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