The Tyrannical Toddler: Beyond Power Struggles to Choice, Reason and Negotiation

April 19th, 2010 by Dionna | 23 Comments
Posted in Gentle/Positive Discipline, Guest Posts, Just for Fun/Miscellaneous, natural parenting, Respond with Sensitivity

Today I would like to welcome Zoey, who has written a guest post on unconditional parenting and the tyrannical toddler. Zoey is a (mostly) stay at home mother who writes about parenting, general neurosis and toddler mayhem at Good Goog. She also blogs about books for little people and their admirers at Little People Books. She takes too many photos and tweets far more than is healthy @zoeyspeak.

My toddler thinks she runs a dictatorship. It’s a benevolent dictatorship, in that many of her demands are pleasant and involve hugs and kisses or being picked up. But she still believes it’s a dictatorship, where I am required to do her bidding without hesitation. Non-compliance results in varying levels of protest. Ranging from tears, to stamping of feet, to an unbridled tantrum of epic proportions. She has limited understanding of time, so a small delay in meeting a demand is equivalent to non-compliance and treated as such.

It is tempting, in the face of such tyranny, to respond in kind. This is how power struggles begin. But the more you engage in the adversarial nature of a power struggle, the less likely you are to get what you want. Power struggles ensure all involved (toddlers and parents) are more committed to their position and less capable of change. It is equally tempting that the only choice, other than to engage in a power struggle, is absolute compliance to a toddler’s every whim, but this would be a mistake.

One of the biggest paradigm shifts required by Unconditional Parenting is the idea that you are capable of reasoning and negotiating with a toddler. The benevolent dictator doesn’t seem so reasonable, after all.

As much as I loved Alfie Kohn’s book, it was a little light on the practical advice. I get that he was reticent to put forward a blue print, because every child is different, every parent is different, and every family has to work out what works best for them. However, I also believe that this reticence made it difficult for readers to conceive of how his philosophies would work in practice.

In Real Life

I’m not afraid of putting my foot in my mouth so here goes:

What do you really care about?

It amazed me to discover that the less you discipline or control your toddler, the more obedient they are likely to be. I found it really useful to become very clear on what behaviour was going to be considered ok, and what was not. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. It might be inconvenient if my 2 year old pours water on the floor/couch, but is it really something I need to stop? Or can I just show her how to clean it up? Likewise, I might not love the noise of drumming at 5am in the morning, but she’s pretty keen on it. To my mind, children’s behaviour tends to be curbed far too regularly, much of it is just kids being kids. Example: my toddler drew on my wall in permanent marker. Is that discipline worthy? Not really – because I’m the moron who left a permanent marker in grasp reach of my artistically inclined little person. So most of the things that I focus on are to do with safety, respect for other people and respect for property.

Asking goes a long way

I have been surprised by how often simply asking my toddler to do or not do something is effective. Especially when I don’t require her to do it the second the request has left my mouth. Given time and encouragement, she will do (or not do) 99% of what I ask.

At this age, distraction is still appropriate

Distraction won’t always be an appropriate parenting strategy, but at 2 it still is. And it can be very challenging for a little person to stop doing something they are enjoying if they don’t have a better option.

Choice, not just for the big people

At 2, my little one is starting to exert a real independent streak. She loves doing things for herself, and will often become enraged if I attempt to help her unsolicited. It is important that I honour this development in her personhood. Toddlers make a lot of choices that don’t really matter – like wanting to wear boots with shorts, wanting to play on the trampoline instead of the slide or wanting Daddy to read the story instead of Mummy. And sometimes choices have to be limited – ‘we are going to sit here until you’re ready to do what I need you to do’ – there’s not a whole lot of choice in that. But I strive to give the most choice given the particular circumstance – she can decide what bed she wants to sleep in at night – hers or ours.

Reasoning – toddlers do get it

Sharing or not sharing is a big deal at this age. 2 year olds have a tendency to play along side one another until one has something that the other one wants and then get all grabby. I don’t say ‘good sharer’ because I think it’s less likely to result in sharing. But I do point out how happy the other child is when she does share, or how they are unhappy when she doesn’t.

Negotiations – not just for the board room

Inevitably, there are situations when I need to do something and it is in direct conflict with what she wants to do. Example: working from home on the computer. Which is utterly boring to her as she can’t be involved. But we can negotiate – some dedicated play time outside first or setting her up with activities at her desk next to mine.

Tantrums Can’t be Eliminated

I have a lot of strategies to acknowledge that my needs don’t automatically trump hers. But tantrums will always happen. She’s two. That’s real life. They happen because sometimes she doesn’t have the capability to focus on anything except what she’s not getting. Or because she’s tired or frustrated. Or just because she needs to express her emotions which threaten to overwhelm her entire being.

In those times I do my best to recognise that it in those moments that she needs the most love, understanding and acceptance. And that I’m just as much her mother who loves her to the ends of the earth when she’s banging her head on the floor as when she’s cuddling me with all her might.

23 Responses to:
"The Tyrannical Toddler: Beyond Power Struggles to Choice, Reason and Negotiation"

  1. Zoey @ Good Goog   goodgoogs

    Thank-you for posting this Dionna ;o)

  2. Great post, Zoey! From the moment we felt Everett was able to understand, we’ve given him reasons for our requests and given him choices. I have so many ppl. tell me how easy going and “well-behaved” my son is, and I attribute that to all the choices and power we have allowed him. We parent from the perspective that he is a human being, not a child to be trained. I applaud all your strategies. Great job, mom!

    • Zoey @ Good Goog   goodgoogs

      Thanks Acacia! I also often get comments about how ‘well behaved’ and ‘well mannered’ my munchkin is. I don’t think it’s just a personality thing.

  3. The closer my little one gets to his toddlerhood, the more I think about the issues that Zoey has raised. It’s good to see that my instincts are pretty much in line with a more gentle approach.

    • Zoey @ Good Goog   goodgoogs

      I really believe in following your instincts – I think little ones easily pick up on how comfortable we feel with what we are doing and respond better to emotional congruence ;o)

  4. Loved the post. So many people view possible outcomes of conflict as a win/lose situation – either the parent wins and the child loses or the child wins and the parent loses. It seems that very few people acknowledge the third possible scenario – that parent and child can work together to find a solution where everyone “wins.”

    • Zoey @ Good Goog   goodgoogs

      There can be a lot of society pressure too – as though if you don’t ‘maintain control’ from the very beginning the whole situation is doomed to failure. But I think there’s alot to be gained from taking a different path.

  5. Kelly Burstow   beafunmum

    Zoey you’ve written this in a clear manner. I agree with you in that parents tend to over-correct their children. I think it’s important to ask this question: Does it really matter? Like your example with the spilt drink, if it was an accident, than, well, I don’t think it’s a big deal.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    • Zoey @ Good Goog   goodgoogs

      Thanks Kelly! I found from early on that often frustrations with behaviour was more about being overwhelmed/tired than anything else.

  6. CodeNamePapa   CodeNamePapa

    Something I’m constantly re-learning is that when Kieran gets upset it’s often a simple thing he needs and can’t tell us. He just doesn’t have “make mama and papa upset” in his system. He’s a bright & still-learning boy, and of course he’s going to have some rocky patches in his day sometimes. We simply need to offer support if/when he needs it!

    • Zoey @ Good Goog   goodgoogs

      Communication is such a big thing – I wish I’d looked into the sign language thing more – seems like it definitely makes things easier with late talkers like mine.

  7. Terrific post Zoey. This fits right in with my parenting approach. Recently N got into the good glasswear and broke 3 out of 4 of my special 21st birthday champagne flutes. Now thankfully he somehow wasn’t cut. When I told my dad, he said ‘boy I bet he got in trouble’. Ah No, I’m the idiot that didn’t childproof the cupboard, to him they were bright shiny toys. I also refuse to get angry at my son when he has a tyranical moment, yes it stresses the bejesus out I me, but that’s just his way of expressing some frustration.

    • Zoey @ Good Goog   goodgoogs

      I’m very guilty of not doing enough childproofing! I’ve been working on my ‘time in’ skills. Amazing how a cuddle can diffuse a situation.

  8. Great post Zoey! Revel, because you’re right, distraction doesn’t work for long! LOL

    My six year old has the memory of an elephant, and forgets nothing. So if I try the old ‘distract method’ to get what I want, it’s usually in the form of negotiating something else… that I am then on the hook for until I deliver! :)

    Great read, thanks!


    • Zoey @ Good Goog   goodgoogs

      Thanks Cori,

      Yes. Enjoying the distraction while it still works. Luckily, she’s at an age where peanut butter is still the best thing in the world.

  9. Amber   unlikelymama

    Great post! So happy to see a friend on another friend’s blog :-)

    I can already see Alexa’s frustration coming through in the form of mini-tantrums. It’s almost always because she’s tired…but like anyone, when you take away something she’s enjoying, she’s not happy. Who would’a thought, heh? I do try distract her with something else when I need to take away the offending object. Sometimes it works (if I hide it fast enough!). I also try to tell her why she can’t play with something. I know she can understand what I say when I’m playing with her…so it’s pretty safe to assume she can understand when I’m telling her “no” (at least in part).

    • Zoey @ Good Goog   goodgoogs

      I’m working on the trade technique at the moment ;o) If I want something back (i.e. the home phone because I don’t want her to accidentally call emergency services) I can often get her to trade it for the ipod. Mostly.

  10. Amber   AmberStrocel

    Great post! I especially agree with you on offering choices and the inevitability of tantrums. With my daughter, once I accepted that I was not responsible for her happiness, things got better. Sometimes, they’re just going to be angry, and they don’t have the self-control to express that in appropriate ways. It’s too bad, but it’s life. We can respond as sensitively as possible, and try to avoid situations that we know are going to end badly, but even still there will be tears. And that’s OK.

    I liked Unconditional Parenting, but like you I found it light on practical applications. For that, I really like Lawrence Cohen’s “Playful Parenting” and Naomi Aldort’s “Raising our Children, Raising Ourselves”.

    • Zoey @ Good Goog   goodgoogs

      Once I started seeing tantrums as just another form of communicating emotions it got a whole lot easier. Less focus on stopping that god-awful racket and more focus on helping her through it ;o)

      A few people have recommended those two books – they’re definitely next on my list. Thanks!

  11. Christie   HomeGrownMama

    Really enjoyed this post, Zoey. I am just venturing into this type of parenting (6 1/2 years into my journey as a mum – but better late than never huh?)
    Thanks for having the guts to give physical examples – much appreciated!

    • Zoey @ Good Goog   goodgoogs

      Thanks Christie! Never too late! I think one of the worst things I could do as a parent is to ‘stick to my guns’ and ignore new information as it comes up. I’m sure what I do 7 years down the track will be very different from what I do now.

  12. MomAgain@40   karentoittoit

    Great post about handling power struggles and tantrums.
    I find distraction and more choice definitely limit the power play games!

  13. LISA

    I found this site during a research on power struggles for a response to a question in a college class. The original topic was about our government and the power struggle with the White House and congress. Thank you for your view and maybe this strategy needs to be used on the people who run our country and are suppose to be grown adults.

    I thought sharing a bit of humor about the topic on both sides.

    Thank You.

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