Category Archives: Toddlers

The Quick Fix

A few weeks ago, I was visiting a classroom of toddlers who ranged in age from nineteen or twenty months old to nearly three. When I walked through the door, the first thing I noticed was one child in distress, who appeared to have been crying for some time. She was pacing. I sat down nearby and began to observe what was happening through a wider lens. Most of the children in the room were engaged in various play activities — some in the play kitchen, some rolling cars and trucks across a carpeted area, and some reading books with a caregiver. The crying child was without an adult nearby, but was seeming to seek another caregiver who was engaged in changing a diaper. She was not entirely without support, however. Hovering nearby was another child, older than her by about six months. Every so often, the older child would put a hand on the crying child’s arm. The crying child shook it off, turning away, but the older child persisted, peering into the crying child’s face. As I watched, the older child tried again to touch the crying child and the crying child again shook her away. I decided to verbalize my observations.

“You saw how upset H was,” I said to the older child. “It looks like you wanted to help her, but I think she was letting you know she didn’t want to be touched right now.”

The crying child paused in her hectic movements and looked at me. I looked back and observed, “You’re really upset, H.” She moved closer to me.

“She’s crying,” the older child stated. “She’s sad.”

“Are you sad?” I asked H. She climbed into my lap. The older child again moved to lay her hand on H’s arm and H turned to her with a sharp, warning look on her face, again vocalizing her distress.

The caregiver who was changing a diaper called out to the older child, “L! Stop it! Keep your hands on you!” She then added, to me, “My friend L is having a hard time keeping her hands to herself.”

I blinked and looked at L as she blinked and looked at me. She wrung her hands silently.

I spoke quietly to L again, “I see that you were trying to help H. You saw that she was sad. Does it help you when someone strokes your arm when you feel sad?” I paused a moment, then stroked her arm gently. From the safety of my lap, H quietly watched, her crying calmed. L nodded and said, “H was crying.”

“She was crying,” I agreed. “Do you think you could ask H if you could help her?” Both children looked at me silently, seeming to contemplate the meaning. I expounded, “We can ask before we touch someone. Can I touch your arm, L?” L looked down at her arm, then held it out to me. I stroked it again and smiled. She smiled back.

The caregiver who had been engaged in a diaper change emerged from behind the changing counter. “L,” she said, “Walk away and find a job.”

L wandered to another part of the room by herself and stood watching some other children play. I sat with H in my lap and simply observed for a period of time. After a little while, H got up from my lap and went to join some other children playing with baby dolls, her upset now behind her. I saw L keeping an eye on her from a distance and I thought I saw something in her face, in the way she watched H, that indicated Future Caregiver.

I did not record this observation in an attempt to indict the caregiver who suggested L set aside her empathetic instincts. My observations were a snapshot, a snippet of the day this caregiver devotes to both L and H. My intention is simply to share an example of how we might interact slightly differently with young children. I believe this caregiver truthfully interpreted L’s hand on H as an issue that needed to be stopped, nipped in the bud, so to speak. The quick fix was to have L “walk away” from H and perhaps then (imagine I had not been there, as would normally be the case) help H to communicate or calm her upset.

I asked the caregiver about H’s upset. I wondered if it seemed to be related to L. It turned out that she had begun crying when her parent had left and had not been able to “calm down” since. I asked about L’s response to H’s distress. I learned that L had been hovering nearby, as I had observed, for some time and that H seemed more distressed each time L moved in close.

“It seems like L has a lot of empathy for H,” I said.

“She likes to be in the middle of things,” the caregiver expressed ruefully.


Caregivers (I include myself) come to their role with preconceptions and emotional baggage that they sometimes don’t recognize the weight of (it’s like those suitcases on wheels — you can just roll along all day without working too hard, but then a wheel begins to wobble and you realize it’s too much to carry). It can cloud their relationships with the children in their care.

I was reminded of a section from Deborah Carlisle Solomon’s book, regarding observation, featuring a quote from RIE Associate Elizabeth Memel.

“Observation is an art form. It’s not something that most people can do easily, but when they’re encouraged to do it, they learn to let go and enjoy it. Parents can begin to relax and see what their child is becoming instead of thinking they need to be the cause of, or catalyst for, their child’s development.”

Observation is one of the most crucial things for early care professionals to develop a knack for. Without it, they are forced to fall back on assumptions, misconceptions, and quick fixes. Observation of children, when undertaken with care, helps to remove the lens of bias and frees the adult to see who children are through what children do.

In the article Wondering With Children: The Importance of Observation in Early Education, George Forman and Ellen Hall write, “As we observe children, we need to consider their goals. What effects are they trying to create? We observe their actions and listen to their comments to determine the strategies they choose to attain those goals. The relation between the strategy and the goal will reveal a possible theory, a theory about how to make the desired effect occur. The theory, correct or incorrect in an objective sense, makes the child’s choice of strategy sensible. The theory comes from us. It is our speculation. It is our attempt to find an entry into the child’s world. All high-level conversations begin with someone speculating about the meaning of the other person’s words or actions.”

Let’s step back again and consider L’s “goals” as she hovered near H. Each time she reached out and touched H and H reacted negatively, L quickly removed her hand. She frequently attempted to study H’s face. She articulated her observation of H’s feelings by saying, “She’s sad.” I theorize this is not a child (L) who needs to be instructed to tamp down her instinct towards empathy, but a child who may need support in learning how to appropriately channel her empathy.

When we reach for the “quick fix” and have children “walk away”, we miss a true learning opportunity for everyone involved.

I want to say again that I’m not writing this down as an indictment of this caregiver. We’ve all used a quick fix before, in many different situations. For example, a few weeks ago I went through a period of intense insomnia. I was crawling through my work days on very few hours of sleep (increasing exponentially my compassion for sleep-deprived new parents!). In the mornings, my jumpstart was coffee. That’s a quick fix. It doesn’t address the underlying issue. It was the best I could do at the time. And if you think this example is something that impacted only myself, understand that I’m responsible for the care of many other human beings throughout the day and I ultimately need to be at my best or we all come out the worse for the wear. I imagine this was only the first of several quick fixes I fell back on during those days.

In one of my university classes, a professor spoke to my class at length regarding Goodness of Fit. Her voice rings on in my head, years later. I understand now, more than ever, why she lingered so on the topic. It’s so important. She emphasized that sometimes there is not that goodness of fit and it is the responsibility of the adult to recognize and adapt for the sake of the child.

Have you ever reflected on this as a caregiver? I think we all should.

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Pushing My Buttons

Please note: I was conflicted as to whether or not to post the following. I want to be clear that I do not represent RIE™ as an organization. I have nothing but admiration for their work and do not want to misrepresent their message or philosophy. Like so many, I have found RIE™ Principles enlightening and helpful in building authentic relationships with the children in my care. RIE™ influences my practices. What I write about here are my experiences, my understandings, and my interpretations. I enjoy sharing my experiences with others because I think everyone — parent, caregiver, and human being — can benefit from Magda Gerber’s teachings. I am sharing my personal passion, I am not an expert. To better understand RIE™, please visit their web site or attend a training! You will find more resources at the bottom of this post.

“Having respect for the world is when you allow people to be what they are.” – Magda Gerber

Two of the words that are commonly used to describe RIE-influenced interactions with children are calm and peaceful. It has been my experience that the perception of what these words mean in relation to everyday experiences and interactions with infants and young children can cause some people to feel alienated from the true heart of Magda Gerber‘s philosophy. These words, in fact, can cause some people to think that RIE™ is something that they can’t “do” because what it sounds like to them is that they would need to become an entirely different kind of person. (In fact, my experience has been that incorporating just a few pieces of Magda’s advice will make you feel like a slightly different kind of person! And you will want to know and do more.) They feel intimidated by the idea that they don’t know the “right” words or actions. They may have come across some misinformation about what RIE™ is or what it looks like and they feel it’s not a match for their style. Because sometimes when you’re living and working with young children and their strong emotions, the very last thing you can imagine feeling, moment to moment, is calm and/or peaceful.

As the leader of an infant/toddler program and primary caregiver to three to four infants and young toddlers in an environment that is home throughout the day to at least eight small people and three adult people, I have days when I leave work on my lunch break and sit silently in my car, breathing in and out, consuming the silence like soul sustenance. There are days when I feel that, rather than anything resembling calm or peaceful, I have been marinating in an environment of disorder, borderline chaos, and noise pollution. There are days when I feel like I am failing.

The reality is that being with children in a way that is authentic, nurturing, and supportive is frequently quite exhausting and intensive. It’s work, this work that we do. It’s often loud and messy and seemingly chaotic. There are times when someone will open the door to my classroom and glance at the toys strewn across the floor, raise their eyebrows at the sound of a baby (or two, or three, or more) crying, and they will make a comment about it being loud, messy, and seemingly chaotic. “Yes,” we say, “we have a lot going on. Yes, we are busy being with our babies.” Sometimes the toys are all on the floor from 8:00 in the morning until after 6:00 in the evening (and sometimes when I’m walking out the door, I just don’t have the strength to put that last item on the shelf). Sometimes it seems that one baby or another has been crying nearly all day. Most of the time, I come home with stains on my clothing of dubious origin.

My understanding of RIE™ Principles makes the work that I do easier not because it is always calm or peaceful and not because I myself am always truly calm and peaceful, but because it gives me the tools to get through those times that feel chaotic and overwhelming. In the group caregiving setting that I work in, my understanding of RIE™ gives me the peace of mind that the caring is the curriculum. It gives me the confidence to consciously slow down in my responses during moments that can seem like little emergencies. My goal isn’t to quiet babies or to rush to meet their perceived needs, but instead to be with them and understand them on a deeper level. It’s an understanding that this moment, while fleeting, is built on in the next and the next and the next after that. Moments stacked together like blocks, building a long, meaningful relationship. I’m reminded that it’s a practice, not a perfect system to somehow flawlessly implement. Treating the children in my care with respect, treating their families with respect, and treating my co-workers with respect makes it possible to see myself with respect — with forgiveness and understanding for myself as a perfectly imperfect human being and caregiver. It allows me to really know the children and for them to know me as well. They know what to expect from me and from our days together.

Interactions, even respectful interactions, with young children are not always either peaceful or calm. They’re not always easy. Something that I frequently see mentioned about RIE™, in outside reviews and commentary, is that it advocates treating children “as adults”. My understanding is that this is an inherently flawed interpretation. Instead, what I understand of RIE™ is that children are recognized for being exactly what they are: children. They’re not condescended to or judged for being somehow less-than or incompetent. They are simply met respectfully where they are. There is not an expectation that they be anything other than human children.

One of the young toddlers that I am currently working with is going through a period of pushing and shoving that is common in children of that age. It is not uncommon for the adults in our classroom to have to stop this behavior and remind the child a dozen times a day that we will not allow her to push and shove. Recently, I was changing the diaper of another child when the child who has been pushing came to stand beside me, whining to be picked up. The child on the diaper table turned to look, hearing the whine, and I said, “Did you hear M? She is asking to be picked up.” I then turned to the child who was whining and said, “M, I am with S right now. When I’m done helping S, I will be able to help you.” Predictably, in her agitated state, this did little to help M. She did pause momentarily in her whining, putting her hand against my leg, but then a third child came over to see what was happening. Seeing the other child approaching while she was trying to get my attention proved too much for M and she yelled in frustration before shoving the other child away from me, hard. The child who had been shoved began to cry loudly, as did M. It wasn’t long before the child on the diapering table began to wail as well. (“What’s happening?! Is this an emergency?”)

I think we can all agree that a moment like this can feel like chaos. I’m pretty sure I started sweating a little bit. The little voice in the back of my head began to question all of my choices.

So what happened next in this instance? Well, first I completed the diaper change, calming S through the familiar routine and then putting her down. I then got down on the floor beside the child who had been shoved and said, “You’re so upset that you got shoved! That looked like it hurt you and scared you. Do you want a hug?” She rushed into my arms and patted my back while I patted hers, her crying slowing to sniffles. And M? She stood close by, alternately crying and screaming. I turned to her, to include her, “M, I hear you. You wanted me to pick you up. O was scared when you shoved her and she needed help. It sounds like you’re feeling very upset too.” M cried, “Up! Uppie!” When another child peered around the corner at her, she put her hand towards them as if to push them away. “M!” I called sharply, “Stop! I won’t let you push.” She turned to look at me and I looked back steadily. The child in my arms had calmed and appeared ready to walk away. I whispered to her, “Can you go see P? She is sitting in the red chair with some books.” O walked away to where another caregiver sat with two younger babies. “I have free arms for you, M,” I said, “Can I help you?” She rushed at me with the full force of her powerful toddler body. She clung to me for a long time… and it was peaceful.

Inside, I was already replaying this scene in my mind, thinking about what I could have done differently to meet the needs of each child in my care.

That was not an isolated incident that day. I stopped M from pushing many more times and she succeeded in pushing several more. Each time, there were instances where neither one of us felt particularly calm or peaceful. At one point, we were face-to-face. She was tear-stained and red-cheeked and angry that I was (exhausted and frustrated) again stopping the behavior. “I won’t let you hurt other people,” I told her. She lunged towards me, as if to shove me, and I held up one hand, “Stop, M. I won’t let you.” She screamed (you may be able to imagine the sound if you have a toddler in your life). “What can we do, M? Do you want to go push the scooter or do you want me to hold you for a minute?” Her body slumped and she again asked, “Uppie?” I picked her up and held her until she had another idea of what she wanted to do.

Ultimately, M felt my calm resolve to help keep her from pushing other people. I wasn’t calm, through and through. I was concerned that someone would be hurt. I was concerned that M be able to express herself and communicate what was inside of her. I wanted to understand and meet her needs. But in my resolve, in what I wanted for M and the classroom at large, I was calm and peaceful.

“You have to do what you believe in.” – Megda Gerber

We do our best, my co-workers and I, to shine a light on the RIE™ Principles for our co-workers and families because these principles resonate with what we believe to be best for children and families. These things that I have described are all things that happen in families and with young children: sometimes there is pushing and shoving (sometimes physical, sometimes emotional), screaming, crying, falling down, helping up, and hugging. There are moments that are beautifully calm and peaceful, through and through. And there are moments that are … not. But they’re all real. Messy, maybe borderline chaotic, probably loud, and totally authentic. My understanding of Magda Gerber’s teachings is just like this: It’s respecting children enough to talk them through times that are difficult and uncomfortable and maybe loud and messy, without shaming and blaming and judging and labeling them. It’s being okay with them not being “okay”. It’s trying again tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that (when M will finally internalize the limit that has been set regarding pushing and shoving).

I’m far removed from being an expert on RIE™. It’s just part of my journey and I appreciate all that it has taught me. I read, I listen, I reflect. I take those pieces that resonate most with me (for example, that little piece about telling M that I was with S, engaged in her diapering routine, and I would move on from that routine when it was concluded, trusting that M could wait and that S benefits from and deserves my attention and respect during such an intimate routine) and I put them together with the other pieces I have come across over the years from other sources.

About RIE™
What is RIE™?
Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect (2nd Edition) by Magda Gerber.
Baby Knows Best: Raising a Confident and Resourceful Child, the RIE™ Way by Deborah Carlisle Solomon, RIE Executive Director.
Janet Lansbury’s Elevating Childcare blog.
Regarding Baby, Lisa Sunbury’s blog.

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When It’s Time to Go

The parent of a toddler arrives at the childcare center where I work, ready to pick up their child and take them home. The toddler sees the parent through the window and shrieks with delight, then playfully runs to “hide” in the spot where they “hide” each day, gleefully awaiting the moment when their parent will scoop them up and hug them. Unfortunately, today the parent is not in the mood to participate in this routine game. They’re running behind schedule and must rush out the door to pick up another child. Perhaps they have had a long, difficult day and their mind is preoccupied with stress.

“Time to go!” they call to the child from the door. The child giggles and burrows deeper into her “hiding” spot, anticipating the playful sense of connection that she believes is coming.

“Let’s go,” the parent repeats in irritation. “We don’t have time to play.” The child peers out of her hiding spot, then dives back down, hiding her face.

“Okay, I’m going,” the parent says. “Buh-bye! I’m leaving!” She opens the door and pauses, waiting for the child’s reaction.

This is the pivotal moment. Every day, a similar scene plays out at schools, parks, and play dates. Time stands still for a brief moment during this face-off between parent and child — who will win control of how events unfold?

In reality, we all know, no one wins because no one feels good in this situation.

As adults, we have our adult agenda in mind at almost all times. We are often heard to lament the fact that there are a limited number of hours in the day. There are jobs to be done, errands to be completed, appointments to make and meet, meals to be made, laundry to do, and through it all the clock ticks on and on. There are times when we observe a young child issuing an invitation to join them in their world and we consciously choose to keep pace with our adult agenda instead. There are times when we feel we simply must.

Our children internalize so many unspoken lessons in these moments. If we are not conscious and careful, they sometimes internalize the message that their own agenda does not matter. They can interpret this message to read, “YOU don’t matter.”

In the past few years, psychology researchers have found a good deal of literal truth embedded in the metaphorical phrases comparing love to pain. Neuroimaging studies have shown that brain regions involved in processing physical pain overlap considerably with those tied to social anguish. The connection is so strong that traditional bodily painkillers seem capable of relieving our emotional wounds. Love may actually hurt, like hurt hurt, after all. [Source: “Why Love Literally Hurts”]

It can be difficult (sometimes, seemingly impossible) to reconcile what we know about children’s behavior and how to respond to said behavior in textbook fashion with what we’re feeling about children’s behavior within the context of our complex and layered lives. Because, come on, when we feel like it’s time to go, it’s time to go, full stop. On the inside we’re screaming that we don’t have time for this!

Parents and caregivers frequently list as a goal for children that they “listen.” By “listen”, they often mean, “comply.” We want children to follow our directions (and to keep pace with our agenda) for a multitude of reasons. Janet Lansbury shares five of the most common reasons that young children won’t do as we ask. She writes, “Children are ready to listen, primed from birth to begin decoding our words and intuiting our unspoken messages. They are also unique individuals who quickly develop ideas, opinions and wills of their own. Babies and toddlers often understand exactly what we want but choose to do the opposite.”

Establishing a relationship of mutual respect is, in my opinion, the best way to foster the sense of connection (and love) that will lead to smoother transitions for yourself and your child. Understand that your child is an individual with plans, needs, and a schedule of their own. Your child is a whole person. Whatever they may be engaged in at any given time matters to them. (Think about how you feel when interrupted or cut off or dismissed.)

In the scenario that I describe above, the toddler is seeking connection with their parent. They’re anticipating a joyful mutual physical expression of love in a reunion routine they have previously engaged in. On another day when the parent was hurried, they visibly shook off their own preoccupations to respond to the glint in the child’s eye and, rather than opening the door and calling out the empty threat of departure, they crouched down by the door and opened their arms to the child. The child immediately ran from their hiding spot, the parent scooped them up, and off they went to the car, both smiling.

If you find yourself teetering on the edge of engaging in a battle of wills with your young child over departures, some advice:

  • Communicate in advance. With young children, this conversation will need to be frequent and consistent. “When it’s almost time to go, I will give you a warning. You can finish what you’re doing and then we’ll go to the car together.” Give your child the advance warning, “In three minutes, we will go to the car.” When you consistently employ this strategy, your child knows you’re not bluffing. They may still show resistance, but they know what is going to happen. It may seem that your child is too young to comprehend this kind of communication, but in my experience children respond very quickly when it is used with consistency as they’re experts at internalizing these cues and routines.
  • Provide choices within the limits of the necessary departure. “We are going to go to the car now. Should we hop or skip to the car? Do you want to walk or be carried? Do you want to carry your bear or your bag?”
  • Stay connected. Remember that you’re in this together — it’s not, “I’m leaving now!” it’s, “We’re going to leave now.” Look your child in the eye. Connect physically with your child. Extend your heart to your child — when you consciously release your struggle and strain, you’ll find that you’re joyfully met.
  • Use empathy: “I see how much you love to slide! It’s so hard to stop having fun here. We can come back again tomorrow and slide some more.” Do not dismiss or ignore what your child is doing or feeling.
  • Communicate about what is going to happen. Explain where you’re going, how you’re getting there, and what will happen next. You will find that when they know what’s ahead, many children will quickly shift from resistance to engagement.
  • Be consistent and predictable.

You may be interested in further reading on related topics:
Reunion Meltdowns
Easing a Toddler’s Daily Transitions
Little Kids and the Power of the Five Minute Warning

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Favorite Toddler Books

When toddlers come to love a book, they LOVE IT with the kind of love that only toddlers are capable of, from the top of their heads to the tips of their toes. It’s impossible to read the book too often because until they tire of it, their love for it is tireless. They may like and enjoy other books along the way, but there can be no substitutions for their true love. You’ll have it memorized within days and you may find yourself quietly reciting it at odd times (I myself carry a small toddler library in my mind). You’ll stealthily slip it from their grasp when they’ve fallen asleep with it clutched in their arms. You’ll make sure that you pack it each time you leave the house. In later months and years, you may go decades without picking up the book again, but then one day you’ll come across it and it will be, as they say, just like riding a bike — the words and pictures be as familiar to you as if you’d last seen them five minutes ago. Aren’t books wonderful?

Below you’ll find a sampling of the kind of books I have seen toddlers fall hard for. Please share your own favorites in the comments! And remember this advice from author Mem Fox, “Children need to hear a thousand stories before they can begin to learn to read. Or the same story a thousand times!“.

Sheep in a Jeep by Nancy E. Shaw. This is such a fun book to read aloud. Toddlers love the rhyming language, the hilarious flow of the story, and the combination of familiar words with more sophisticated language. I worked with one seventeen-month-old who fell head over heels for this book and, after hundreds of readings, acted out pieces of the story with farm animal toys! This one will always be high on my favorites list.

Skippyjon Jones: Up & Down by Judy Schachner. I had never heard of Skippyjon Jones until someone donated this board book to my program a couple of years ago. The book was immediately claimed by one toddler, who memorized the entire sequence of events in words and signs. His love for this book prompted me to order another Skippyjon Jones book (the delightful Skippyjon Jones Shapes Up), only to have him react with anger as it seemed to him like trickery to present a book so similar to his favorite that featured altogether different events. What he loved best of all, you see, was the predictability of the book. Many toddlers will.

Llama Llama Wakey Wake by Anna Dewdney. It’s hard to go wrong, in my experience, with a Llama Llama book. The gentle themes, rhymes, and soft illustrations are universally appealing. What toddlers love about this book, in particular, is that it mirrors their own lives. They brush their teeth! They comb their hair! And, sometimes, they have to say goodbye to their mamas too. (Dewdney’s Llama Llama books were first designed for an older audience, but toddlers can enjoy spin-offs just for them like this one and Llama Llama Nighty-Night.)

Doggies by Sandra Boynton. No book list for toddlers would be complete without at least one title by Sandra Boynton. Her illustrations and lyrical prose appeal to all ages. This book is perfect for toddlers to share with an un-self-conscious adult who is prepared to make a fantastic variety of dog sounds. In no time at all, toddlers will be assigning unique calls to each featured dog. It’s also a subtle counting book and even younger readers will enjoy pointing to the dogs in turn. (At the end of the day, do not overlook Boynton’s classic, The Going to Bed Book.) Along the same vein is the slightly more verbose Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? by Dr. Suess. It introduces a sequence of wonderful sounds that you can make along with the amazing Mr. Brown, including the moo of a cow, the boom boom of thunder, and the sound of a hand on a door, knock knock.

I Love You Through and Through by Bernadette Rossetti Shustak lists all the sides of a toddler that you love. Just as they need to hear stories at least 1,000 times before they’re reading to learn to read, they need to hear these messages of love and affirmation time and time again. They’ll eat it up and you’ll see it reflected back at you. This is a wonderful book to share with a child.

From Head to Toe by Eric Carle. When it comes to reading with toddlers, it’s a toss-up as to which Eric Carle book they will prefer, but odds are pretty good that they will be drawn to at least one. This is a close contender with the classic Brown Bear, Brown Bear, and toddlers will choose it for it’s interactivity. The words and illustrations invite them to stretch and move their bodies in different ways, giving language to both familiar and previously un-articulated body parts and animals.

The Okay Book by Todd Parr. Most of Todd Parr’s books send a strong message that it’s “okay” to be yourself, to be different, and to do what makes you happy. This book is no exception and I love it for that. Toddlers will enjoy the bright illustrations (Todd Parr’s art is unique and delightful) and the simple, positive text.

You may also be interested in previous posts on Favorite Sensory Books and Favorite Nap Reads.

Now tell me: which books do your toddlers LOVE?

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It Makes Me Sad

I encountered a flustered mom on the sidewalk outside my work building the other day. She was a mom that I knew by sight, not by name. For several months she and her son had been attending the parent-and-me class that takes place in the classroom next-door to mine a few times a week. Recently, she had made the decision to enroll her son in a preschool class that he would attend on his own for a few hours per day.

When I encountered her on the sidewalk, it was after one of her son’s first days in the preschool class. It was nearing lunchtime. Her little boy was refusing to get into the car to go home. Instead, he stood in the middle of the sidewalk, wailing, while the mom cajoled, threatened, and bribed in rapid succession to attempt to hurry him along. She was visibly flustered and frustrated, as nearly anyone would have been in her shoes. It is a unique test of one’s patience to stand in public alongside a wailing child. Even when you seem to be completely alone, you feel the sting and burn of a thousand eyes on you.

The mom glanced my way as I approached and, her patience at its limit, grabbed the little boy by one arm and hissed, “It makes me so sad when you don’t listen to my words!” The boy screamed as she finally lifted him up and put him inside the car.

I passed by and walked into the building to begin my work day, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the scene. I still can’t. And here’s why: this mom is a shining example of someone who is trying to do all the “right” things. She is really trying to use the “right” words with her child in a difficult situation. She once worked in a preschool setting herself, I had learned. I would have guessed at it, had I not been told. Because somewhere in the history of preschool training, parents and teachers began to use the phrase, “It makes me sad when you…” in an attempt to dissuade children from behaving in ways that make the parent or teacher feel a number of emotions that may or may not include genuine sadness. (Does it matter how the child is feeling?)

When the mom on the sidewalk glanced my way, I wanted to communicate somehow with my body language or facial expression or even with words that I was not judging her. I wasn’t. If anything, I felt empathy for her situation. Have you been there? I have. I’ve wrestled a reluctant toddler into a carseat more than once. It’s not fun for anyone involved. (Think how the toddler feels!)

I looked at the mom’s face as she hissed angrily at her little boy. His eyes widened as he looked into hers. Her mouth told him, “so sad,” but her face told an entirely different story, as plain as day. I wish she had told him what she was feeling. Why not? He was doing his very best to express his honest, raw emotions to her. (What was he feeling?)

In that long, uncomfortable moment on the sidewalk, the goal of this mom was most likely (we can presume) to get her child into the car so they could head home for lunch and a much-deserved nap. Thinking long-term, I like to imagine that the goal of this mom, who uses phrases like, “It makes me so sad when you don’t listen to my words,” is to raise an emotionally mature and connected individual. This is a mom, I imagine, who doesn’t want to snap and yell and berate her child. This is a conscious, caring woman who has read something about child development. She is someone like you, perhaps, and someone like me.

We know by now how incredibly valuable empathy is. It’s important to empathize with your child. Empathy is a package of abilities in the brain, shaped by experiences. The way I think about it, each time you meet a child with empathy, you’re helping to wire their brain for future success. Plant this seed in your own mind and you could quadruple your patience in trying times like the one described above.

I don’t believe you can be empathetic or teach empathy to a child without honesty. What does that mean in a real-life situation like this? It means that you don’t tell your child that their actions make you sad when what you’re really feeling is frustrated. You’re feeling angry and embarrassed. You’re feeling tired. (Of course you are!) Even if your child doesn’t have the words for these emotions, they know them. They know them in themselves and they see them in you. When you grab their arm and hiss about feeling sad, they probably don’t even hear your words but you know they see through you.

Being honest doesn’t mean joining them in their tantrum and screaming out your frustration too. It might mean crouching down in front of them, meeting their eyes with your own, and saying, “It sounds like you don’t want to stop playing and get in the car. It sounds like you’re really mad right now. I’m frustrated too. Your choices right now are to climb into your seat or to have me help you. Will you climb in or do I need to pick you up?” If you need to pick them up, you can tell them, “I hear you. I know you don’t want to fasten your buckles right now. You’re feeling really upset that we have to go. I’m upset too, but this is something that we have to do right now.”

Later, when your child has calmed down, you could talk more about leaving preschool and getting into the car. You might have to talk about it often over the next few weeks. Your child might tell you that it makes them upset when they have to stop playing. You might tell your child that it makes you upset when they scream on the sidewalk. It’s okay to tell your child that their actions make you feel whatever it is that they make you feel: angry, scared, frustrated, overwhelmed, even sad. What’s even more important, however, is to show and tell your child that you notice and care about what their actions express about their own feelings in that moment.

You may also be interested in the post Reunion Meltdowns.

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Where Learning Happens

“Growth demands a temporary surrender of security.” – Gail Sheehy

Some of the best advice I ever heard of a pediatrician giving a parent was, “It’s good for him to do some things that are uncomfortable for him.” This advice was given in relation to a young child feeling uneasy about a new experience. Note that the advice of the pediatrician did not suggest that the child should face his discomfort alone, without empathy, or be so uncomfortable as to suffer. But that mild discomfort of doing something new, something unpredictable, is almost always a source of growth. It’s often in that discomfort that the best kind of learning happens.

Let me tell you about my young friend, C. She is twelve months old and not yet walking, but she crawls with great speed. Sometimes she shuffles forward on her knees, sometimes she stands and “cruises,” holding on to the low counter. C. is a highly competent mobile infant who, when self-motivated, can move with ease from one place or position to another. Sometimes, however, C. longs to be rescued. When rescue fails to materialize, C. can become quite dramatic. In a word, she screams.

The other day, C. was outside and I was inside. She was playing at a water table with some peers, splashing and cruising along the edge. Her primary caregiver needed to take a break and the person who came to give her the break was a stranger to C. This made C. nervous, so she began to cry. I heard her, understood the cause, and opened the door. “C,” I called, “would you like to come inside for a little while?” When she saw me, she reached her arms out towards me. “Come on over,” I encouraged, “I’m right here waiting for you.” She wouldn’t come. She screamed intermittently instead. “I hear you, C. You’re asking me to come and pick you up. But I’m asking you to come over here to me so I can do it,” I said. Now, the caregiver who was there covering for C’s primary caregiver had moved away, so she was not blocking C. from coming towards me or interfering with our interaction in any way. She asked, “Do you want me to pick you up and take you to Jenn?” and C. shook her head, shrieked, and waved the caregiver away with one arm.

C. continued to scream for some time. I know her well enough to recognize that she was mad. It made her mad that I was not going to go to her and pick her up. “You’re really mad that I’m not coming to you,” I said. “I’m waiting for you right here. Will you please come to me?” I was sitting on the floor just inside the door and I reached out out my arms, then signed, “Come-here.” C. frowned, moved forward half an inch, then stopped and screamed again.

While we were discussing the situation, several preschool teachers were passing by our classroom and yard. Each one, without fail, was drawn close by C’s screams and asked, “Can I help her?” I would explain that I was waiting for C. to come over to me so that I could hold her. “Let me get her for you,” several teachers said, and moved to open the gate to our yard. I stopped them. “Thank you, but C. can come to me when she’s ready,” I said. They all were visibly taken aback (“She’s so upset!” they all observed), but for me, as a teacher, this was a learning moment. I wanted C. to realize that she doesn’t need rescue. She doesn’t need to wait for someone to come and get her when she’s uncomfortable. She is capable of moving her body and I want her to know it.

I wanted pretty badly to go and pick C. up, cuddle her close to me, kiss her all over, and tell her that everything was okay. It’s not easy to see babies in distress. I was perhaps even more uncomfortable in this moment than C. herself, as I second-guessed my plan to “make” her come to me on her own, but I worked to project an aura of calm reassurance as I talked her through the experience. As I talked to her, the other children were gathering around, watching. “C,” I said, “you could crawl over to me. I’m right here. I’m going to stay right here close to you.” When I mentioned crawling, a few of my walking infants dropped to all fours and crawled between C. and myself. “Look,” I said, “L. is showing you how she can crawl just like you do.” C. watched quietly, even smiled, then resumed screaming. I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

It seemed an eternity, but was actually less than fifteen minutes, all told. In the end, C. sighed a heavy sigh, then crawled quickly to me and climbed into my lap, screams silenced. I hugged her. “You crawled to me on your own and now I can hold you,” I said. She leaned back against me and we sat that way for a little while, both of us enjoying the quiet.

Did C. stop screaming for rescue that day, forever? Nope. A similar scene plays out a few times a week, but increasingly less often now. C. is becoming even more competent in her movement. I still second-guess my choices, but with or without me, she’s growing.

“It is not change that causes anxiety; it is the feeling that we are without defenses in the presence of what we see as danger that causes anxiety.” – Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey

Another child, B., likes to climb to modest heights in both our indoor and outdoor space and then shriek to be rescued. If caregivers come close to her, she’ll leap recklessly from where she has climbed, so we began to keep our distance a few months ago, choosing to talk her down instead. B. also does this with her parents at the park. It became something of a game for them when she first began to want to climb, and an unfortunate pattern developed. They weren’t sure what to do about it, but complained of her recklessness. I suggested that we all work together to help B. discover a sense of herself in space and to tune in to her own abilities to navigate tricky situations. (If B. was not safe, we would of course assist her immediately.)

In the classroom, B. teetered atop a platform, shrieking and leaning towards her caregiver, who sat calmly a few feet away. “Will you come back down the steps or the slide?” she asked. B. looked to the left (steps!) and then the right (slide!) and then cried, looking at her caregiver. “You can come back down, B.,” her caregiver assured her, “You can sit down and go to the slide,” she pointed to the slide. B. looked to her right again, uncertain, then fussed some more. “If it seems too high, you could sit down,” her caregiver suggested. B. repeated, “Sit.” “Yes, you could sit down,” her caregiver said again. B. sat, then scooted towards the slide. “It looks like you will come down the slide,” her caregiver observed. B. briefly fussed again, reaching towards her caregiver, who moved closer to the bottom of the slide. “I’m right here, waiting for you,” her caregiver told B. B. then slid down the slide and clapped for herself at the bottom. “You came down the slide,” her caregiver said with a smile.

“… by stretching yourself beyond your perceived level of confidence you accelerate your development of competence.” –Michael J. Gelb

It can be hard to determine when to help children, when to support or encourage them, and when to rescue them. It’s not always a black and white, right or wrong issue. It’s a delicate matter of careful observation, knowledge of the individual, and timing. In my experience, it’s uncomfortable for adults. Children aren’t the only ones learning and growing in these moments. At the end of the day, these are often the moments that I reflect back on — these moments of screams and shrieks and occasional tears. I always wonder if I made the right choices, providing the correct balance of support, autonomy, freedom, and assistance. Do my infants and toddlers believe in their own competence, as I believe in them? Not every day. Not every one of them. Not yet. But often enough and enough of them to make me believe that we’re moving in the right direction.

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In Defense of Comfort

We have built an entire industry around the topic of stress. We study stress, write about stress, read about stress, talk about stress, even consistently stress ourselves out over stress. We take classes, meditate, run, walk, eat and drink to reduce it. It seems that the topic of stress makes headlines at least once a week and it is safe to say that we’ve never been more aware of it and we’ve never been more awash in it. What about our children?

Stress, both good and bad in nature, has an impact on our brains and bodies. Our stress response is hardwired in our DNA as a survival instinct. When we experience what we perceive as stress or danger, our hypothalamus activates. Adrenaline is released into our blood stream, our heart rate increases, and blood pumps rapidly into our muscles and limbs. We’re preparing for “fight or flight,” as our senses intensify and our impulses quicken. Our bodies experience this when we have an argument with someone, when we face an emergency, and when we watch an action movie. Stress is part of life, from beginning to end.

Infants and young children experience stress as well. This can be hard to imagine, when one looks from the outside in at the life of a baby. “What do they have to be stressed about?!” we wonder. No deadlines. No bills. No boss. No responsibilities. “That’s the life,” we comment, as we watch babies on their backs, peacefully observing their world. But anyone who spends any time with babies or young children understands that their lives are full of stress. They’re completely dependent upon others for their very survival — it’s hard to fathom a situation in life that could be any more stressful than that. Babies don’t emerge from the womb trusting that they’ll be cared for. That trust must be established over time. Just as, over time, they learn that certain sights, sounds, feelings, and smells are nothing to be worried about (the garbage truck will come and then it will go) (you’ll feel hungry and then you’ll be fed) (Mom will leave, but then she’ll come back).

Infants and young children are also dependent upon the adults in their lives for regulating their responses to stress. Through us, they find and understand comfort. This comes through consistent loving, supportive responses to their distress. This comes through authentic, predictable relationships. The brains of infants and young children are working all the time to make sense of the world, so the least we can do as adults is to meet them halfway to scaffold that development.

Meeting them there and scaffolding them in this way is generally our instinct. When we hear a baby in distress, it’s our instinct to help. (It’s important to be aware that our deepest instinct is to make the crying stop and this is when the thinking part of our brain needs to override our instincts.) Our instinct to help must be balanced with our instinct to raise children who are resilient and competent and don’t fall to pieces at the smallest obstacle. We’re more than halfway through the year 2013, living firmly in the future, and we still worry about “spoiling” children by comforting them. Last week I heard a mom describe her ten-month-old as “a wuss.”

If an adult asks me for a hug, odds are I will give them a hug. If a child or an infant asks to be held, I’ll hold them. I think these are good rules to live by. It’s not up to me to decide whether your distress or sorrow warrants a sympathetic response. Where on earth does this notion come from: “Are they genuinely sad enough for me to want to help?” Feelings are feelings! There is no scientific method by which to judge, weigh, and measure them.

I have worked with many caregivers who have very strong feelings about comfort items and children. “Comfort items” are things like blankets, teddy bears, pacifiers, and thumbs. These items often provoke a surprisingly visceral response of disgust from adults. We judge the children using them and we judge (hard) the parents who give them to their child.

I would like to take this opportunity to come out in favor of comfort items. That’s right. My name is Jenn and I’ll give you a binky! Here’s why: they’re healthy, necessary, and appropriate. In addition, I don’t know a single adult who gets through the day without one. Comfort items look a little different (most of the time) in adulthood. Sometimes they’re a run, a smoothie, a cup of coffee, a cigarette, a certain song on repeat on the stereo, or a pair of lucky socks. (Have you recognized yourself yet?)

Look, let’s all agree on one thing: there is a time and a place for a comfort item. We don’t need them all the time and neither do children. There are downsides to prolonged, irresponsible use of pacifiers. In fact, that name alone is like nails on a chalkboard to me, along with the British term for the same (dummy) because that is where the trouble can start. They’re not to “pacify” a child. They’re not to quiet them for our convenience. They’re a tool that an infant or child may choose to use to lower their stress level, to relax. I believe there is a lot of value in empowering infants and young children to begin to manage their own stress. Little by little, with less and less intervention from loving adults, infants learn to calm themselves down when they’re upset. If a blanket or a toy or a binky is a part of the equation, the lasting impact is still positive. With continued love and support as they develop, that child will not need or want that particular tool forever.

The parents of a preschooler that I know were recently encouraging the little boy to break the habit of sucking his thumb. “He’s learning about bad habits,” they said. I cringed a little bit because while sucking his thumb is a habit, is it necessary to label it either good or bad? It’s just a habit that could be replaced with something else as he has developed new methods of coping with stress.

We are a society barely treading water in an ocean of stress. One step towards healthier living may be understanding that comfort items and coping skills and management of strong emotions starts before birth. A better world starts with how we are with our children.

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All In Good Time

Well, what did you think was going to happen?

How many times have I told you not to do that?

You should have listened to me the first time!

Human brains seek patterns. Young children are especially tuned in to this process, making them so positively responsive to predictable, consistent routines. Healthy, nurtured babies learn very early on that crying yields results. They get hungry, they express hunger, someone feeds them. They get tired, they express fatigue, and someone helps them to ease into sleep. This is normal, healthy brain development at its finest!

As babies mature, they make more discoveries and connections along the way. For example, if they smile, someone smiles back! This is a fun pattern for all involved. Sometimes they learn that if they drop something, someone will pick it up. This pattern becomes less fun for Mom and Dad as it establishes, but it’s still a sign of normal, healthy brain development.

Young children are so attuned to patterns that sometimes we make the mistake of giving them more credit than we should. We think they are capable of things like sophisticated planning, recall, and even reading the minds of adults.

The young toddlers in my program learn that they can use their growing legs to rock their chairs backwards, just a little bit. Then a little bit more. Then way too much more, as they fall back and bump their heads on the floor. As an adult, I have the cognitive ability to anticipate what might happen when they begin to rock their chairs, so I stop them. (“I’m going to stop you from rocking your chair back. I don’t want you to go back too far and bump your head.”) When I stop them, they understand being stopped. They understand my reference to head bumps too, because they are at a stage in life where they’re acutely sensitive to those injuries, and they usually respond by raising one hand to their skulls, rubbing or touching with a worried face. Then, they try to return to rocking their chair. So I repeat that I’m going to stop them, and again I do. Sometimes this continues off and on for weeks. Sometimes months. Do I get tired of reminding them not to rock their chairs backwards? Of course I do, are you kidding me?! But I maintain my composure because I know that they are testing the pattern they are starting to believe exists: “When I rock my chair, Jenn stops me. When I don’t stop, she makes me leave the chair.

Infants and toddlers are learning so much all the time, every minute, but they can’t do more than their brains are capable of and cognitive development takes time. A lifetime, actually. The steps that I can think through in my mind to determine that it’s not a good idea for them to rock their chairs back (they could fall, they could hit their heads, they could get seriously hurt) are not steps that the toddler mind can go through. That’s why they have adults to look after them. Even when they internalize certain patterns and messages, it could still be years before they are fully capable of understanding why certain things should be done and other things should not be done. Anticipating a likely outcome of an action or event is not something that young children can be expected to do.

This is pretty basic information, right? I mean, we all know that they’re toddlers and they’re just learning and that it’s our job to guide them and keep them safe. But our expectations and frustrations and general hurry-up-edness know no bounds. Sometimes in our rush to teach them to expect and anticipate and understand consequences, we assign them undeserved shame and blame. This can have a devastating impact on a young child.

Well, what did you think was going to happen? Likely, they didn’t think about what might happen. They just followed the impulse to try this thing. Their experiments are more likely to have a hypothesis that looks like, “Let’s do it!” than, “Let’s do it because _____________.” It’s not until age three that synaptic density in the prefrontal cortext reaches its peak (200% of adult level), improving and consolidating cognitive function and allowing for increasingly sophisticated understandings of cause and effect.

How many times have I told you not to do that? More times than they can likely count. And you’ll have to tell them again and again and again. In general, it’s not until after the age of three that children begin to be able to use the past to interpret the present. One study shows clearly that young children’s thoughts are so dominated by their current state that they cannot conceive of an alternate state. We know that children “live in the moment,” but we have forgotten, by the time our brain has been pruned into its adult form, what that really feels like and how it overrides everything else.

You should have listened to me the first time! They’re always listening and they’re always watching. More accurately, they’re not developmentally ready to store and recall what you said, applying it to every situation that seems reasonable or obvious to you.

Young children can make such stunning, remarkable connections. They surprise us all the time with their insights and intelligence. We can’t run the risk of shutting down their natural experimentation, risk-taking, limit-testing, and exuberance by assigning them shame and blame that they can’t understand. The cost is too high.

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No! Mine!

“No! Mine!”

“Stop. Mine!”

“Agggghhhhh! Miiiiiiiiine!”

This is sometimes the refrain in our toddler program. If you spend any time with toddlers who happen to live in a world with other people, it may sound familiar to you. In your head right now, the exact pitch of that final, “Mine!” may be echoing.

Toddler Property Laws:

1. If I like it, it’s mine.
2. If it’s in my hand, it’s mine.
3. If I can take it from you, it’s mine.
4. If I had it a little while ago, it’s mine.
5. If it’s mine, it must never appear to be yours in any way.
6. If I’m doing or building something, all the pieces are mine.
7. If it looks just like mine, it’s mine.
8. If I saw it first, it’s mine.
9. If you are playing with something and you put it down, it automatically becomes mine.
10. If it’s broken, it’s yours.

To some adults, this is like nails on a chalkboard. It really pushes buttons. I have even witnessed adults taking the toy or item that is being discussed so feverishly and interjecting with, “No. It’s mine. And you’re all done.” Or, “I see you aren’t able to share this. You’re all done,” and then the item is tucked away on a high shelf and the only lesson learned is that the adult is taller, more controlling, and in a pretty bad mood.

There are many ideas that adults have for “encouraging” young children to “share”, but there is only one way that works in a truly meaningful way and that’s modeling. Modeling the behavior you wish to encourage. Modeling consistently. Calmly. Modeling a generous spirit. Modeling it from the heart, with respect for the children and for ownership and opinions. Oh, and being prepared to wait for it and to support them all along the way.

Think of how blissfully empowering it must feel to be a toddler who has discovered and now OWNS the concept of, “Mine!” Think of what they have learned to get to this phase in life:

  • I am my own person.
  • I really like this thing.
  • I have a voice.
  • I can influence the world around me with this voice.
  • I’m not done with this and I can say so.

Instead of letting this phase get under our skin, why not re-frame the equation in a more positive light? Try these responses, the next time you hear that shrill refrain. (Again, think modeling. Take a deep breath and say the words you want to hear parroted back one magical, peaceful day.)

“You’re using that, aren’t you? You’re holding on to it.”

“You’re not done with it, are you? You’re letting them know that you’re still using it.”

“You really like that toy, don’t you? I see you’re using it.”

When you use these words, you’re defusing the tension. You’re validating the child who is attempting to claim ownership of something. You’re not taking any sides, you’re just commenting on what you see and hear. To the child who is wanting to use something in someone else’s hands, you might say:

“I see that she’s still using that. Do you want to go over here or over there while we wait for her to be all done?”

“I think she will put it down again when she’s all done using it. Do you want to walk with me and see if we can find another one for you to use?”

“You saw that toy and you wanted to use it too. Everyone seems to like that one. When it’s your turn to use it, you can use it until you’re done, too.”

“It’s hard to wait for your turn. Could I help you to wait by sitting with you?”

When you use these words, you’re validating the feelings of the child who really wants to use what the other child is using. It really is hard to wait, isn’t it? This is not our strongest suit, as a society.

Some food for thought: Do we really want to raise children to give things away as soon as someone else asks for them? Is this actually sharing at all? When we see toddlers standing strong in their sense of self and ownership, we should take a few minutes to revel in this awesome strength of spirit and to consider how we might nurture that as they grow.

By the same token: Do we really want children to be appeased the moment that they ask for or demand something? What do we envision, exactly, when we make one child give something to another because that seems somehow easier or because we’re worried about what people will think of us if we don’t (en)force “sharing”? The opportunity to wait could be valued in and of itself. Not to mention the lesson of respecting the time and space of other children.

Consider that just like the toddler’s use of “No!” can mean a hundred different things, including, “Yes!” (another post for another day), “Mine!” has myriad meanings from, “I’m using this,” to, “I used that earlier,” to, “I like the look of that,” to, “I think you’re too close to me.” The toddler who declares, “MINE!” is doing something you have perhaps been coaxing them to do for ages — they’re “using their words” to express their needs, interests, and desires. They’re trying to let someone else know their limits. This is nothing but a positive thing.

It sometimes seems like it takes a long time for children to learn to “share” (another example of how we adults struggle with waiting for things, right?), but what actually takes a long time is becoming perfectly attuned to our adult expectations for their behavior. In fact, young children are very capable of initiating incredibly generous exchanges all by themselves. We just tend to pay a lot more attention to the really loud conflicts, rather than the quiet kindnesses.

Many people have written about this kind of topic better than I! If you’re starting to think about “sharing” and toddlers in a new way, you may be interested in these lovely pieces:

From Janet Lansbury:
These Toddlers Are NOT Sharing
The S Word — Toddlers Learning to Share

From Emily Plank, an interview with Heather Shumaker, author of It’s Okay Not to Share.

Stop Telling Your Toddler to Share

Be Brave

Be Brave With Your Life

Eleanor Roosevelt once advised, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” To which I can’t help but respond, “Every day?!” I don’t know about that, Eleanor. I appreciate the sentiment, but as a high-anxiety kind of person, I am not sure my blood pressure could handle actively conquering a fear every single day. The world is a scary place sometimes. More so all the time. This is why I believe that parents are the bravest people I know, full stop. It doesn’t matter what you may do for a living, what part of the planet you call home, or what parenting “style” you may subscribe to without knowing you have one, I believe you are a brave individual indeed. You’re raising a child. You are responsible for the life of a fellow human being. And, one day, you’re probably going to have to let that child make their way in the outside world. You’re going to have to take your eyes off of them and walk away. You’re going to have to trust them and trust the world around them a little bit. You’re going to have to trust yourself to have raised a person who can stand on their own and also lean on others appropriately. You are brave.

I know it’s not easy. You most likely don’t even know how brave you are because you don’t feel brave. In fact, I imagine that some of the time you’re feeling the opposite of brave. That’s normal. You have so many different things to think about, worry about, wonder about, and remember. Here is just one more: remember how brave you are. Remember that we have established that as a point of fact. It’s indisputable.

Knowing that, let’s agree that you are brave enough and strong enough to not be pushed around by a toddler. I’ve mentioned before that some things aren’t choices and you need to hold close your power. You know as well as I do that you need to set limits with your children, but what I see that you may not be able to, from your perspective so near to the situation at hand, is that you’re letting fear keep you from being the adult that I know you can be. I’m here to tell you that the toddler you so fear upsetting today is tomorrow the teenager who is driving your car. I’m pretty sure that you’re going to want them to know about and respect limits. The time is now.

Let’s face some unpleasant truths right now: Life is hard. It’s sometimes ugly, noisy, loud, uncomfortable, and messy. We often want to avoid the hard things, the messy things, and the loud things. So sometimes we tiptoe around our toddlers like they’re little kings and queens or ticking time bombs. We jump through hoops to keep them “happy” but what we’re really doing has nothing to do with true happiness. We’re appeasing them. And, look, I get it. You’re on a plane, in the doctor’s office, or waiting in line at the grocery store at the end of the day… It’s hard. You’re exhausted. But just as you would take the time to consider whether the limits you impose on them are fair, take a moment to consider whether the demands they’re placing on you are justified. Are they driven by need? Look deeper: what is the need? It’s probably not a need for another cookie or a certain tee-shirt or ten more minutes in front of the TV. More likely, it’s a need for you to tune in.

  • When you have offered your toddler two or three different things to eat (things that they normally enjoy) and they have said, “No!” to each one, it is probably time for them to leave the table. (“You are letting me know that you’re not ready to eat.”)
  • When you have offered your toddler the chance to walk through the door or gate and they have backed up into you and refused to go and now they’re turning boneless and melting to the floor, it’s probably time for you to help them move forward. (“You are showing me that you need some help going through. I’m going to pick you up now.”)
  • When you have let your child know two or three times that a certain item is not for biting or throwing or fill-in-the-relevant-action and they have continued to use it in that matter, it’s probably time for you to remove that item and redirect them to something more appropriate. (“I see that you’re having a hard time remembering that we don’t throw these things. I’m going to pass you a ball for throwing.”)
  • When you have tried to determine exactly why your child is melting down and nothing you have come up with has helped them to stop, it’s probably because they’re needing a moment. And maybe you are too. (“I see how upset you are right now. I’m going to sit right here and if you want to come and sit with me, you can. I’ll be waiting right here for you.”)

When you’re a parent, there are a million and one things that you’re responsible for every second of every day. One thing that you’re not responsible for every second of every day is making your children happy. You can’t make them happy. I know how much you want to and I know there is a part of you that’s annoyed I would even say such things. As they continue to grow and develop and forge their independent identity, it will become increasingly evident: it’s difficult for you to make them anything. You are absolutely instrumental in their happiness, but not by working so hard to make them happy. It’s not the perfect sandwich, the right shoes, or being allowed to do what they want when they want. It’s being there. It’s being engaged. It’s loving them. It’s guiding them. It’s the limits and the support and the consistency. And sometimes it’s doing the thing that scares you and doing what’s hard because it’s what’s right for them, even when they aren’t able to recognize that yet.