It’s Not All Mary Poppins

On Being Reasonable with your Child

“Do you want to put on your boots now, sport?”
“Come on, now. You have to wear your boots.”
“It’s very cold. Your feet will be cold if you go out in your slippers.”
“NO wanna!” Child shoves at parent.
“Now, sweetie. Let’s get these boots on, huh?”
“NOnonoNONONOnonononoNONONOno. NO.” Child take a swing at parent.
“That’s not nice. Dada doesn’t like it when you do that.”
Child takes another swing. Protests now escalate into a scream, and a tantrum is under way.

I have seen this enacted, oh, it must be hundreds of times. Each and every time I sigh softly in exasperation, adding it to my mental list of “Things to talk about with this parent”, along with “please send more diapers”, and “don’t forget to take his craft home with him”.

The initial error is very common, very basic, and simple to eradicate. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:


If “No” isn’t an option, don’t present it as one! No self-respecting two-year-old is going to turn down the opportunity to say NO. You ask him a question, you’re giving him a GIFT. “Hoo, boy, something to resist! A chance to express all this negativity churning around inside me. I get to prove my autonomy! Oh, no,no,no,no,no,no, NO,no, no. Oh, yeah!”

So, the whole rest of the “dialogue” may have been avoided entirely had dad said, “Okay, sport, let’s get those boots on you. It’s COLD out there!”

The underlying problem is bigger. This parent, like many of my parents, is a nice, well-meaning, kindly, principled person, who has made a decision that he will always endeavour to treat his child with respect, that he will alway try to be reasonable with his child. And that’s a good thing. Thing is, he’s also expecting his child to be reasonable back.

I have a flash for you: Two-year-olds are not reasonable critters.

So what’s a parent to do? Well, continue being reasonable. Just because your toddler is throwing himself kicking and screaming to the floor doesn’t mean you can, too. No; no you can’t. Get up off that floor, right now please, and be the grown-up. Sorry about that.

But, you say, wasn’t that what this dad did? He continued being reasonable, and look where that got him!

Well… he was being reasonable, yes he was, but he was also expecting his toddler to be reasonable in return. He was honestly expecting that child to smack his hand into his forehead and say, “Oh, dad, of course you’re right! What was I thinking?”

Not going to happen.

So, how does one be reasonable with an unreasonable tot?

“Okay, sport, let’s get those boots on. It’s COLD out there!”
“No boots.”
“Oh, yes,” says the parent, pulling the tot onto his knee, and picking up the first boot. “Everyone wears boots in the snow.” Parent begins to put the first boot onto the child.

Now, if this has happened many times before, the child will subside and let the proceedings continue. Parent can keep tot’s mind in a positive channel by talking about what’s going to happen next (NOT in a coaxing way), by talking about the child’s day, by talking about all that lovely snow outside — whatever.

If this pattern is unfamiliar to the child, though, if this child has always gotten to throw a fit before complying, then that’s likely what he’ll do. So you have this screaming, thrashing child on your lap. Now’s your chance to REALLY practice your reasonable-ness!

You completely ignore the behaviour. The child is screaming and thrashing in your lap. You don’t soothe, you don’t coax. You just get those boots on. Then you put your child on her feet, you take her by the hand (in part to prevent her from ripping the boots right back off again), you “Wave bye-bye to Mary!”, and you head out the door.

You want this task to get completed? Then see that it is completed. You don’t parent by committee, waiting for the child to comply. Do you seriously WANT to give your two-year-old veto power over your every instruction? I can’t imagine you really do, because, you know, they’re not the most cooperative of critters. Team spirit is a concept that looms in their future, but isn’t likely part of their current reality.

If the conflict is over something you’ve asked the child to do – pick up their toys, say – you’d be doing it “hand-over-hand”, meaning you take their dimpled fist in your hand, and you place it on one toy after another and put them where they belong, even if the small body attached to the hand is uttering ferocious protest. “It’s time to put the toys away. You can either do it yourself, or mummy will help you.”

When the task is finished, you turn to your heaving, sniffling, red-faced, furious tot and give them a beaming smile. “All done! Thank you for helping!” Give them a big, comforting hug. Do not soothe them. No “there, there’s” and absolutely no “I’m sorries”!! Officially, that hug is to say thank you. You want the child to focus now on the satisfaction of having completed the task. You want them to experience the rewards of compliance. So the hug is to say “There! I knew you could do it! Thank you!” You know it’s also to help calm them. They don’t – they shouldn’t – know this. Don’t offer comfort for tantrums – it encourages more of them.

After a moment or two, go on to the next thing. (And remember: DON’T ask questions. “Would you like to… next?” is certain to elicit a NO, and probably a resumption of the tantrum in a child who has so recently been so ruffled. Instead, “Come sit on dada’s lap, and we’ll read a story.” Accompanied by action.)

If the tantrum doesn’t subside so soon, you put them someplace away from you – in their room, behind a baby gate in the next room – and say “When you’re quiet, you can come out.”

Throughout this, you have been entirely reasonable, you have modelled rationality to your tot, but you have not expected the impossible from her. She will get to it in the end, by your consistent example, by practice, with just a little more maturity.

Just not quite yet.

© 2005, Mary P

December 17, 2005 - Posted by | aggression, Developmental stuff, parenting, power struggle, tantrums


  1. I wish every parent in the world were required to read this and sign a document saying they will abide by these rules. I can’t tell you how many parents I see in the library where I work who try to ‘reason’ with their little ones. GAH!

    I think each of my sons had only one tantrum and then didn’t try it again because they knew it wasn’t going to get them anywhere.

    Comment by Changing Woman | December 16, 2005 | Reply

  2. I agree with this entire post… options are great and kids need to learn to make choices, but if no is not really an option you should never offer it, especially to a child who’s only 2! The family that I take care of most of the time falls into the rhetorical “do you want to?” category a lot, and now mom wonders why she struggles so much with the six year old… and she cuddles and doesn’t set limits for tantrums, whereas with me K knows that if she is going to fuss, she is going to sit until she is done, and then she can have a hug- as long as we understand what the problem was…

    Sorry for the long comment…

    Comment by Angela | December 17, 2005 | Reply

  3. Okay, so that seemed way longer typed than it really ended up being!!

    Comment by Angela | December 17, 2005 | Reply

  4. Excellent, Mary!
    Children are completely irrational creatures (until you look at the world from their perspective).
    I don’t give my children the option to say “no”. Well, not anymore. I had to learn the hard way too but I’ve learned my lesson and we’re all much happier! ; )

    Comment by LoryKC | December 17, 2005 | Reply

  5. Oh yes, seen this one many, many times.

    Some of the only helpful advice I was given when mstr A was born was “offer a choice, not ask what they want” so, “do you want an apple or a banana now?” is fine, but “do you some fruit to eat?” is not!

    Children need bounderies. They need to have something to push against. And the bounderies need to be fixed – flexible, but fixed for the child to feel secure & able to understand the world.

    I still get lots of “NO!” though:-)

    Comment by Mrs.Aginoth | December 17, 2005 | Reply

  6. We offer choices, but only if we’re willing to accept whatever the kid chooses. This works with our two-year-old, and when he throws a fit anyway, he goes to time out. It drives me nuts to hear parents asking their kids if they’re ready to leave, then trying to talk them into it…

    We still get tantrums, but they are less dramatic for everyone because we all know what the outcome will be. And I no longer get upset about them – that has made the biggest difference, I think.

    Comment by Kristen | December 17, 2005 | Reply

  7. Changing Woman: Hello, and welcome! Thanks for your words of support. My three kids didn’t throw very many tantrums, either, before they realized the utter futility of it. It’s much better to stand your ground a few firm times and establish yourself as the authority than it is to have to endlessly, ceaselessly coax and negotiate every single event in their lives. Who has the energy for that? Not me!

    Angela: First, never apologize for long comments! If they’re thoughtful (and not boring), feel free.

    I was taught this principle in teacher’s college. Don’t phrase orders “do you want to”, trying to be polite, we were warned, because for sure some smart-alek ten-year-old will say “No”, and then what do you do?

    I learned it, and I absorbed it, and it’s proven to be the single best piece of child-management advice I ever received.

    Lory: Thank you! It’s better all round when everyone is clear on what is an order and what is a genuine question; and on who’s the one who gives the orders!

    MrsA: You’re quite right. Simple choices work very well – choices where both options are acceptable to the parent, of course! And if they’re feeling particularly contrary that day and say “no” to both apple AND banana, then they don’t have to eat, do they? Their choice! Eventually they’will get hungry enough to choose from the options on offer.

    Kristen: It hardly seems fair, does it? Give a child a choice, and then tell them their choice is unacceptable! You can’t blame the child for getting upset.

    Save the “would you like” questions for when there really is a choice, make sure the all options presented are acceptable to you, and everyone will be much happier!

    Comment by Mary P. | December 17, 2005 | Reply

  8. Oh, thank you for this post. I had the good luck to have a wise friend tell me when my son was 18 months old, and wailing in the back her her van, and I was nervously asking him, “Are you okay, honey?” “Don’t ask him if he’s okay. Tell him he’s okay.”

    Fortunately, I was able to take that lesson and expand on it. I am not perfect, and my youngest child is a trial with whom I have been the least successful– but I do say to children who won’t work for allowance, “Then fine, you will work for free.” Period. End of discussion. And I totally agree– if you have to give them a choice, then the choice is, “You can do this now, by yourself, or you can do this now, and I will HELP you.”

    But either way they are doing it, and doing it now. I do not understand why parents don’t understand that in thier attempts to treat their children with this respect that they are in effect empowering babies. That is just not a good idea.

    Comment by jen-o-rama | December 18, 2005 | Reply

  9. I like that: “Don’t ask if he’s okay; tell him he’s okay.” Very young children take their emotional cues from their parents to a very large extent. Good advice – and wise you to take it!

    I’m all for empowering children – appropriately. They can choose which of two shirts to wear; they can choose whether to put the blocks or the puzzles away first; they can decide whether we’ll have beans or cucumbers with lunch. They can’t choose to wear a swimsuit outdoors in January, or not to tidy up at all, or to forgo vegetables entirely.

    And that line, “You can do it now, or I will HELP you”? This is a standard in my tooolbox. I don’t much use it these days, because they’ve all learned that those are their choices, and they’d rather do it on their own! I’ll be using it again in the next few months as baby Nigel matures, I’m quite sure. 🙂

    It’s not as if I stand threateningly over them, ready to throw my weight about. I am a soft-spoken person, and I very, very rarely raise my voice above my usual quiet tones. They do their thing, we work and play happily together – because the boundaries are well established.

    Comment by Mary P. | December 18, 2005 | Reply

  10. I love this post! Very well said (and great comments too)! I can only imagine that many parents who do this never had to babysit or had siblings. Frankly, I have used some of this method (slightly modified) in the workplace (though there it’s “You need to do this and I’m not going to help/do it for you”). If I don’t expect all adults to act reasonably how can I expect a two-year-old to do so?

    Comment by the weirdgirl | December 20, 2005 | Reply

  11. […] bought into all that. Now you’re saying, “Okay, but how? How do you respond? What happens […]

    Pingback by Power Struggles « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | January 17, 2013 | Reply

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