It’s Not All Mary Poppins

The Reasonable Meets The Pre-Rational

“Look at that beautiful day! Do you want to go play outside sweetie?”


“Yes, it’s lovely outside. Let’s get our coats on and go outside!”

“No coat.”

“It’s cold outside, lovie. Nice and sunny, but very cold. You will need your coat.”

“No coat.”

“If you don’t wear your coat, you will be cold. You need your coat.”

“No coat!”

“Don’t you want to go outside?”


“If you’re going outside, you need to wear your coat. If you don’t wear your coat, you will be cold. Brrr!”


Sound familiar? Parent is being patient and sensible. Expectations are clear. Consequences equally so. Parent is being reasonable as reasonable can be…

and toddler is having none of it. Toddler does NOT want to wear that coat, and no amount of rational sweet-talk is going to change their mind. Cold? Who cares about cold? They are not cold! They don’t need a coat!!!

We have an impasse.

Now, there are a few reasonable and effective ways to proceed from here. What very often happens instead, however, is a protracted coax-plead-and-negotiate session, in which the parent persists in their (very reasonable) position and the child persists in their (utterly unreasonable) one. This does not achieve the goal of going outside, at least not anytime soon, and by the end of it the parent is feeling harried, frustrated, exasperated and helpless.

Why, when all we are trying to do is be reasonable, sensible, principled parents, do we so often end up feeling harassed and out of control, as if we the adult are the supplicant, and the child is the one who is making the decision?

Well… Probably because that’s exactly what’s happening. Aggravating, isn’t it? Not to mention embarrassing. And not in the child’s best interest, either. Plays havoc with the whole idea of Harmonious Family Home, to boot.

Here’s the nub of the problem: While the parent has pledged to themselves that they will always be reasonable and fair with their child, the child has made no such pledge. So here we have all these lovely, kind, sensible, reasonable parents behaving reasonably with their child, and expecting the child to be reasonable in return.

This… is unreasonable.

Toddlers are not much interested in reason. In fact, they’re not entirely capable of it just yet. So yes, do have good reasons for your expectations, and express your expectations reasonably. That is good modelling. But if you seriously expect your toddler to, in essence, smack a hand to their forehead and say, “Oh, of course, mummy! You’re so right! What was I thinking??” … you are delusional.

Which is not to say that, from time to time, you won’t get quick and easy compliance with a request. This may be because you have a particularly compliant child, or they’re in a particularly compliant mood. Maybe what you want them to do corresponds exactly with what they want to do anyway. Maybe they did as requested because they know it will make you smile. (Despite their habitual negativity, toddlers do genuinely like to please.)

But, at the early toddler stage, what has almost certainly NOT happened is that the child was convicted by the strength of your argument. They just don’t think that way. Not yet. You will, by your good example and persistent guidance, teach and encourage rationality, but to expect a 16-month-old, or a 22-month-old to cede graciously to rationality when they want to do something else is as unrealistic as expecting your 4-month-old to stand unassisted just because they see you do it all the time.

They’re not there yet.

So, sure. Express your reasonable expectations reasonably. Just don’t be shocked if the child doesn’t respond reasonably. And if they don’t, if they instead respond negatively and passionately, do not attempt to reason them into compliance. It is wasted breath, and only gives the impression that direct orders are negotiable.

So, what to do? You have a few choices.

1. You could choose to let them experience some natural consequences of a bad decision. Going outside without a coat in February is a bad decision, and it won’t take them long to figure that one out. Then you can leap in with the solution, without ever once having to say ‘I told you so’. “Goodness, it’s COLD out here! Let’s get that coat on you quickly, before you FREEZE!” (Obviously, if your child is the uber-stubborn type who really would rather freeze than comply, you’re not going to give them this option.)

2. You could choose to ensure that the coat gets worn, by calmly but implacably putting it on the child. “I know you don’t want to wear a coat, but we can’t go outside without our coats on. I am wearing my coat. You will wear your coat.” And as you say this, you place the coat on the child, ignoring any struggles to the contrary.

3. You could choose not to go outside. “All right. If you won’t put on your coat, we can’t go outside. Would you like to read a book or jump on the mini-tramp?”

These responses all have the advantage of:
– being reasonable
– being consistent with your original position
– refusing to negotiate a non-negotiable

The biggest strength of these responses: None of them demand from the child a level of rationality he/she does not yet possess.

The bottom line: YOU can and should be reasonable. You can and should model rationality. Just don’t expect the same level of reasoning ability from your child.

February 15, 2011 - Posted by | parenting, power struggle | , , , , , , , , ,


  1. I’m more of a choice three person; my sister in law is more of a choice one person! Thanks for the story/tips! Now my kids have grown out of that stage–any tips on how that translates to the early elementary school years?

    These days I am more of a choice two person, with choice one being my second most likely response. Three isn’t really an option for me, not with four, five, or six toddlers. If I went with choice three we’d never do anything, because SOMEONE would ALWAYS be objecting to WHATEVER IT WAS. Just because they can. Always. 😀

    Comment by Dana | February 15, 2011 | Reply

  2. I love your blog Mary! I love watching the uber-mommy at the park “reason” with the 2 year old! She looks at me with scorn as I firmly tell 4, 5, 6, 7 kiddos “no! You may not!” lol. Gives the other providers and I quite the laugh as she tries to coax the reasonable tot off of the equipment to go home for lunch. Some days we all choose to leave at the same time, it is quite funny to see three providers with five to seven kiddos just call out “ok, time to get going boys and girls!” and have utter compliance. Mean… no?

    Yes, those scornful looks. See, obviously you have robbed those children of every ounce of their individuality. Either that or they live in terror of you. (You can tell by the way they smile at you when they run over to you.) Really, you must be doing something mean and bad to get that many kids to obey that easily. You couldn’t possibly be doing something… (gasp)… right!?! 😉

    Comment by Jess | February 15, 2011 | Reply

  3. I was mostly a choice 2 person – working in child care does that to you, though choices 1 and 3 had their turns as well.

    I always wonder how the parents who expect reasonable responses cope when their toddlers become toddlers on steroids, ie. teenagers! Actually, that’s a lie, I know how it plays out. I work in a high school and parents regularly abandon their ‘unreasonable’ teenagers saying they’ve tried everything. Everything except consistent backbone that is.

    Love the way you work Mary!

    “Toddlers on steroids” (aka ‘hormones’) is the perfect description of teens. The parallels are striking! My mother always used to say “Establish who’s boss before they’re three, and you won’t have to fight for it when they’re 13.” She was right! It’s not that you won’t have struggles. My teens have had me in tears, each of them, at various times. But at the same time, I never, ever get treated the way some of my friends do. The disrespect they experience from their teens shocks me to the core, and, I’m happy to say, shocks my teens, too!

    Comment by Maisy | February 16, 2011 | Reply

  4. I’m a option 2 person. I’ve been reading your blog since Henry was a tiny baby, so I’ve learnt it all from you. In Australia, its not coats so much as hats for the hot weather. There is no suggestion of wearing a hat or asking if you’d like to, its just “HATS ON” and off we go. Even from a baby when he’d pull it off every five minutes, it was HATS ON and firmly replacing it on his head.

    Now that he’s four, its all about bedtime, “I don’t want to go to bed” is heard almost nightly at our place. I respond with, “I know you don’t” and then straight into “what story do you want to read”. No arguing, no suggestion that there’s even another option.

    Thanks to you Mary!

    Aw. I’m so pleased to hear that I’ve made a positive difference! Thank you so much! “No suggestion that there’s even another option.” That’s such a good way of putting it, and such a sensible way to proceed. If the bad choice is a non-option… well, doesn’t it make everyone’s life so much easier? The trick is knowing how to make it “not an option”, and it seems you’ve got that nailed! Well done!

    A caregiver friend of mine once had a client who provided SMARTIES in the morning because “It’s the only thing he’d eat”. For BREAKFAST!!! As my friend said, “Who even made Smarties an option???” I once heard a woman on the radio bemoaning that her child refused to eat the so-healthy organic foods she provided, but “insisted” on Froot Loops instead. The kicker? The child was SEVEN MONTHS OLD. How can a 7-month-old “insist” on anything, and, again, who made the unhealthy choice an option??? I’m thinking the 7-month-old was not pulling food off the grocery shelves. The things we parents do to shoot ourselves in the foot is really quite astonishing…

    Comment by Tammy | February 16, 2011 | Reply

    • You’re welcome….and thank you!!

      Eating is the other great parenting challenge. Henry insist that he doens’t like his dinner, before it’s even on the plate! Even if he’s eaten it 10 times before. I tell him “That’s all there is and to just eat the parts he likes”. Of course, he ends up eating everything on the plate 90% of the time. It’s just an inbuilt response for some children to not like dinner. But as you wisely once said, it’s my job to provide healthy nutritional meals on a regular basis, it’s his job to eat them! If he doesn’t want to, that’s his choice, but there’s nothing else til breakfast. Now if I can just get him to eat his dinner on his own, without me helping spoon in the last half I’ll be happy!

      Comment by Tammy | February 16, 2011 | Reply

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