The Reasonable Meets The Pre-Rational
“Yes, it’s lovely outside. Let’s get our coats on and go outside!”
“It’s cold outside, lovie. Nice and sunny, but very cold. You will need your coat.”
“If you don’t wear your coat, you will be cold. You need your 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.