It’s Not All Mary Poppins

You have the power


A couple of mothers stand chatting on my front sidewalk, their children in their strollers. Just as one mother is about to wheel her child homeward, the child spies the small nugget of sidewalk chalk left over from this afternoon’s play. Spies it and hops out of the stroller to continue his artistry.

His mother sighs, and I know what she’s thinking. Yesterday, the mother had “been stuck” playing chalks for a full hour after she’d intended to leave, you see, held hostage by a not-quite-two who couldn’t be coaxed back into the stroller and homeward.

(One might think this would be an argument in favour of buckling the child securely into the stroller, but that doesn’t seem to have occurred.)

I was not aware of her prolongued tenure of my front yard, having gone inside and busied myself in the kitchen at the rear of the house once I’d said my goodbyes at closing. I wasn’t aware, that is, until this morning, when I saw the extra artwork and heard the mother’s resigned complaints.

Complaints which, if someone doesn’t take immediate action, are only going to be repeated this evening. Even as mother is sighing in preparation for the prolongued coax-and-negoatiate session she sees ahead, I reach for the bucket which houses the rest of the chalk.

“Oh, look! You found a piece of chalk! Good work! Now you can help put it away! Put the chalk in the bucket, please.” All said in tones of hearty good cheer.

And in it goes.

“Thank you! What a great helper!” And then I pick the child up, pop him into his stroller… and snap the belt. The other two mothers applaud and praise his helpfulness. Tot beams widely.

“YOU are the master,” says mom. To me, not the child.

I grin. “You don’t realize how much control you have over their emotional reactions to things. If you radiate confidence and cheerfulness, they will very often go along with you.”

That is all true. There is more to the equation, though. This child is fully aware that if he balks, it will happen anyway. If required, I will take his hand, wrap it around the chalk, shake it loose into the bucket and then thank him with a big beaming smile, as if all that ‘compliance’ was totally voluntary.

In fact, that’s the first step in a process, a process which we’re (mostly) done with these days. The second step, when resistance occurs, is to remind them. “You can do it on your own, or I will help you do it.” Independence is important at this age — that’s why you’re getting all the resistance in the first place. If they can assert their independence by doing what you ask, well heck. They soon decide they’d prefer to do it on their own, thanks.

It takes a few (or more) repetitions to get to the point of (mostly) cheerful compliance… but get there, you will. (The stuff in brackets reflects the reality of working with toddlers, but it is perfectly reasonable to expect cooperation most of the time, with resistance being the exception.)

This child is 20 months, and he’s been cheerfully cooperative for two months, at least. He’s not cowed, he’s not fearful, he’s not resentful. It’s just that we’ve been through this loop — polite request, hand-over-hand ensuring it happens, copious thanks — we’ve been through it so many times that it is no longer automatic to resist. In fact, it’s (mostly) automatic to go along. It’s been a while, two months? four?, since I’ve done a hand-over-hand with him. It simply hasn’t been necessary.

Resistance? Argument? Defiance? Nope. He doesn’t need to do that to assert his independence. He can assert his independence by doing what he was asked on his own! He just plops the chalk in the bucket — and then, in this case, reaps the reward of the smiles and approbation of not just one, but three adults!

What’s not to like?

March 12, 2010 - Posted by | behavioural stuff, parenting, power struggle


  1. I tend to think that I am pretty good at this in most instances. One request or cheerfully reminding “Yes Mama, I will help you…(whatever I am asking for)” usually suffices.

    The area that we lack. Is books. EVERY day we stop at our daycare’s library. Which is quite considerable and I love that it is available to us. On most days I am happy and agreeable to picking out a book to take home and read. But there are the occasional days where I need to get going quickly and denying that request seems to bring out the worst in my child. It seems like no matter what I do we end up hysterical and overwrought and I feel like I should have just given in and let him get the book. I wonder if “helping” with his sister would ease him out the door on those days.

    Comment by Dani | March 12, 2010 | Reply

  2. Parenting classes should be mandatory before new parents can leave the hospital. Mary can teach them!

    Comment by Jill in Atlanta | March 12, 2010 | Reply

  3. This is very much like your other post where Emma keenly pointed out that it’s all about expectations.

    Kids, even as young as 2, are aware of what they can get away with and with whom.

    The “it’s going to happen anyway” so let’s do our best to be cheerful about it and encourage independent co-operation is a much better route than to let them do what they want and then gripe about how inconvenient it is.

    The former instills consistency and respect, the latter tends to lead to temper tantrums and encourages a sense of entitlement.

    Though I do think Mom was on the ball to say that YOU, Mary, are the master, I hope she is also able to see that you’ve simply had more practice with what works and that it’s something she can learn.

    Comment by Sheri | March 12, 2010 | Reply

  4. Ooh, thank-you for a most timely post.
    This: “You can do it on your own, or I will help you do it.”

    …is my new phrase!

    Comment by Kate R | March 12, 2010 | Reply

  5. seriously, mary, you should be the new super-nanny! 🙂

    Comment by Dana | March 13, 2010 | Reply

  6. I wonder if she would have still stayed an extra hour for her child to play if she had something urgent to get to, or dinner guests waiting or or a night out planned? I might be wrong, but sometimes I feel these Moms that are complaining about it secretly are waiting for a .. wow, your kid has willpower and has such a strong character to him, like this is so in now.

    Comment by Nat | March 13, 2010 | Reply

  7. I think parents need to take a course in manipulation before they have kids :-p

    Comment by ifbyyes | March 13, 2010 | Reply

  8. It’s amazing how much small children can absorb from adults about expectations both about actions and emotions. I’ve found it works with hurts too. If I overreact about a trip or a fall, it becomes a big deal to the child. If, however, I give him the “get back up! you’re okay!” smile, he’s fine (of course, with the understanding that he is okay, and didn’t actually hurt himself.)

    Comment by lovecoloredglasses | March 17, 2010 | Reply

  9. Good for you for stepping in and demonstrating to that poor mom. Mommy guilt + perfectly rational manipulation by son = Bad, bad habits.

    Oh, I so could have used your advice about, uh, seven years ago, lol!

    Comment by Laura Benedict | March 18, 2010 | Reply

  10. Sometimes I just like to come and read your blog to be refreshed. I’m not the only one who thinks this way. There are other people out there who think the grown up should be the one in charge. I’ll be sending some people your way to read this I think. It’s helpful and wise.

    Comment by carrien (she laughs at the days) | March 22, 2010 | Reply

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