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Parenting a Toddler: When "No" is Not Enough

Seemingly overnight, I have a toddler. Our sweet, tiny baby girl is suddenly a walking, babbling, laughing, spoon-using, sock-hoarding, tantrum throwing, hilarious little person. When you have a baby, the thing everyone tells you is how fast it will go, how if you blink twice they will be going off to college. This advice is very, very true. Babies develop and grow at lightening speed, and it can be hard to keep up. Parenting situations I assumed were months away are suddenly at our doorstep, and there are more and more moments that I feel unclear how to handle them. It seems every day she discovers a new skill, and a new danger in our house. Look, the stairs! Pulling the dog’s fur! What’s in this cabinet-knives?! When I found myself saying “NO” over and over, I knew I needed to find a better way to handle these situations, as well as prepare myself for the coming months of classic toddler behavior that lay ahead.

I suggested to our Mountain Tots group that we read “No Bad Kids” a book written by parenting expert and teacher Janet Lansbury. The book is full of helpful advice and insight into the gentle parenting, and discipline of toddlers. Lansbury is a student of Magda Gerber, the co-founder of RIE (Resources for Infant Educators), a nonprofit dedicated to education for better treatment of infants and toddlers.

RIE teaches that from birth, infants are whole people--intuitive and aware, capable of understanding language and communication. Parents are taught to talk with their babies, to explain what is happening to them when they get their diaper changed, get loaded into a car seat, visit the doctor, etc. Infants and young babies are given space and time to develop at their own pace, and are allowed to arrive at milestones naturally, without aid or prompting from adults or the use of different walking or bouncing contraptions. Observation is encouraged, as a way to slow down and let the child have ample time to play, explore, and test our new skills.

My husband and I used this approach when Lou was an infant, and we both found that gently speaking to her while diapering, bathing, or simply looking out the window, was an incredible way to connect and stay present with our new baby. Talking with her in this way was calming to us as well, it gave us confidence in those first shaky months of parenting—and I am convinced it gave our daughter confidence in us as her caregivers. Communicating with her, combined with keeping a strong rhythm in our household really helped us tackle the biggest challenge of her first year—sleeping on her own, through the night.

It felt natural to look to RIE for help when it was time to begin incorporating discipline into our parenting. In “No Bad Kids” Lansbury describes how to handle tantrums, how to mitigate issues with playing and sharing, and how to approach the hard-to-tolerate behavior of young children—like whining, bossiness, and talking back. In an over-arching theme of the book, Lansbury repeats the importance of staying calm and collected even when we feel full of frustration at our children’s behavior. “When we lose our cool, most of what we say is lost on our children. All they learn when we are flailing is that they have the power to hurt us or ignite our rage, which unsettles them, creates an unsafe atmosphere, and usually causes them to repeat their difficult behaviors until and unless we find some control.” When I remember how much Lou is learning just from watching me, it is a great reminder to not lose my cool in front of her. As a parent, I want to be a poised and confident leader.

Of course, keeping a calm presence can be a huge challenge. For me, it’s the mornings that are the most difficult. Lou generally wakes up early, and very hungry in the mornings, and often fusses at me while I prepare her oatmeal, yogurt or fruit slices. By “fussing” I mean very loud screaming, usually done while she shakes her high chair back and forth, like a little crazy person, the entire time I am fixing her meal. Her yelling and crying gets under my skin badly; particularly on those way-too-early-wake-up mornings, it can take everything I have not to yell at her to just HUSH already because I’m going as fast as I can. I find myself gritting my teeth, tensely rushing her oatmeal into a bowl, sitting down to my morning cup of coffee as tightly wound as a ball of twine.

As someone with a tendency towards “hangry” moments myself, I can understand what she’s going through. Despite my frustration and irritation at being yelled at, I have learned to take a deep breath and tell her “Wow, you are really hungry. You’re upset because this is taking so long.” I hope that by giving a name to her emotion, someday she will be able to identify it on her own. For now, she still screams and shakes her chair, but when I am able to remain calm, we are both ok once she gets the food. I can enjoy my coffee without trying to lower my blood pressure at the same time. It sounds like pretty obvious advice—stay calm—but it’s been incredibly important in my short term as a parent.

What about the moments when our sweet little angels suddenly begin to outright disobey us? And why is it that my daughter always gives me a sly grin before she throws a glass of water on the floor, or runs over to yank on the dog’s fur? Or worse, she recently has taken to biting. Is our sweet little girl becoming a bad kid? How can I handle this behavior without simply screeching a loud “NO”, which is what I am inclined to do?

Young children are meant to push boundaries, Lansbury explains. This is how they test their theories and learn about the world. Equally important, is how they learn about us as caregivers. What will mama do when I hit the dog? Can I climb the stairs on my own? Is it my decision to hold hands in the parking lot? How we answer these early questions can lay the groundwork for the toddler months and years ahead. Toddlers need to feel that parents are in charge, and to trust that we will guide them safely. It can be hard to set these boundaries—especially with very young children it can feel overly strict, or even mean. However, if we don’t provide our children with the guidance they need to feel safe and secure, they will continue to push, test, and resist and bad behaviors will continue, or increase. A good illustration of this is bumper lanes in a bowling alley—we put up the bumpers for children to bounce off—sometimes a gentle bump, sometimes a smash—but the ball continues in the right direction, and eventually safely reaches the end of the lane.

Of course, even a toddler with the strongest boundaries will break down and protest them occasionally. As Lansbury tell us, tantrums are to be expected. They are healthy, even. After all, very young children have no ability to rationalize their feelings and very limited means of communication. When toddlers have outbursts they are simply working through their emotions in a very developmentally appropriate way. Often tantrums can be traced back to a physical discomfort—good ol’ hunger and exhaustion are still big factors in the well being of little ones, but as children get older they are affected by more and it can be harder to identify their struggles. Dad out of town? New sibling? Recent move? Mom has a new haircut? Toddlers have opinion about everything, but they can’t discuss them with you, nor do they know the appropriate time to clue you in. So a slight frustration in a playgroup, or a delayed lunch can really send them over the edge. When we can understand the roots of our children’s behavior, it can help us to stay calm and help our children work through their emotion gently, and lovingly.

These days when Lou runs over to grab the dog’s fur, I swallow my urge to yell NO, and instead I gently release her grip and lead her away. “I won’t let you pet the dog that way, it hurts her” is all I say. Sometimes I demonstrate the nicer way to pet the dog, and sometimes, when Lou is just too wound up to be gentle, I need to move her away or give her a toy that she can safely squeeze. This has taken a lot of patience and repetition, but the dog is getting pinched much less. We are having luck with the morning routine, too. Only when breakfast takes extra-long is there a screaming child in the kitchen—more often now she busies herself with toys while her dad or I prepare the meal.

I’ve found that the RIE approach to parenting gives my husband and I a realistic vision of what it is to raise a toddler. Knowing that there will be challenges, and even welcoming them as signs of healthy development helps us to stay calm and confident as parents. I recommend learning more about this philosophy, or simply reading Lansbury’s book, to anyone who is feeling frustrated or befuddled about how to handle their young children. It’s been a big hit in our Mountain Tots class! Parenting can be murky, confusing work and we all need tools to help us with the job.

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