My second son, Zeke, was born on December 24th. Like most families with new babies, over the past three months we have received a near constant stream of visitors to our home. Some come all the time (grandparents), others with less frequency (close friends), and still others have visited only once (former colleagues). Most have brought a gift for the baby, and many a gift for Henry, who just turned two, as well, so that he won’t feel left out. Our visitors – and I stand by these generalizations – are thoughtful, kind, and generous. And almost to a one, they have had something else in common. Namely, upon saying hello to Henry, they have all asked him the exact same one or two questions:
Are you so excited to be a big brother?
Do you love Baby Zeke?
They may not all use exactly the same words, but the gist is always the same: are you experiencing a specific – and always positive – emotion surrounding the birth of your baby brother and your new role in the family? Henry typically pauses, looks down at his truck (he’s always holding a truck), looks back up, and responds, “Yeah.” Then he’ll either wander off to play on his own, or attempt to engage our visitor with a complete non-sequitor (usually something along the lines of, “Wipers bus swish swish!”).
It’s obvious – though notable nonetheless – that no one asks my husband or me similar questions. Am I so excited to be a mother of two? Sure. Excited and terrified and blissful and exhausted and incredulous, to name only the reactions I’ve had in the past hour. Do I love Baby Zeke? Again: of course. Sometimes I love him so much I want to inhale his whole little body, other times I want to shake him until he sleeps, other times I resent him for taking my time away from Henry, and still other times his small size and newness to this crazy planet bring a tear to my eye that I don’t even have the words to explain.
So why do people ask toddlers these questions when a new sibling arrives? I think the answer comes in two parts. First, when we speak to young children, we attempt to simplify not only our words, but also the concepts they describe. This is clearly both necessary and important. We can’t ask toddlers questions the same way we ask adults, at least not if we want to have (or, at least, shoot for) a dialogue with them. Our visitors have asked me questions that Henry couldn’t possibly answer: How is everything going? How is everyone adjusting? Simplifying words and concepts, though, is different from restricting emotional reactions. Although Henry may not understand or have the words to describe all of the feelings he has in response to Zeke’s arrival, the feelings themselves are not simple, and he needs to be able to experience and feel safe expressing them all.
Which brings me to the second reason these questions are so common. That is, we – the grown-ups – are ourselves wary of complicated emotions. Although we have come to accept them in adults, we would prefer that little children be shielded from them, and, simply put, be happy all the time. It may not be what we intend – most likely we aren’t even conscious of it –but we, as adults, parents, a culture as a whole, do not want to think about toddlers experiencing sadness, distress, anger, or anxiety. Jacob falls: “You’re OK!” Olivia gets teary: “Honey, don’t be sad.” Michael yells, and is met with: “There’s no reason to get so upset!”
The problem is that, although Jacob may not have gotten hurt, he was scared. And Olivia was feeling sad, despite instructions not to. And in Michael’s world, there was plenty of reason to be upset. When we as grown-ups, limit our children’s emotional experiences, over time we send a clear message: this set of happy feelings is OK, and this other set of not-happy feelings is not OK. But not-happy feelings are a part of life – like it or not. Our best intentions notwithstanding, we are not doing our children any favors.
A new client inquired about my services a few months ago: “My husband and I have a three-year-old daughter and a new baby on the way; we would love to talk to you about how to make the experience as easy as possible for her. We just want her to love her baby brother!” An understandable request, to be sure, but also one that isn’t realistic and that has the potential to set the whole family up for anxiety, disappointment, or both. Having a new sibling is not an easy transition for a toddler. What’s more, making it “as easy as possible” for them often means making it harder for us, because it means tolerating their distress, or anger, or sadness. Would my client’s little girl love her baby brother, as her parents wanted? Yes – sometimes. When she wasn’t busy hating him. Both reactions are normal and expected; it’s us, the parents, who tend to want to stamp out the latter.
Which brings me back to Henry. Is he excited to be a big brother? Sure. When he’s not furious about it. Does he love Baby Zeke? Absolutely. Though also he likes to bite him sometimes when we’re not looking. My best guess is that he’s thrilled about the newest member of our family, but that he also misses the way our family was before. Sometimes he understands that Zeke is real and here to stay; other times, he treats him like a doll or toy. Sometimes he’s excited when Zeke shows up at his daycare; other times, he seems territorial, unhappy about sharing his home away from home with a non-verbal, drooling interloper. As his mom, I do my best – no doubt imperfectly – to accept all of his feelings, not just the happy ones. I tell him I’m proud of him when he’s being “such a great big brother,” but I also tell him how much I love him when he seems frustrated he has to share Mommy at bedtime. I give him the words for these feelings so that he can learn – and so he can know it’s OK – to use them himself as he gets older.
And when one of our visitors asks if he is so excited to be a big brother and whether he loves Baby Zeke, I wait for him to respond in his way, then give him a squeeze and ask, “Sometimes?”
A couple of weeks ago I met with the parents of a three-year-old girl, let’s call her Madison. Madison’s father told me about a frustrating experience he’d had with his daughter the weekend before. The two of them had passed an ice cream cart while on an afternoon walk in Central Park; Madison asked her dad for ice cream as soon as she saw it. She had just had a cookie, though, and her dad didn’t think a second dessert was a good idea. Madison begged and pleaded with him, and was quickly unable to focus on anything else. Dad held his ground, and, out of ideas, finally ignored her tantrum altogether so as not to indulge her bad behavior. It was then that Madison punched her father in the thigh, something that is very much against their family’s rules. Madison’s father sat her down on a park bench for a time-out; she wailed from start to finish. The two of them then walked home, silent but for Madison’s whimpers and sniffling. Her father was crushed that his precious (and somewhat rare) one-on-one time with his daughter had taken such a negative turn, and he wasn’t able to see how the interaction might have gone differently – unless, of course, he had gotten Madison the ice cream, which didn’t feel like the right solution.
A few days later, I spoke with a close friend of mine – we’ll call her Jessica – whose son, Duncan, is two and a half. She had returned home from her high-pressure job on Wall Street the night before and had barely gotten through the door before Duncan ran toward her and wrapped his arms around her legs in a bear hug. Although Jessica was delighted to see her little guy, she was also exhausted and dying to have five minutes to herself to exhale and change out of her skirt suit. She gave Duncan a quick, distracted hug and headed to her bedroom, letting Duncan know she’d be back in a moment. Duncan, however, didn’t like this plan. He collapsed to the floor, crying and kicking his legs. Jessica was overcome with guilt. She quickly walked back to join Duncan on the floor, where the two of them began to play Legos together. “The whole time, though,” she confessed to me, “I just kept thinking about how uncomfortable I was sitting on the floor in my suit, which then made me feel guilty because I hadn’t seen Dunc all day – who cares about my suit? Maybe I’ll start bringing a change of clothes to work, and I’ll change in the bathroom there before I head home.”
Do either of these scenarios sound familiar? Unless I’m very wrong, I’ll bet that they do. In my work – as well as socially, as a mother of a 16-month-old (who has a little brother on the way!) – I hear various versions of these stories every day. The details change, of course, but the theme is the same: How do I maintain a limit with my child without losing my sense of connection to her? Or, the flip side of the coin: How do I connect with my child without feeling as though I’m putting his needs above my own?
Decades of research demonstrate that healthy parenting – the kind that leads to healthy, well-adjusted children – involves two important dimensions, otherwise known as the “L words”: limits (i.e., structure, rules) and love (i.e., ensuring your children feel loved – which, by the way, is subtly but critically different from loving your children, but that’s a subject for another day). Although I’m simplifying an enormous amount of data, the take-home message is this: children who grow up in homes with high levels of both structure and warmth tend to fare best in this world. Children from homes with high structure and low warmth, or high warmth and low structure, tend not to do quite as well, and that is even more true for children whose homes provide low structure and low warmth. It turns out that if your parenting style involves equal and abundant measure of limits and love, then you’re doing more than OK, and all of the other details that we, as parents, obsess about, pale in importance.
So what does any of this have to do with Madison’s father, my friend Jessica, or, I would venture to guess, you? I’ll tell you. Both Madison’s dad and Jessica seemed to forget, in the heat of the moment, that they could provide their children with both structure and warmth at the same time. Are they unusual this way? Not at all. Too often, we all lose sight of the fact that structure and warmth, or limits and love – whatever shorthand terminology you prefer – are not mutually exclusive. Not only can they be exercised simultaneously, but when they are, the effects can be pretty amazing.
Let me explain.
Madison’s father was worried that the only way he could connect with his daughter as she was throwing a tantrum in the middle of Central Park was to give in and buy her an ice cream cone. In his mind, he had only two choices: either hold firm, or give in. During our session, I introduced a third possibility: what if he were to show compassion toward Madison, to empathize that it’s really hard not to get what you want when you want it, all while maintaining the limit around not getting ice cream. In other words, the word “no” doesn’t have to stand alone in order to be effective, and showing warmth to your child doesn’t have to signify your approval of her behavior. In all likelihood, Madison didn’t end up hitting her father because he wouldn’t buy her ice cream, but because she felt like her father wasn’t hearing how upset she was, and she needed to show him – and let out her angry feelings – in the only way she knew how in that moment. If dad had empathized with her desire for ice cream, rather than simply shut it down, he might have been able to avoid Madison’s meltdown.
Madison’s dad was skeptical. He felt that, if he were to add some compassion to his “laying down the law,” he would somehow compromise his authority. He agreed to give it a shot though, and, because Madison is three years old, we both knew it wouldn’t be long before he had his chance. Sure enough, a few days later Madison demanded Oreos for breakfast. Her father, of course, said no, but then followed up with, “I know, Sweetie; it’s really hard not to get what you want. Oreos are delicious, but they’re not for breakfast. I know it’s a stinky rule.” Madison stopped yelling within seconds and went back to enjoying her scrambled eggs – no tantrum, no punching, just more connected daddy-daughter time. And all he did differently was provide limits and love at the same time. It’s not magic, although the results can at times feel magical.
The same process can work for Jessica and Duncan. Even though getting down on the floor with Duncan appeased him temporarily, it’s impossible for a parent to go through his or her life making choices with the sole purpose of preventing their child from becoming upset. Sadness, anger and frustration are, unfortunately, part of life; it’s best that children learn that reality within a safe and loving home so they’re not blindsided by it later on. If Jessica were to continue handling Duncan’s distress in this manner, Duncan would likely internalize two important messages over time: 1) he’s in charge – if he cries or becomes angry, the world adjusts to suit his needs, and 2) his feelings are really scary – so scary that even the grownups will do anything to get them to go away. These messages can put kids on the road to unnecessary anxiety as they grow up. Beyond that, imagine the resentment Jessica will come to feel after a week or two of carrying clothes to work and changing in the bathroom before she heads home.
What if instead Jessica were to bend down when she gets home, and give Duncan a long and connected hug from a place of presence rather than distraction? And what if she then said something like, “Mommy is so excited to see you and to play with you, but first she needs to go into her room and change her clothes.” And if – or, rather, when – Duncan starts to cry? Well then it’s not about giving up the limit, but, rather, about maintaining it while offering warmth as well: “I know, Dunc; it’s so hard when Mama comes home and can’t play with you right away. I get it. I’ll be back in just a few minutes.” Armed with the knowledge that his mother is the boss and also understands how he feels, my best guess is that Duncan would be able to pull himself together, tolerate his frustration, and exercise patience (even if only for a few precious minutes!) until Jessica came back to play Legos.
Using the “L words” – setting limits and showing love – is nothing new for parents; in fact, it’s probably how you spend pretty much all day, every day. Using them both at the same time, however, is the part that can feel novel, and the part that can be a real game-changer when it comes to your toddler’s behavior. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Go ahead and take your little one on a stroll past the nearest ice cream truck, and give it a go yourself. I’ll be over here, waiting to hear how it goes, and enjoying Oreos for breakfast. (I’m allowed – I’m pregnant!)
I stopped into a toy store on the Upper West Side a few weeks ago to pick up a gift for one of my nephews (and somehow resist the temptation to purchase more adorable things for my own little guy – always a challenge!). While I was there, I observed the following (approximate) conversation between a mother and her toddler son, David, who looked to be three years old or so:
David: “Mommy, I want a toy. Can I get a toy?”
Mommy: “No, Honey. We’re here to get a birthday present for Sammy.”
David: “But I want one!”
Mommy: “Honey, it’s not your birthday; it’s Sammy’s birthday.”
David (louder and more upset): “Please???”
Mommy: “David, stop. I said no.”
David: “I WANT A TOOOOY!”
Mommy: “David, are we going to have to go home?”
David: starts crying.
Mommy: “David, why are you crying? You have so many toys at home! You just got so many new ones for Hannukah. Come on, now. Stop crying, and act like a big boy.”
I’m not sure where the conversation went from here – I paid and left – but I imagine it didn’t end well. Both Mom and David were becoming more and more frustrated and upset; I’d put my money on a full-blown tantrum.
Sound familiar? Take a number.
So, what went wrong? How might you, as a parent, de-escalate a situation like this, rather than – however unintentionally – making it worse? Here are a few ideas:
Put yourself in your child’s shoes.
Going to a toy store and not being able to buy a toy is hard – really, really hard. It’s like going to an all-you-can-eat dessert bar with friends and being told that you alone can look, but not eat. Or a spa where everyone else is getting treatments, and you’re only allowed to walk around and think about how good a massage would feel. If you recognize this, you can act accordingly. You might say to your child, even before entering the store, something like, “We’re going to the toy store to pick out a birthday present for Sammy. We’re not going to be able to get you a toy today, and that might be really tough. But I’m on your team, buddy, and I’ll be right next to you to help out if you get frustrated.”
Imagine if someone – say, a fairy godmother type (after all, that’s kind of what you are to your toddler) – said something similar to you, in the dessert scenario: “Hey, so you’re not going to be able to eat any of the delicious desserts you see, and that’s going to stink. But I get it; I’m here for you, and you can lean on me for support.” Kind of changes things, right? It’s because you have an ally. Your child is heading into a challenging situation, but he knows that you are in his corner. This knowledge alone will be calming to him, and set him up for success.
Ditch the logic, and focus on emotion.
For this one, picture yourself at work. You have to attend a destination wedding, and so you ask your boss if you can take off the Friday before Memorial Day weekend. Your boss responds, “Absolutely not. We have a very important meeting scheduled for that day.” You plead with your boss, but she just expounds upon the explanation she’s already offered, highlighting why the meeting is so important, and the extent to which your presence is critical. You become more and more frustrated and continue to press your point, to no avail.
But what if she responded to your request a little more empathically? What if her facial expression mirrored your disappointment, and she added, kindly and compassionately, how sorry she was that the answer was no. Furthermore, what if she helped you to problem solve, to figure out some way to get to the wedding as soon as possible following the meeting? Are you still frustrated that you can’t take Friday off? Yes. So what’s different? You feel heard and you feel understood. The original frustration remains, but there’s no added frustration of feeling unheard and alone, so it’s easier for you to take a deep breath and calm down.
Back to David at the toy store. He doesn’t care that it’s Sammy’s birthday and not his own. He’s not even really sure what birthdays are, frankly, and he certainly doesn’t know or understand when they happen, or why. I’ve heard children in this kind of situation ask, “But why isn’t it my birthday?” Or even declare, “Well, then, let’s make it my birthday!” From their perspective, these responses make perfect sense, which is why you can’t really reason with a toddler. Rather, what if David’s mother had said something like, “I know, David; I can see you’re super frustrated. You really, really want a toy and it’s just such a bummer that I have to say no.” Chances are much greater that David might have been able to self-regulate (i.e., calm down) more effectively (there is actually evidence that these moments of emotional attunement assist in slowing down biologically driven stress responses).
Have I lost some of you? Are you rolling your eyes, feeling like there’s no way this actually works, or that responding in such a way doesn’t feel tough enough somehow? Please understand this: empathizing with your child’s emotions does not mean you have to give in to your child’s request. Parents often think they have just two choices – they can either be sympathetic to their child’s feelings OR they can maintain the limits they’ve set. The fact is, though, that you can do both. Moreover, you’re a lot more likely to get the results you want if you do – maybe not on your first go of it, but certainly over time.
Avoid rhetorical questions.
Although we, as grown-ups, take them for granted, rhetorical questions are a sophisticated form of communication – they assume a nuanced understanding of language that toddlers just don’t have. So it makes perfect sense that David only became even more upset when his mother asked him if they were going to have to go home – he truly had no idea how to respond. Similarly, asking David why he was crying didn’t get his mother anywhere; she already knew the answer, as David had communicated it quite clearly – he was crying because he wanted a toy and she was not going to get him one. Asking David why he is crying in this scenario is the same as telling him not to cry, or that there is no reason to cry. And if anyone’s ever tried that with you, you know it doesn’t feel good and only tends to amplify your distress. A potentially more effective approach? “I see you’re crying, David. I know you’re upset.” Again, just because you say this does not mean that you then have to give in and get David a toy.
Remove the following two explanations from your repertoire, once and for all.
“You have so many toys at home.” Why won’t this work? Because if your toddler were more eloquent, she’d respond: “So what, we’re not at home right now, and I want a toy right now. Why are you bringing up this completely irrelevant what-I-have-at-home nonsense?”
“You just got so many new toys for [insert occasion here].” Again, refer to your toddler’s likely internal thought process: “Right you are! And it was awesome, which is why I want more.”
Allow your child to act his or her age.
In other words, don’t tell your toddler to act like a big boy or a big girl. Why? Because, for the purpose of this discussion, they’re not – they’re little. Which means they’re only just learning the coping skills they’ll need to tolerate life’s frustrations. From a developmental perspective, this is exactly where toddlers are supposed to be. It’s a parent’s job to teach their children these skills, not to criticize them for not having them already.
So was the mother in the toy store a terrible mother?
Of course not. Will David be damaged for life? No way. Is it realistic to expect that a parent can respond to every impending or full-fledged meltdown with empathy and compassion? Not a chance. But making a conscious effort to begin using this approach – little by little – can be hugely rewarding. Not only will your own life become just a little bit easier (and who doesn’t want that?), but also your toddler will feel like his mom hears and understands him when he’s upset. And there is a ton of research – decades and decades across multiple cultures – showing that parents’ ability to connect with (and, thus, soothe) their toddlers when they’re in distress leads to a host of positive outcomes for kids across social, emotional, psychological, and cognitive realms.
In my fantasy, after David had a full-blown tantrum, his mother took him home, and, when they had both calmed down, spent some time playing with him on the floor. I’d like to think she said something like, “David, I know you got really upset in the toy store when I wouldn’t let you buy a toy, and I’m sorry that I got so frustrated with you. I was tired and sometimes I lose my patience when I’m tired.” Because it’s always OK to apologize, and it turns out that the experience of “rupture and repair” is critical to healthy parent-child relationships.
And then after David went to bed? I hope Mom treated herself to her favorite dessert – all she wanted. Because: yum.
I wrote here recently about the extent to which positive attention is the most important and powerful tool that parents possess to manage toddlers’ behavior. That article received a great deal of positive feedback, which I greatly appreciated, and for which I thank you (case in point: we all – Even parents! Even professionals! – love positive attention). Many of you responded with the same follow-up question, namely: What do I do when positive attention doesn’t work? Or, in specific reference to the illustration I provided last time around, what do I do if (and, let’s face it, when) “Jake” just refuses to walk away from the oranges?
A quick reminder of the scenario: you’re at the supermarket, and it’s time to check out. Three-year-old Jake, though, has discovered the joys of the orange bin, and has other plans – he’s way more interested in examining each and every one than joining you on line. You ask him to come join you, and he replies adamantly, “No.” You ask him again. He stomps his feet: “No!” Other customers start looking in your direction. “Tsk, tsk,” you imagine them thinking; “why can’t you control your child?”
So what do you do?
Take a deep breath
As hokey as it may sound, I implore you to first take a deep breath. Really. Feel your breath coming in and going out and the sensation of your feet on the floor; perhaps even close your eyes for a moment (but just for a moment, lest Jake take off for the candy aisle). In that moment, remember two important things: 1) You have choices, and 2) Jake is three (or two and a half, or four). And by “Jake is three,” what I mean is that you are the parent, and you are in charge. He is not calling the shots here; you are.
You have a few options, and, unfortunately, one size does not fit all. I am going to list a few ideas, some of which may work for you, and some may not. Or, to make it even more complicated (and therefore more realistic), some of which may work for you some of the time, and others of which may work for you other times or not at all. All of them, though, are aimed at helping you avoid a power struggle. Remember: Jake is a toddler, which means that a) you are in charge, and b) if you momentarily forget that and get into a power struggle, he’ll beat you every time. In no particular order, here are some strategies for you to keep in your back pocket:
Don’t respond to Jake
Instead, start doing something he’ll like better than discovering the excitement of citrus fruit. This is a really effective strategy for some children, particularly those who have learned that they are able to get a whole lot of attention from their parents by being defiant (attention that, as we’ve discussed, is very rewarding for them). Perhaps take a toy that he loves out of your bag, and start playing with it. Or maybe take out your phone and start looking at the family pictures you know Jake loves so much, making sure to narrate your observations out loud: “Oh, Jake, this is the one where you have icing all over your face – it makes me laugh every time!” Jake may well leave the oranges, and hurry over to join you.
Join Jake at the oranges
Sounds crazy, right? But the thing is, it’s so crazy that it just may work. Little children love when you surprise them, and the element of surprise can stop defiance in its tracks. In this scenario, Jake expects you to insist he come to you, just like grown-ups always insist he does things he doesn’t feel like doing. Instead, you’re going to him, and – even better –taking an interest in what he’s doing (another thing little kids love). “Wow, I wonder how long it takes to get the oranges all stacked up like this,” you might say. Or, “I really love the color of oranges; I think oranges and eggplants have the best colors.” Connecting with your child like this – particularly at an unexpected time and in an unexpected way – can be like hitting a “reset” button, after which he or she will happily do what you asked.
Make Jake a helper
Sometimes, all kids need is an acknowledgement that they are important, that you’re asking them to do something not just because you feel like it or because you’re a grown-up, but because you need them to contribute something useful, or because they have a particular skill: “Hey, Jake, I could really use your help putting these groceries onto the conveyor belt; you’re really good at lifting the carton of milk, which is pretty heavy.”
Make it a game
Jake’s having a lot of fun looking at the oranges, so your mission is to come up with something equally fun or enticing. “Oooh, I have an idea! Do you think you can hop all the way to me?” Or, “You know how you do the hokey-pokey in school? Is there a way to do it while you walk? Like, could you do the hokey-pokey while walking over here?” For extra compliance, add in some doubt about whether he can actually pull off what it is that you’re asking: “Really? You think you can do the hokey pokey all the way to me? No way! There is no way you can do that!” Then, of course, you voice your amazement that he did, in fact, manage to meet your challenge, and continue to express how impressed you are all the way to the checkout line.
Have a race
It’s a rule of thumb, really: never underestimate the power of a race to motivate toddlers. Rather than asking Jake to come to the checkout line, you’re offering to race him there. Guess who wins?
Distract, distract, distract
Rather than continuing to ask Jake to come to you, ask him to tell you that knock-knock joke about the banana again, or the story about what Sophia did on the playground. While you’re listening, beckon to him to come join you, like it’s a casual afterthought to the main event.
Turn your command into a choice
Toddlers want to be in control; their primary developmental task (read: their job) is to become autonomous, to learn who they are as independent people, and where they fit into the larger world around them. Rather than open the door for them to be able to practice their “No!” yet again, present them with a choice for how to do what you need them to do: “Jake, do you want to try to hop over to me, or do you want to walk while you sing ‘Old McDonald’?” Then, whether he chooses to hop or sing, he’ll be complying with your request while maintaining his sense of control.
So, there you go. Seven strategies to help you get the behavior you want from your little one. Two final points:
First, I know that some of you may be thinking that, by using any of these techniques, you’ll be teaching your child that he or she can “get away with it.” Get away with what, I would ask? With being a toddler? Yes, your child will undoubtedly be getting away with being a toddler. Which is to say that defiance is not only normal and comes with the territory, but also that it serves an important function in allowing your child to develop a strong sense of self. To imply that Jake will “get away with” not listening implies that you are in competition with him, which is simply not the case. You are the parent, and you are in charge; of that there is no doubt. The task at hand is to get the behavior that you want from your toddler, and these are all ways to do just that.
Does this mean that Jake never learns that he needs to follow directions, that there are rules he needs to obey? Absolutely not, and this leads me to my second point. When it comes to behavior, as with health, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you can anticipate that the supermarket is going to be a challenging setting for Jake, whatever the reason, then it’s always beneficial to set up the expectation in advance by letting him know that it’s very important he stay with you and follow directions while you’re grocery shopping. You then give him lots of positive attention for doing so, and you may even offer a small reward if he’s able, say, to follow your directions the whole time you’re there [Note: Rewards are not bribes! A reward comes after a good behavior, whereas a bribe is given in order to stop a bad behavior. Rewards are a very effective tool; bribes are not.]
Also key to setting expectations in advance is having a few ground rules in your home, one of which may be that your toddler needs to follow your directions the first three times you ask, or else he or she receives a consequence. Then, if Jake doesn’t join you in the check-out line after you’ve asked three times, he has broken this rule, and he gets the same consequence he always gets. How do you set up these rules, and what are appropriate consequences, you ask? Perhaps that will be the topic of the next installment of this series.
Now go practice your hokey pokey.
I’m often asked about the best ways to manage toddlers’ behavior. There are so many techniques out there, and it can be difficult to sift through them. With a bit of digging, however, it’s clear to see that they all share a few key elements, the most important of which pertains to the power of attention. You, as a parent, already possess the most powerful tool there is to manage your toddler’s difficult behavior; you just have to learn to use it right. Let me explain.
When I bring up the notion of positive attention with parents, they often respond with something like, “Oh, my daughter gets plenty of that – that’s not the problem.” The important thing, though, is not only that children get enough attention, but also that they get it in the right way, and at the right times; as a parent, you have to dole out your attention strategically. Think of it this way: your attention is like money. Consider this parallel: I get to work every day around 9am. Let’s say that tomorrow I get in at 8, my boss sees me in the hallway and says, “Wow, Dr. Hershberg, it’s so great that you’re here so early; here’s an extra $500.” If that happened, do you think I’d get to work at 8am the day after tomorrow? Darn right I would. And why? Exactly. Because ALL of us – not only kids – are more likely to repeat the behaviors for which we get rewarded. Money is a huge reward for grown-ups. What’s the biggest reward for kids? Attention. So every time you give your little one attention, you are paying him, and whatever he did that got attention, he is going to do again. You have to think to yourself: do I want to pay my little guy for this? Do I want him to do it again?
The best way to give positive attention is in the form of specific praise. “Good girl,” or “Nice job” are both fine, but they’re too vague to lead to real behavior change. If two-year-old Elena comes to you when you ask her to, and you say “Good job,” she may know you’re talking about her following directions. But she may also think she walked in a particularly praiseworthy manner or, for that matter, that you liked the way she dressed the American Girl doll she’s holding. You need to pick the behavior that you want to see improve – say, following directions – and praise it specifically and frequently. Every time Elena follows directions, you want to be ready with a payment: “Great job, Elena; I love the way you followed my directions the very first time I asked!”
Being strategic with your attention is easier said than done. Picture yourself at the supermarket at checkout time. Three-year-old Jacob, however, is taking his sweet time over by the oranges, picking them up one by one to examine their color and shape. “Please come over here, Jake; it’s time to go.” In scenario one, Jake listens to you; he puts down the orange, and comes to stand by your side. You don’t pay him much mind, as you’re busy fishing through your bag for your credit card. Maybe you say “thanks,” but if you do, it’s quick, and you’re not really making eye contact. All in all, not such a big or satisfying “payment” for Jake, who did exactly what you asked him to do, and right when you asked him to do it. In scenario two, you give Jake the same instructions, but he pays you no mind. So you repeat yourself: “Jake, I said please come over here.” This time Jake responds: “No!” “Jake,” you warn, “I don’t want to have to say it again; get over here.” Jake, again: “Nooo!” This continues, until you abandon your place in the checkout line, walk over to the oranges, and take Jake by the hand. In this case, Jake didn’t do what you wanted him to do, and boy, did he get a big payment for it – you spoke to him more, and ultimately joined him physically, all for not following directions. What did he learn? That not following directions is a pretty great way to get Mom’s (or Dad’s) attention.
If you’re like many parents, you might be thinking to yourself that, in the above situation, the attention Jake received was negative, not positive; after all, his mother was hardly in a great mood by the time she had to drag him away from the oranges. It’s important to know, however, that young children differ from adults in a very important way. Namely, they prefer positive attention and negative attention to no attention at all. Adults, on the other hand, would take being ignored over negative attention any day – wouldn’t you rather fly beneath the radar than have your boss chastise you for all the things she thinks you’re doing wrong?
So what if, going back to Jake at the supermarket, you gave him a lot more attention – a much bigger payment – for following your directions in scenario one. He leaves the oranges alone, meets you by your side, and you say, “Wow, Jake, that was awesome! I asked you to come join me, and you followed my directions right away! That’s really helpful to me; thanks. Give me a high five.” What does Jake learn then? That he gets rewarded when he follows directions, when he does the exact thing that you want him to do. Will it feel unnatural or contrived? It may, at first. It can be tough to flip the paradigm around so that your child receives more attention for doing the right thing than the wrong thing, but once you get the hang of it, the approach will come to feel much more natural – it’s like building a muscle.
If it feels like it might be too hard to make this shift, think of it like this: your child is going to make sure that she gets a pizza of attention every day – attention is a basic need for kids. It’s not up to you whether to give her that pizza, but, rather, how many slices are going to be positive attention and how many are going to be negative attention. And frankly, if you don’t give your child a full pizza of positive attention, she’ll end up taking the rest of the slices in negative attention – whether you want her to or not.
A couple of final points. First, you may ask why – and how – you are supposed to provide positive attention to a child who has been difficult to manage all day long. I mean, if Elena has been throwing tantrums since she got out of bed in the morning, then why on earth would you be super positive on the one occasion, late in the day, that she is able to keep it together even when frustrated (say, that she can’t have a cookie at 5pm)? Saying something nice to Elena is probably the last thing you feel like doing, which is understandable, and human nature. But think about your favorite baseball team. It’s the seventh inning, and they have yet to score. Finally, someone gets a base hit – do you cheer? Of course! Why? Because when the team is having a rough game, they need fans more than ever. You could say, “Well, they didn’t score for six innings, so I’m not cheering them on now.” You could also say, “This is only a base hit – I’m waiting for a home run to cheer.” But you don’t say either of those things. Rather, you cheer; you cheer because you know the team needs it, and because your cheering lets the players know that there’s someone in their corner, rooting them on, there for them and proud of them when they do even the littlest thing right. Once there’s a base hit, momentum often picks up, and the whole game turns around. Right?
Second, you may be thinking that your little ones “should know” how to follow directions, or how to stay calm when they’re frustrated, or any number of other things. Putting aside developmental norms (an article for another day!), let’s go back to baseball, and your low-scoring team. When they get that first base hit, do you abstain from cheering because the team is made up of professional athletes, and they’re just doing their job? Of course not; the fact that it’s their job has absolutely nothing to do with it. You cheer because you’re a loyal fan, and because the cheering helps.
And at the end of the day, that’s what matters.