It’s Not All Mary Poppins

expecting respect — teen version

A recent online conversation about teens provoked an email exchange, which seemed to me to be the essence of a pretty good post. This one’s about teens, not toddlers, but those of you with toddlers will soon see the parallels between teen and toddler behaviours! Anyone with teens certainly sees them. 🙂

And thus the parenting response is quite similar in principal, though different in execution.

In the conversation, one woman had said she didn’t sweat the small stuff, that she ignores the eye-rolling, sarcasm, and sneering. My hackles went up instantly.

The principle — don’t sweat the small stuff — is sound. The thing is, eye-rolling is an expression not only of disrespect, but of contempt. In studies done of marriages, certain behaviours are strong indicators of divorce within a predictable time-frame. Habitual expressions of contempt, which include sneering, sarcasm, and eye-rolling, are among them. John Gottman, the mathematician-turned-psychologist whose research is the cornerstone of this idea, comments that “respect and affection are essential to all relationships working and contempt destroys them.”

Teenagers may try to sneer, mock, and roll their eyes all the time, but they’re not “small stuff”, and I strongly believe you should sweat them.

My kids got my iciest rage if they ever sneered or rolled their eyes at me. “You may be angry at me, but you WILL express that anger respectfully, just as I am respectful with you.”

People have to learn that they can control their behaviour even when their emotions are involved. And that learning doesn’t come without lots of practice. I expect it of toddlers, in a rudimentary way, I expect it of teens, in a much more sophisticated (though not fully adult) way.

As I expect it of myself. Only seems reasonable.

My oldest might have sneered or rolled her eyes twice. The younger two learned from their big sister’s example, and, though my youngest has come close to the edge with sneering, I don’t think she’s ever once rolled her eyes at me. She has also been known to apologize for mood swings — without being asked!

While I have told her she can’t take out her bad mood on me, and she can certainly apologize for mood-driven bad behaviour, I don’t expect an apology for the mood itself, because mood swings? They’re small stuff. You don’t sweat ’em. (Like with the todders, “you can be angry, but you may not…”)

“Small stuff”also includes door-slamming, petulant tears, protestations of eternal misery, stomping up stairs, pouting…

I endeavour to help them put the moods in perspective, but very rarely do I attempt to do that WHILE the mood is ongoing… Expecting a teen to dissect/analyze an emotion while it’s being experienced is the very definition of “exercise in futility”. Wait. I lie. I did that with my FIRST child.

Live and learn.

I think the most important thing that I’ve learned re: teens is to observe the moods without being drawn into them. To let them roll over and through, but don’t get involved with the child until it’s over. My primary role during the negative mood is to ensure that its expression is respectful, and that innocent bystanders are not used as whipping-boys. “Respectful” doesn’t necessarily include calm or reasonable. They are allowed their emotions. It does mean “not aggressively rude”.

And when the teen is calm, when their rationality has asserted itself over the (probably hormonally-enhanced) emotions, THEN you can have the talk. (Which, with teens, particularly boys, might be three minutes at most. You learn to be CONCISE, with teens.) You can debrief, they can learn that you still love them… and that they have the power to control their own responses. That emotions are signposts, not roads, that they give us a certain amount of valuable information, but it’s the brain that gets us there.

And that if they roll their eyes at the momma, they risk losing one.

May 21, 2010 Posted by | aggression, manners, my kids, parenting, power struggle, socializing, tantrums | , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Sound and fury

… signifying nothing.

Monday: Dad comes in, looking a bit harried. “I’m 45 minutes behind where I should be, but it took us that long to get out the door. First she had to have a story, and then we had to sing some songs, and then we couldn’t find her pink boots, only the grey ones. It took forty-five minutes before everything was just right, so we could leave!”

Tuesday: Dad hands me a box of Cheerios. “Do you mind feeding her some breakfast? She wouldn’t sit down to eat, so I had to chase her with the spoon, and I think most of it ended up on the floor.”

Wednesday: Dad to daughter. “We learned something new today, didn’t we, sweetie? We learned how to sit in a Big People seatbelt!” He turns to me. “She wouldn’t get into her carseat, so we compromised with a seatbelt.”

Thursday: “I’m late! She insisted on pushing the stroller instead of riding in it, and now I have a client waiting in my office for me right now.”

Friday: Child comes wearing a jacket inappropriate to the weather. “She refused to wear her snow-suit, so we had to settle for this. I figure if you can get these tights on her under her jeans…?”

The door closes on dad. Emma looks at me, her eyes wide with disbelief.

“How old is she?”
“Not quite two.”
“And she weighs, what, twenty pounds?”
“Something like that.”
“And he can’t win an argument with her? What’s she going to be like when she’s fourteen? Geez. Come on, guy, she comes up to your knee. You can take her.”

She’s right, of course. When your opponent’s primary weapon is neither reason nor strength, but merely a loud shriek… okay, a really, really, really loud shriek… it’s just noise, guy. Noise. There are some battles you just don’t need to lose against… noise.

January 22, 2010 Posted by | health and safety, manners, parenting, parents, Peeve me, power struggle, tantrums, whining | , , , , , | 13 Comments

Good, Bad… and nothing in between?

tearsYou’re not nearly as rational as you think you are.

That’s okay. Neither am I. None of us are. Even those who are sure we go through our lives guided by only the most rigorous of analytical thought have merely suppressed their emotions. Just because they don’t acknowledge them doesn’t mean they’re not influenced by them. In fact, given the suppression, I’d say it’s more likely they’re affected. They just don’t know it.

But really, that can be said of any of us. Research proves over and over that “feeling actually happens prior to any conscious thought and because it comes first, it shapes and colours the thoughts that follow.” It’s what we all learned in Psych 101: we have the emotional reaction first, and then we plug our reasons into it. This happens at an unconscious level, mind you, which is why some of you out there are even now denying this with firm assurance that YOU are a rational person. We’d like to believe this — I know I do — but we’re just not so reasoned as we’d prefer to think. Our conscious mind is blissfully unaware it’s being emotionally manoeuvred.

Moreover, if our Gut response is “Yeah! Good thing!”, we minimize all risks associated with it. If it’s “Boo! Bad thing!”, we exaggerate them. The idea that something can be unpleasant but beneficial is as foreign to our Gut response as it is to the toddler you’re trying to siphon those antibiotics into. In our Heads we know better, but Gut steers the psychological ship far more than we’re aware.

Here’s an example. Crying. Crying, particularly the tears of our children, is a Bad Thing. Therefore it is Bad for the child, and there is no benefit to be had from it. Therefore, tears are to be avoided at all costs.

And where does this “reasoning” lead us?

To the idea that children are psychologically damaged if they are allowed to cry now and then. To the idea that the parent-child bond can be torn asunder if a parent doesn’t always leap to close the floodgates. To the idea that anyone whose child cries is a Bad Parent.

But what this reasoning completely and utterly misses is this ironic fact:

If you avoid your child’s tears at all costs… You create children who cry more.

I have a lot to say on this topic. I’ll be back!

February 20, 2009 Posted by | controversy, parenting, power struggle, tantrums | , , | 9 Comments

Experiencing tantrums

This post isn’t about what to do when experiencing a tantrum. I’ve discussed tantrums in some detail in a three-part series, which you can find here (part 1), here (part 2) and here (part 3). If you check under the “tantrum” category down there in the sidebar on the right, you’ll find lots more anecdotal stuff, too.

92296_the_stress_No, this post is for you, the parent who has a thrashing, screaming child on the floor in front of you. Or, if you’ve taken my advice and left them in a safe place and walked away, a thrashing, screamin child in the next room. Because lord only knows you’ll still be able to hear them! How are YOU feeling?

When people comment, and even more when I correspond with commenters, it is clear to me that many of you imagine that I float serenely above the chaos, the very picture of calm, cool, collected confidence.

Well, I am confident. Mentally, I’m calm. And externally, I’m cool — or, more accurately, controlled, because I will let the child see that Mary Is NOT Pleased With This Nonsense. (When necessary: with some children I use a soothing voice. NOT a coaxing one. Never, ever coax a tantrumming child. But I will use a soothing voice. Unless a stern one proves more efficient. This is what I mean by controlled: I consciously do what works, matching my response to the character of the child.)

Okay. So I am confident, and I look calm and controlled.

But inside?

After twenty years of dealing with toddlers and tantrums,
after twenty years of creating tantrum-free two-to-three years olds,
after twenty years of knowing that very soon this will all be in our past,
after twenty years of honing a practiced and effective response…

Tantrums still leave me shaky.

They really do. It’s not because I don’t know what to do next. It’s not because they alarm me. It’s not because I feel such compassion for their feelings. I’m not that I’m feeling fearful or anxious or helpless or even angry. (Though that last one comes closest to any emotional response I might be having. After all these years, exasperated is more like it.)

And yet, tantrums leave me shaky.

It’s because those wee ones are so PASSIONATE. They are FURIOUS. They are ENRAGED. The are positively FEROCIOUS. They are just radiating negativity, in extreme voltage. You cannot help — well, I can’t, at any rate — but be affected by that sort of emotional intensity.

After all these years, I am not affected emotionally so much as physically. The heart rate goes up, I’m sure of it. My response is clear, consistent, controlled, and practiced. I do not (externally, visibly) evidence the shakiness. But it’s there.

Thing is, I know, after all these years, that it’s not a sign of uncertainty. I am not second-guessing myself. It’s not a sign that I can’t handle this. I can, I am, and I will. It’s just, I believe, a normal human reaction of someone in the presence of a super-charged intensity of emotional/physical outburst.

So… you’ve walked away from the screaming, and your hands are trembling? You can feel your heart pounding? You’re maybe even sweating a bit?

Normal. Every bit of it. It’s an adrenaline rush, nothing more, nothing less. You’re not a Bad Mother (or Bad Father!). You’re not a wimp. It’s just a physiological response to intense stress. And it will pass.

Take a deep breath. Swing your arms. Put on some music and dance like a dervish. Run on the spot. Wrap your trembling hands around a hot cup of soothing mint tea. Take another deep breath and another, let them out long and slow. Drop your shoulders down from your ears.

You’re doing fiiiiiine.



January 9, 2009 Posted by | parents, power struggle, tantrums | , , | 15 Comments

“I HATE you, mommy!”

angry childI remember saying that to my mother. I have no idea what the offense was, but I blurted out those words in a fit of childish frothing-at-the-mouth, I’m sure. If I was old enough to remember it as clearly as I do, I was probably at least 7; I don’t think I was in my teens yet.

I still remember her response. She did not “validate my feelings”. She did not soothe or comfort. Though corporal punishment was part of the family parenting repertoire, there was no spanking for that level of insubordination, either. (None of us were spanked after the age of three or so, anyway.) Nor did she respond with outrage, though she was clearly offended.

Nope. My normally cheerful, easy-going mother directed a gaze laced with ferocity at me as she put me in my place. “You don’t hate me. You are far too young to know what ‘hate’ is, and I hope you never have to find out. And do not say that to me, ever again.”

There was further discussion about what I could say. I could say I was angry; I could say I didn’t like something; I could say any number of negative things, so long as they were said respectfully. But “hate”? Not allowed.

I don’t recall if there was follow-up. I don’t know if she had to battle this into the ground, or if that one pronouncement was enough to kill that nasty behaviour on the spot.

I do know that I agree with her.

Children raised in a loving home have no idea what hate is, nor should they. “Hate” is not a variant of “dislike”, and shouldn’t be treated as such. In the same way that we don’t allow our small children to use the “bad words” adults might occasionally let fly in their presence, we needn’t allow this one, either.

We’ve been raised as parents to respect our children’s emotions. That is as it should be. But we needn’t revere them. Nor should we buy into the notion that respecting an emotion means that we allow its full expression without reservation. Nor is “he’s too little to understand what [emotion] means” stop you from the task of guiding the expression of that emotion.

“Emotions are neither right nor wrong. It’s what you do with them that matters.” I have a vague notion that I’m quoting someone here, but it’s mine now. I’ve said it so often in our home that my teens can chant it along with me.


We can start teaching that at toddlerhood, when a child is told “You may be angry, but you may not scream (hit, bite, kick, spit, whatever).” Or, “I know taking a nap makes you sad, but your body needs the rest. You will feel better when you wake up.” Or. “You want that toy, but it’s Suzie’s turn now.”

I often am heard to say, “If you need to cry, cry quietly.”

Unreasonable? No, since they can pretty well uniformly manage it, from about two and a half, and even earlier, depending on the child. Disrespectful? No, because I’m not saying they may not feel the emotion, or that the emotion is wrong or bad, only that they must moderate its expression.

So, Ms/Mr. Enraged Toddler. You can be angry, very, very angry! You can stomp your feet. You can scowl and pout. You can not like me right now. You can tell me to go away. (And I will, assuming it’s safe for me to do so.)

But “hate”?

Nope. You don’t know what the word means, and I hope you never do. I can safely bet that those of us who do know what it means rather wish we hadn’t had to live through the experience that engendered it.

Don’t be afraid to put limits on the expression of your child’s emotions. Not the feeling of them, but their expression. Feeling an emotion is always acceptable. Emotions are morally neutral. How you act on them is not. Learning to respond constructively to your emotions is merely part of learning to exist in a world shared by millions of other people, all with their own emotional centres, all worthy of their piece of the planet.

Instead of a blanket tolerance of any and all emotional expression, try this:

“You can be [insert emotion here], but you may not [insert behaviour here], but you can [insert alternate expression here].”

And the carrot at the end of this stick? If you start when they’re two, you’ll have a way easier time of it when they’re twelve…

November 14, 2008 Posted by | aggression, parenting, tantrums, the dark side | , , , , | 13 Comments

Transitions ain’t easy

Nigel is giving up his afternoon nap. (Boooo….) He is three now, though, and so long as he gets a decent amount of sleep at night he doesn’t need one. (Booooo….) I’m being mature and professional about this, really I am. (Booooo….)


Nap-weaning, like walking, like speech, like potty-training, like just about any other developmental progression, doesn’t necessarily (does it ever?) occur in a nice, straight line.

“Come sit with me, and I will read you a story.”
“I want to sit on your lap.”
“Anna’s in my lap for this story. You can sit in my lap for the next story.”
“NO!!!” He stomps off to glare at us from the safety of the Quiet Stair.

“Okay, everybody, snacktime! … Nigel? Snack is ready. Come have snack, sweetie.”
“I don’t WANT snack.”
“You sure? It’s plums and bananas.” (Which he looooves.)
“I don’t WANT plums and bananas.”
“If you don’t come now, they will be all gone.”
“I don’t WANT plums and bananas.”
“That’s okay. You don’t have to have them if you don’t want them.”
Twenty minutes later, when snack is finished and the table cleared…
“Where is the plums and bananas? I WANT SOME PLUMS AND BANANAS!”

“I don’t WANT to play with the tiles!!”
“Then don’t. If you don’t want to play with them, Nigel, you certainly don’t have to.”
“But I don’t WANT to!!!”
“Nigel, do you want to play with the tiles?”
“Then don’t play with the tiles. That’s okay.”

He sinks into a heap of tears. I pick up the soggy heap, give it a snuggle, then put it gently but firmly to bed. Because some days? Some days there’s just no percentage in being awake…

February 11, 2008 Posted by | Nigel, sleep, tantrums | 11 Comments

Back with a vengeance

One of the tots, who will remain nameless, has returned from a lengthy family trip of some six weeks, all energized and ready to mix it up again with her friends have fun at Mary’s settle back into her usual routine give Mary the professional challenges she needs to keep her on her game.

In the past 48 hours, this little one has:

– begun screaming from the moment she exits her house, to the moment she enters mine (and then some), “I DON’T WANNA GO AT MARY’S HOUSE! MAMAMAAAAAA! I DON’T WANNNNAAAAAA! MAMAAAAAAAA!!!”

– when that doesn’t work, she just screams. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA …

– when presented with a stack of 8 puzzles, placed on the floor between three children, she lay her torso atop the stack so that nobody could touch them. She couldn’t play with them either, but that’s NOT THE POINT.

– when another child approaches to give her a hug, she shoves them.

– when presented with food of any description, she glowers at the plate.

– when asked a question, she turns her back and refuses to hear

– when complimented, she turns her back and refuses to hear

– when praised (and lord only knows it’s not easy to find something to praise this week) she (are you with me yet?) turns her back and refuses to hear

– when she must speak, she whispers so softly it is impossible to hear. If you place your ear very close to her face, she merely hisses. “Ssssssss….”

– when sat on a lap to hear a story, she leans forward and covers the page with her body

– when sat beside me to hear a story, she puts her hands over her ears

– she has bitten (unsuccessfully; I removed the other child before the teeth closed), hit (successfully), kicked (successfully) and scratched (unsuccessfully) every other child in the house, at least once.

– she has hidden toys, not because she wishes to play with them, but only because she can

– she has tormented the cats

– she has (bless her heart) sat herself down on the quiet stair for extended periods of time.

In short, she has reverted to all the pre-daycare behaviour patterns, and then some. We saw the screaming and physical aggression last year; we did not see the hiding of toys or pet tormentation. See how much more mature and sophisticated a year can make them?

She’s just had six weeks with her family, and THAT is where she wants to be, NOT HERE, and she is SERIOUSLY PISSED OFF and we are all to take that VERY SERIOUSLY INDEED, and if we do not, there will be SERIOUS CONSEQUENCES. The world is not cooperating with her script, and the knee-high despot is NOT PLEASED.

Oh, well. We trained her out them before, we can train her out of them now. Moreover, it should be quicker this time, because she’s not learning it all from scratch.

But, sheesh. The holidays are over. Welcome back to reality, Mary.

January 8, 2008 Posted by | aggression, tantrums, the dark side | 11 Comments

Good Mommies, Strong Mommies

A Perfect Post – February 2007

Does anyone in this generation worry about being ladylike any more? Not that they should, mind you, I was just wondering. If the term is too old-fashioned for you, here’s how I remember it. (Not that I was ever restricted by it. Either I’m not that old, or my mother was too free-spirited. Maybe both.)

Anyway, at a certain time, girls were often encouraged to “Be a lady”, or to “be ladylike”. A “lady” is pretty and clean, modest and kind, prissy, precise, concerned with rules and appearances. How she ever managed to have children is beyond me. Laying there with your legs splayed for half the hospital to see? I mean, really… And let’s not even consider how you got pregnant in the first place…

Not everything about her is bad and wrong. Some of her traits – modesty, kindness – are wonderful. But the whole package as a way of life? She’s so limited!

I’d far rather be a woman, thanks. Women are not a neat and clean projection of non-threatening, sanifized femininity; they are whole people. A woman is comfortable in her person, her mind, her body, her sexuality, and quite willing to be unladylike when it suits. She can dress in heels to turn heads, she can lounge barefoot in grubby jeans. A lady avoids bodily fluids, and denies them when she can’t. Women have been known to take unseemly amounts of pleasure in certain types…

I see a similar duality between the images of motherhood. Many (most?) North American mothers seem to be striving to be good mommies. But you know what? Good Mommies are to motherhood what Ladies are to womanhood.

Let’s take a look at the Good Mommy, shall we?

The Good Mommy is kind and nurturing. The Good Mommy loves her children. The Good Mommy knows that her children have their little quirks – who doesn’t? – but they are at heart truly kind, sweet, loving, patient, smart little people. They are never rude, or selfish, they are only tired or hungry. They are never aggressive, they are only frustrated. They are never disrespectful, they are only confused. They are never enraged, only sad. Poor little mites!

Thus, she never gets exasperated with them. She’s never hurt by them. And she never, ever feels anger. Sometimes the children make Good Mommy sad, but she’s never outraged by them, she never feels a gut surge of “How dare you??”

Many Good Mommies might argue this. “What? Of course I know my child has his flaws! Look at those tantrums! Look at the way he hates to share! It keeps me up at night, worrying!”

Ah, but if I were to say that the child is being selfish? No, no, no, no, no. Good Mommies can’t label a behaviour in character terms. They say “She throws such awful tantrums.” And then follow up with, “It breaks my heart to see her so sad.”

Good Mommies make Mary very, very sad…

You see, Good Mommy is doing herself no favours. Perhaps more importantly, certainly more important from her perspective, she is doing her children no favours.

I recently read a blog in which a mother was expressing her remorse over her child’s tantrums. They happened so frequently, and it pained this Good Mommy so much to see her child in such distress. She was so sad, you see, but every time she offered comfort, the child responded with punches and kicks. This made Good Mommy even sadder. (I think, eventually, all Mommy’s “sadness” will give her an ulcer. Suppressed anger often does.)

Is it any surprise that, rather than having long since faded away now that the child is closing in on Junior Kindergarten, the tantrums are ongoing and getting worse? This child is learning that the tantrums are not her fault. The child is learning that mom is incapable of helping her control the rage – because she’s not angry, she’s only sad!

We need to ditch the Good Mommy, and proceed with a new mother image. How about the Strong Mommy?

The Strong Mommy is nurturing, but she also has a solid self-respect. Strong Mommy knows that her children, like every single member of the human race, are capable of kindness, tolerance, compassion, patience, and great good. They are also equally capable of unkindness, intolerance, selfishness, impatience, and great ill. Because they are human.

Children are human. They are not paragons. They are innocent, yes, but we all know innocence can be dangerous. Small children have to be watched very carefully around small pets – a four year old can, in total innocence, kill a hamster. Yes, she’d feel very badly after the fact – but the hamster probably feels worse… Innocence doesn’t prevent one from being selfish. In fact, I’d argue that it makes it more likely.

Strong Mommies see their children in all their varied humanity. They see the innocence, the wonder, the bright eyes, the humour, the dawning empathy… and they see selfishness and manipulativeness, the intolerance and aggression. They don’t feel the need to deny those traits, or to apologize for even admitting they’re there. She doesn’t blame herself for the negative traits, which are only human nature. Of course children are selfish from time to time! Who isn’t? They need to be taught to be unselfish (or kind, or patient, or whatever trait is at issue). They need to be taught to put other people’s needs first once in a while. (After they learn that other people have needs, that is.)

Strong Mommies can look at their petulant, sulking child and see it not as sadness to be forgiven and excused, but a normal expression of childish inflexibility and selfishness. If every negative behaviour is only ever explained away and excused, when and how will the child learn to control and overcome these tendencies? Strong Mommies, who see the traits with clear eyes are in a far better position to teach the child another, better way of responding.

Strong Mommies can, and do, let their self-esteem rise up and say, “Enough, you little so-and-so. Mommy is NOT your maid, nor your punching-bag, either.” She stands up for herself in full confidence that her needs matter, too. I love it when a mommy comes right out and unapologetically says, “He’s taking advantage and I’m not letting this continue one day longer.” “She’s capable of better, and I’m going to see she achieves it.”

And you know what? Your child will respect you, and be more secure because of it.

So, let’s ditch the Good Mommy, shall we, and embrace the Strong one itching to get out of those ladylike confines. Our children will be better off.

February 24, 2007 Posted by | aggression, controversy, Developmental stuff, individuality, manners, parenting, power struggle, socializing, tantrums | 48 Comments

Under Seige

“You may be angry but you may not scream.”
Malli. No. Screaming.”
“Malli. Anna needs me. If you are going to keep screaming, you can sit here until you’re finished.”
“Heh-uh,heh-uh,heh-uh, wwwwaaaaaa….”
“What’s up Anna? Hey, sweet baby?”
(Remember the round, happy baby? Well, she’s still round…)
“AAAAAaaaahhh.” Malli, alone in the kitchen, is trailing off a bit.
“I know, honey. You like me to be in the same room, don’t you?”
Quiet whimper from Anna. A cough from the kitchen, where Malli seems to have ceased with the glass-shattering.

Anna likes me in the same room, she likes to be on my lap, she likes my undivided attention while on said lap. This sharing of attention nonsense that’s required at daycare? Completely and unutterably intolerable, in wee Anna’s opinion. An opinion which she states, forcefully. And continually. And continuously. Naptime, of which she also disapproves, also demands vigorous opinion-expressing.

“Mah-wee? Gots poo.”

“Good boy, Nigel, for telling me. Let’s get rid of that stinky old diaper now.”


“Yes, stinky. I’ll just put Anna down first. Anna, lovie, I’m going to set you down so I can–”

“Uh,uh,uh, WWWWWWwaaaaaaahuhuhuhwaaaaa…”

“OW. Anna, let go of my hair. I’m going to change Nigel’s diaper now.”


And so it goes. So, if I’m not posting much for the next few days till we sort this out, you’ll know why…

* She really IS getting the “be-angry-but-don’t-scream” idea. Really. She used to scream for half an hour at a stretch when thwarted. Now it’s a couple of minutes. It’s just that screaming is still her default reaction to anger. One step at a time.

© 2006, Mary P

September 28, 2006 Posted by | Anna, behavioural stuff, Malli, Nigel, power struggle, tantrums | 9 Comments

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 | 11 Comments