitutes.)
-cultivate “healthy selfishness”. It is perfectly acceptable to let your child’s needs wait upon yours once in a while! Further, it’s GOOD FOR your child’s social development.

7 1/2 to 14 months: comfort a child when in true distress, but don’t race to cuddle and reassure after every small mishap. (And since most children start walking at this age, there will be lots and lots of small bumps and tumbles to practice this one one!)
-diapering is one of the first opportunities to teach your child that while they have the right to express their feelings they sometimes have to do things they don’t want to. Mom and dad will not cave every time baby “throws a fit”.

14 to 22 months: no matter how well you manage this phase, your child will regularly resist your authority. Hang tight – this doesn’t mean your baby doesn’t love you, or that you’re doing anything wrong. You can’t “do a first-rate job of creating a desirable agreement without your baby occasionally becoming very unhappy with the limits you have set”. It’s just what it is. As long as you don’t “yield to that unhappiness on a regular basis”, the result will be a child of 24 months who will actually STOP testing your authority. Imagine the peace!

Let’s end this with a quote that sums the philosophy of the book superbly:

“The core lesson [that your child must learn by the time she’s two is] that she is extremely precious and loved, and that her needs are very important, but that she is no more precious than anyone else in the world, nor are her needs more important than those of other people, especially yours.”

August 15, 2005 - Posted by | books, Developmental stuff, parenting, power struggle, tantrums


  1. I think there are many kids who have learned the first two parts of the core lesson. But WAY too few who’ve learned the last part–that the world doesn’t revolve around them. And of course, that’s not the kids’ fault, is it?

    Easy for me to say since I’ve never had one of my own, but I think my sister does a great job of this. One time I was talking with her on the phone, and the toddler was being clingy and whiny and generally a pain (as kids are when you’re on the phone and they want your attention). Rather than give in or try to explain about ‘Mommy’s time’, she just said: “Beat it, baby! I’m on the phone.” The kid knew she meant it (but not in a mean way), he went away, and that was the end of it.

    Comment by Sharkey | August 15, 2005 | Reply

  2. I just had an instance of this last night. I was playing frisbee in the yard with the Queen of All She Surveys and the princesses wanted to join in, so I told them that there had to be some perks for being the daddy, so I get to play with mommy this time. 🙂 At which point, the princesses went back to playing their game with each other.

    Comment by Simon P. Chappell | August 16, 2005 | Reply

  3. The phone thing is a great example. It isn’t just that you happen to be on the phone when your child wants your attention. Children want your attention because you’re on the phone. I’m convinced they view whoever’s on the other end of the line as a rival for your affections. It’s a sibling rivalry kind of dynamic.

    Comment by Q | August 16, 2005 | Reply

  4. Very good.

    But I’m reluctant to read the book if the author is so against a parent staying home full-time during months 8-22. We sacrificed many, many things so that I could stay home full-time, and it’s a choice I’d make over and over again.

    Comment by misfit | August 16, 2005 | Reply

  5. Sharkey: There are two main reasons, I think, that children end up spoiled. One is inconsistent rules, regs, and expectations. The one I see more commonly amongst my clientele is parents who are just plain TOO NICE to their kids. They are always careful to treat their child with respect, but accept the most deplorable lack of respect in return. Gentle people, kindly people, people of principle – who end up trampled by their little ones.

    Simon: two good lessons there. 1, that daddy gets to get what he wants first sometimes, and 2, that mommy and daddy love each other, which is always good for children to see. Well done!!

    Q: Entirely true. They want your attention to prove they can get your attention. Yes, children are selfish. Initially, this isn’t a moral thing, it’s simply a necessity of survival. But the process of maturing is to learn that other people matter, too, and that is a lesson all people learn reluctantly! Human nature.

    Misfit: I agree. I stayed home with all three of my kids, and loved doing it, and am firmly convinced it was the best for our family. I would never do it any other way. Never.

    But please don’t dismiss the book because of that one point of disagreement. I simply acknowledged my disagreement with him on that point. (Blip right over it when I come to it, with perhaps the odd raspberry thrown in as I pass by!!) There is entirely too much good stuff in here to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    Comment by Mary P. | August 16, 2005 | Reply

  6. Thanks again, Mary! My kids are past 3yrs now but these are good reminders for now and years to come as well!
    (Though we’ve set limits, they still like to test them from time to time!)
    I too have stayed home with my 2 and wouldn’t have had it any other way.
    Well, perhaps on the occasional Monday! : )

    Comment by LoryKC | August 17, 2005 | Reply

  7. Hmmm…I might print this post out and leave it where the grandparents can find it. 😉

    Mary, maybe you should consider writing your own book!

    Comment by Kat O+ | August 22, 2005 | Reply

  8. Go ahead! Or better yet, buy the book. (No, I’m not getting a commission.)

    Oh, I’ve considered writing a book. I have a couple of versions rolling about in my mind. One version, I’d have to be safely out of the biz before I could do it, (a bit caustic…) but the other version I could do now. I may have one book in me. I don’t think I have the character to make my living from writing, but one book? I just might!

    Comment by Mary P. | August 23, 2005 | Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: