It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Better parenting through laziness

“Mary! Anna hit me!”

Entirely possible. Anna’s a dominant little thing, and when her excellent social skills and superbly infectious chortle don’t soften up the opposition and get her her own way, she’s not above popping someone. She is, after all, two years old.

The temptation is to march off to investigate. Did Anna actually hit him, and if so, what, if anything, had been the precursor? Not that there’s a valid reason for slugging a friend, but oftentimes the culpability for these little exchanges is shared. The involved parties are not so much assailant and victim as they are partners in mayhem.

But … Timmy is awfully prone to this behaviour, this seeking adult involvement, demanding redress from a Higher Authority. (In this case, me.) He’s not a tattle-tale yet, but he’s heading in that direction, and I’ve been down that road in the past. The constant demands of a tattler for justice is very, very, very, very, very, very, very tedious. Mind-numbing. The persistance of a steady drip-drip-drop of water that turn a rock into a few grains of sand. Tattling, for me, is right up there with whining as the Chinese water torture of parenting.

I simply do not get paid enough to accept that level of boredom ten hours a day. I don’t know if there is an amount that would make it tolerable to be that bored ten hours a day.

But if you don’t do something, violence is liable to break out, right? There’s been an aggression. Tot A, who perceives himself (rightly or wrongly) as victim, is bent on justice/vengeance, and if you don’t provide it, they’ll get it themseves. And then you’ll have Tot B at your elbow, complaining that she’s been wallopped.

I confess that my response to this sort of tattling was born of sheerest laziness. I did not want to deal with this, I did not want to have to go and hunt out both parties and sort it through, I did not want yet another he-said, she-said” exchange. But you can’t just say “Sort it out”, because two-year-olds “sort” with their fists. If they’ve never been taught to “sort it out”, they have no idea how. You can say that to seven-year-olds. With two-year-olds, it’s a cop-out that’s only going to end in escalating violence.

So, much as I’d like to say “sort it out”, I won’t be doing that. But do I have to get up, when I just poured myself a cup of tea? Because if I leave that thing sitting there, we all know what will happen. Do I have to forfeit my paltry-but-treasured three minutes of relaxation? Do I have to?

No, I don’t. I don’t have to charge into the next room to sort it out for them, either; I don’t even have to help them sort it out. I certainly don’t expect them to be able to sort it out themselves. But what then? Aren’t those all your options?

Read on, my dears, and bask in my words of brilliance.

I lean forward, with a look of sincere concern on my face, take his hands in mind, and say with warm supportiveness,

“Timmy, did you use your words?”
“Did you say, ‘Anna, don’t hit me’?”
“Yes. I say, ‘Anna don’t hit me!’ ”
“And is Anna hitting you any more?”
(Obvious question. Timmy is here with me, and Anna, whatever she may or may not have been doing three minutes prior, is in another room, not hitting him.)

I sit up straight, and fix a beaming, joyous smile upon his earnest visage.

“Well, good for you! It worked! Anna hit you, and you used your words, and now Anna isn’t hitting you any more! You used your words, and it worked!! Good job!”

I smile, I clap, I am practically delerious with joy at the boy’s accomplishment. Timmy trots off, happy, Anna is playing with the blocks in the next room. And I don’t have to get up and let my tea go cold.

Sheerest laziness brought me to this strategy. Inertia, even. But when you examine the response, it’s excellent.

The child who comes to you is seeking any number of things: justice, vengeance, comfort, indignation, attention, reassurance. If you charge in and sort things out, a few things happens:
1. You become his enforcer. With that kind of reward, why would he stop coming to you? You’re creating the very thing you’re trying to avoid: a tattler.
2. You’re showing him you don’t expect him to be able to do this on his own, or that
3. His attempts to solve his own conflict were inadequate.

However, when you outline what has already occurred, and frame it in terms of conflict-management, you are:
1. Giving the child support, attention, and reassurance, all worth emotional goals.
2. You make sure you are not integral to the process. (So you’re less likely to be called in next time!)
3. You are reinforcing the child’s strategy.
4. You are supporting the child’s own efforts at conflict-resolution.

(Now, if the child has not used their words, then you have to get involved to get the child to talk to the other child, etc. But generally, as soon as a child is verbally able to tell you about it, they would almost certainly have lodged some sort of verbal protest with the aggressor before coming to find you. “Hey! No! Stop that!” is perfectly reasonable use of words.)

And yeah, I’m likely stretching the facts just a little, because we all know that if the child hadn’t charged off to find me, the other child’s response to his howl of protest would probably have been to pop him one again. But that’s okay. We’re working on principles here. We want the child to understand what the process is, that he’s done things correctly, and know that he can be the agent of his own conflict resolution, not you. When he can routinely and effectively resolve conflict on his own (which will take years, of course), you can put one tick on your Successful Parenting checklist.

Because really, what is effective parenting but working yourself out of a job?

April 21, 2008 - Posted by | aggression, parenting | , , ,


  1. AWESOME. Desirable result obtained by the path of least resistance. I love it.

    I am in the process of teaching my kids to use their words, and this will fit perfectly with my approach.

    I LOVE that explanation of it, and it’s so true! Parenting is hard enough: if there’s an easy AND effective way, whyever wouldn’t you?

    Comment by Alison | April 21, 2008 | Reply

  2. thank you so much for your last couple of posts! they have been very timely! my 4 yo daughter loves to tattle on her 2 yo brother–esp. about the hitting. i’ve tried the “talk friendly, talk firmly, move away, tell an adult,” but your idea seems a lot more simple! i can totally see how i’ve become her “enforcer”! she knows i’ll step in and solve the problem and he knows he’ll get attention from me–negative attention, but attention nonetheless. i’m definitely going to give your strategy a whirl!

    If she has the “talk friendly…” mantra down, that’s what you can use when she comes to tell you stuff. “Did you talk friendly?” “Yes.”… etc. If she didn’t do one of those things, you can remind her it needs doing. This’ll have a twofold effect: she’ll be validated and affirmed when she does it right, but she won’t get your positive attention if she doesn’t. She’ll be less likely to tattle if she knows she’ll only be told to improve her technique. (I JUST thought of that as another advantage. Heh.)

    Comment by Dana | April 21, 2008 | Reply

  3. That last sentence is the crux of it all. So many people just don’t see that, or just refuse to acknowledge it.

    We’ve been firmly entrenched in the tattling stage right lately. Mostly I’m responding with “I don’t want to hear about what Anya is doing. I’m the mom, I’ll worry about her” But Ally’s sense of the-rules-MUST-be-obeyed is too strong. It’s just not working. I need a different strategy. Maybe I can try the path of least resistance.

    Is Ally four or so? They tend to be REALLY into rules, but it doesn’t necessarily go away when they get older, and isn’t it wearing? I hope this works for you!

    Comment by ktjrdn | April 21, 2008 | Reply

  4. Oh, this is so good! I’m going to link to you today.

    Oh, thank you. For the enthusiasm and for the link!

    Comment by daycare girl | April 21, 2008 | Reply

  5. That was superb. I completely want to steal that technique. Thank you so much for all the fabulous advice I glean from your posts. 🙂

    Steal away, and do let me know if it works!

    Comment by Dani | April 21, 2008 | Reply

  6. I’m not a fan of the tattling, either. How grating!
    Pumpkinpie has absorbed the “tell them you don’t like that” lesson, and we are now trying to direct it towards those little social nasties that crop up as they get older. That, and the new idea that you can ignore hurtful comments or tell a peer not to speak to you that way, and simply choose to play with someone else. So now, because we know that fists are not the solution, the response to tattling HAS become “Is anyone hurt or about to be? no? Good, then you can sort it out together.” Because really, are there not enough interruptions?

    Ignoring hurtful comments takes some training. Ignoring differences of opinion is hard enough: “He says this [piece of string] is a snake, but it’s NOT! It’s a car for my teddy to ride in!!!” Yeesh…

    Comment by kittenpie | April 21, 2008 | Reply

  7. “What is effective parenting but working yourself out of a job?” Perfect.

    I’m all for empowering my children. Love reading your posts to see actual examples at work.

    Thank you!

    Comment by mamacita tina | April 22, 2008 | Reply

  8. I think your last sentence was brilliant! There are multitudes of parents who just don’t get that concept. Case in point – my husband’s company interviewed a woman in her early 20s for a position. Her FATHER sent an email the next day saying how perfect she was for the job and that they should hire her!!

    Oh, dear. I wonder if the daughter is mortified by this, or sees it as appropriate? And if they were to hire her, and then treated her in a way of which Daddy didn’t approve, would he march right into the office and tell her boss off? I hope Daddy was informed that his involvement reduced the likelihood that his daughter would be hired, but I suppose that might provoke an ‘unfair hiring practices’ lawsuit… Good lord.

    Comment by June | April 22, 2008 | Reply

  9. Wonderful! That’s exactly the clue I’ve been looking for! Thanks! I knew I needed something along that line, but I just couldn’t come up with the exact approach. It’s easy to get so stuck in my ordinary ways that I don’t see the forest for all the trees…

    You’re welcome! It is so easy not to see the forest for the trees. I think we all, myself included, feel that way from time to time. “This isn’t working, but I’m not sure why, or I can’t think of a different way.” This one, as I admitted, came to me through sheerest inertia — thus proving that even your less-than-stellar parenting moments can teach you things! It really is pretty difficult to be a truly “bad parent”.

    Comment by Rosie_Kate | April 22, 2008 | Reply

  10. You hit it on the head. Ally’s 4 and a half right now.

    Yup. The Rules become very, very important at that age. Don’t worry: with maturity on her part, and consistent (if occasionally exasperated) guidance on yours, she will outgrow it!

    Comment by ktjrdn | April 22, 2008 | Reply

  11. I have seared this conversation into my memory (and put it on my blog) for use at work and home. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. Both for the compliment and the post, both. I love your blog.

    Comment by Evil HR Lady | April 23, 2008 | Reply

  12. I completely agree with that definition of effective parenting (but I think you already knew that). I also think that some situations are best left to the people directly involved. Clearly, in your example, they had the tools already.

    (I read the Evil HR Lady’s blog regularly too, and it was a nice surprise to see her quoting your post over there!)

    They have the tools. Their grasp on them isn’t always firm, and their application spotty, but they have the tools. I read through a bunch of her posts this evening, and I’m loving it. A totally different world than the ones I’ve spent most of my working life, but people are people — and, frankly, I tend to find toddlers generally easier to deal with than adults… though often strangely akin.

    Comment by Florinda | April 23, 2008 | Reply

  13. […] in my lack of laziness, I still manage to read interesting blogs. I found this post, Better Parenting Through Laziness. It’s written by a home day care provider. She describes dealing with a hitting situation […]

    Pingback by The Human Resource » Blog Archive » Better HR Through Laziness | April 23, 2008 | Reply

  14. Brilliant. I’m going to try this myself.

    Comment by nomotherearth | April 28, 2008 | Reply

  15. I’m going to file this for when I sub for Kinders and 1st graders. Thanks!

    Comment by KauaiMark | May 4, 2009 | Reply

  16. […] have strategies for tattling, of course. Strategies which will work, in time, so long as I have the persistence […]

    Pingback by Tattling Strategy « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | February 19, 2013 | Reply

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