Let’s be honest: parenting a toddler can make even the sanest person among us feel homicidal at times. I should know–I’ve got twins.
Tovah Klein, author of “How Toddlers Thrive,” is an associate professor of psychology at Barnard and director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development. She kindly took a moment from a busy book tour to talk me off the ledge talk to me about her new book and why we just need to shift our perspective.
In “How Toddlers Thrive,” you write about our current “overzealous child-rearing culture” and how the media often confuses parents. I am a confused parent. How will your book help me?
There’s a reason for confusing toddler behavior (defined here as ages 2-5): there’s rapid change going on in the brain in these early years–700 synapses per second are being connected! That’s why toddlers are exhausting to be around. They are trying to figure out who they are and what they need is for us to help guide them in a way that gives them a secure emotional base. Its important to take a step back and try and see the world from a toddler perspective.
Is this what you mean by “Parenting POV”?
Yes. We all look at our kids from the perspective of the adult world, because we, hopefully, are adults, we’re socialized, we’re fairly reasonable, we use thinking and logic to make sense or decisions. But really, to understand their behavior, we need to shift perspective and appreciate that life can be difficult for toddlers. They’re not mini-adults. From a toddler point of view, life centers on them and they don’t really understand that others have desires that clash with theirs. What they see is what they are focused on in the moment or what they want to do. Once you understand this as a parent, you can treat them less like mini-teens or mini-adults, and more like the little ones they are. Our expectations for our toddlers are way too high, and far beyond what their capabilities are.
So what can we expect?
We can expect that our children are all individuals and even with our best efforts, they may not do what we want.
It does seem like parenting a toddler is boiled down to a battle of wills.
You know, we all talk a lot about how we want to raise confident, assured kids. But then when our toddler tries to assert herself, we try to control her and we engage in a battle (over what to wear, what to eat, etc.) Yet every research indicator suggests that being too controlling and micromanaging our kids will only serve to make them more anxious and stressed.
This makes sense intellectually–but then its 8 a.m. and we’re trying to get out the door and my kid is splayed out on the floor without pants. And as one reader so rightly argued: consequences don’t work.
She’s right–consequences don’t make sense during these years, as toddlers have no sense of time and consequences follow a time sequence–X happened, now Y happened.
Toddler defiance is a way to assert, “Hey! I have my own desires!” which is part of becoming one’s own person. If you want to raise a child who can trust herself and make good decisions, then avoid control techniques, which will work against this goal.
It’s also important not to shame a toddler for having a need or desire. Instead, tell them:
“I know how badly you wanted to stay at your friend’s and play/stay in your pajamas/not go to school. I wish we could [do those things] too.” Acknowledging their need validates their desire even though you still follow through with whatever you need to do to move your day along.
When parents are respectful of their children as individuals but continue to set routines and boundaries, children become more sure of their own ideas and desires over time–I emphasize “over time.” For example, when your child picks out your least favorite outfit to wear and you say, “Why do you have to wear that?” we undermine their ability to make a choice, we cause them shame for wanting that outfit. If we instead say, “You picked your outfit out, I’ll wait for you to get dressed,” then the message is that the child can make their own choices and you will support them.
You also speak about praise as a way of controlling a child. How is that true?
When you say to a child “oh good job! You did it, keep going” this says to the child, “keep doing it that way, my way.” This causes the child to become oriented toward pleasing adults and makes it much harder for the child to figure out what drives her. The child then has a harder time making decisions for herself because she’s so oriented toward pleasing.
When children have A-HA! moments, they feel great. We take that away when we interrupt the moment by praising them. It becomes our accomplishment, not theirs.
When your toddler is working on puzzle and feels frustrated, don’t step in and help, don’t interrupt with praise. Let her feel frustration. If she can’t finish a puzzle, let her leave it. She’ll come back to it and figure it out. If we don’t let our children struggle, then they can’t have those moments of “hey! I can figure it out on my own.”
Recognizing that you need to let your kids struggle is a tough parenting pill to swallow.
Yes, but your most critical role as a parent is not to make your kid happy. They know how to be happy. Rather, your most critical role is to help your child through the negative feelings, disappointments, and hurdles of life. The way to have a happy child is to help them handle all that negative. Reflect back and label what your child seems to be feeling and why, and she will learn gradually how to manage those feelings. Remember that often, her sense of disappointment and loss, while it might seem disproportionate to us, is as real as if she has lost something like a pet or a best friend.
In truth, I think parents of toddlers are often guilty of their own outsized reactions.
We’re all human. Kids learn about humanness through us. We make mistakes all the time. What matters is the repair. Sometimes your child has a meltdown and you wind up screaming. Just focus on the repair. When everyone eventually settles down, say, “I’m sorry, I love you, I shouldn’t have yelled. Mommy got angry and that’s not your fault.” Your quick fuse is not your child’s fault. Tell her “I shouldn’t have yelled at you.” Hug your child and explain that you will always love her, even when you’re angry. And then move on.
Speaking of moving on, how do we help our kid separate and become independent, even as a toddler?
The way to help children become independent–and it does take time–is to help them feel comfortable with who they are, including in their needs and desires. Children cannot learn to make their own decisions when we criticize their decisions and needs, like, “You are always asking for sweets before dinner. You know you are not allowed to have that!” Instead, a little empathy with a boundary lets them feel they have a voice, even if they don’t get their way. Say instead, “You love cookies, I know, so I am saving one for you for later.” This tells them that they are valued in their desires and they can want things even if mommy or daddy does not. But the limit is not lost–there is still no pre-dinner cookie.
If we constantly question our children’s’ desires, this tells them that there is only one right way and that is mommy’s or daddy’s way. Our kids then become focused on doing something as others want them to do it, not as they desire. And then this is what they carry into the peer world.
But when we allow them to play as they wish, to build the block tower however they want without correcting them about what should go next, or allow them to wear mismatched socks, the child learns, “I can make my own decisions.” We still set limits, but keep the firm “no”s for when they are needed.
We could go on and on–but if you had to leave Kveller readers with just a few take-away pieces of advice for toddler wrangling, what would they be?
There is no single “right” way to parent your toddler. Be reliable and loving. Be lighter on yourself, have lots of humor and know that a child’s job is not to make us happy–nor is it our job to make them happy. Trust your ‘gut’ feeling about how to handle something. Take the advice that resonates with you and ignore the rest of it.