The pros and cons of various approaches
A lot of parents will recognise that sinking feeling you experience when you have an uncooperative toddler and you need to be somewhere.You just know they’re going to dig their heels in, but you take a deep breath, after giving them that iconic ‘five minute warning’, and go for it…but your toddler doesn’t.
Maybe he has a tantrum, or maybe he goes on strike, sitting down and refusing to budge. Or maybe he just carries on playing, as if you never even spoke.
I’m pretty certain I’m not the only mum who has lived through this delightful experience! And I’m probably not the only one who’s got it wrong quite a lot of times. I have spent many years trying to work out the best way to deal with this conundrum, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there isn’t a perfect one, but some approaches are certainly better than others.
Here are a few that I (and many of my friends) have tried, along with their pros and cons.
With this method, you need to pick up your toddler, whether she’s kicking or screaming, or whatever, and carry her to her buggy or car-seat. Ideally, this method is done in a calm, controlled manner, but we all know that mostly it’s done while you fight back your own tears and talk to her through gritted teeth…or maybe you don’t even bother with that and are so close to the end of your tether that you just yell right back!
Quick and decisive – sometimes a dithering, helpless-seeming parent (which, let’s face it, we’ve all been from time to time) can worry a child into even worse behaviour. They need to trust that, ultimately, we know what we’re doing – they’re relying on us to see them safely through childhood, and it’s frightening to think that rock might not be so steady after all.
It’s noisy, and unpleasant for us, our toddlers, and anyone else who happens to be around at the time.
It’s pretty difficult to do if we have a baby to care for as well, or another toddler who is also putting the brakes on.
And it may be that, by forcibly overriding our children’s wishes, we’re giving them no chance to develop their rational thinking and caring-for-others abilities.
Oh, and there’s no way this approach can be good for our relationships with our children, which surely must have priority (although it’s difficult to see that when you’re in the heat of the moment).
Do you really – and by that I mean really - need to go? Could there be another way of getting what you need from the shop, for example, or could you stay for tea at your friend’s house? Maybe you just need to surrender to circumstances and have another cup of tea!
Our children will certainly feel that their feelings and desires have been taken as seriously as we take our own, which can only be good for our relationships with them, and for their sense of self-worth.
It’s not likely to be a traumatic or distressing experience.
We parents may find we really benefit from reconsidering what our priorities really are, and from slowing down a little to move at a speed a little close to that of our toddlers.
If we are self-sacrificing to achieve this – perhaps we’ve been really looking forward to reading our newspapers this evening and are really disappointed that we won’t get to the shop in time to buy it, or maybe our friend’s cooking leaves rather a lot to be desired and we really don’t want to hang around any later – then we are actually teaching our children that our feelings and desires are not important and don’t need to be taken seriously, which goes on to teach our children that their needs come before anyone else’s. (NB: This is not a disadvantage if you’re not self-sacrificing to take this approach)
People often think that this approach is really called ‘letting them walk all over us’ or ‘not showing them who’s boss’, but I don’t think we’re meant to be ‘the boss’. I think we’re meant to be ‘the guide’ and should be working with our children, not against them. However, taking our children’s desires as seriously as we take our own and those of adults can raise some eyebrows and elicit a few tuts!
In some cases, this approach will rely on other adults also taking our children seriously.
We may need to use some pretty creative thinking to work out how to get that essential bottle of wine, or how to get our older children to their ballet class, for instance, if we use this particular method
That old chestnut. I’m sure you don’t need me to explain that one! OK, just in case – basically, it involves saying to our children ‘come on, if you leave now without a fuss I’ll give you some chocolate buttons to eat in the car’ or ‘if you don’t get in the car right now, you won’t be able to watch Octonauts later on’. Reward charts come into this category too.
If I had a pound for every time I’d used this little gem, I’d be a millionaire by now, I think! I’m not convinced it’s a helpful approach thought.
If it works, it’s quick, and fairly painless in the moment.
It doesn’t always work.
It’s kind of teaching the wrong message i.e. You do things solely for what you get out of it, not because it’s the right thing to do.
In the same way as the ‘just do it for them’ method, we’re not showing our children that we really respect their wishes by bribing or threatening them to get them to do what we want.
I suppose this could be construed as bribery, but it is very different really. It’s about talking with our children about our own desires and their’s and trying to find a solution that would suit you both. It’s essentially the same as the ‘decide not to leave after all’ approach, except it needs to be used when we would have to self-sacrifice in order to take it.
It means saying things like ‘You’re having a fantastic time playing with that Duplo, aren’t you? I need to go to the shop, though. Shall we take the buggy so you can bring some Duplo with you to play with?’ or ‘I want to go home to cook dinner in a minute, Billy, but I can see you’re having a lovely time here. Shall I come back to pick you up in half an hour?’ or ‘Would you like to choose what we’ll have to eat tonight, and help me cook it?’.
This isn’t the same as ‘offering choices’, which, in my opinion, are usually blindingly obvious to children as non-choices and, therefore, don’t feel that same sense of being taken seriously as important individuals.
By taking this approach, we’re making it really clear that we really do value and respect our children’s desires, and that we value and respect our own equally.
We’re modelling respectful problem-solving and team-work.
As parents, we may really find that our life improves when we start to think about other ways of doing things – life doesn’t need to be as simple as ‘this’ or ‘that’, and it’s freeing when we can allow ourselves to explore the ‘or the others’.
It can be really difficult to think creatively like this when we’re tired, or stressed.
It can take a lot of time.
It all gets much more complicated when there are other children involved, although I do believe that family relationships can only improve when we encourage our children to take each other’s feelings and desires seriously and when we practise working together to find solutions that are as close to pleasing everyone involved as possible.
We may need to rely on other adults being willing to help find a solution, and this can be difficult if they’re the sort of adults who think children should be seen and not heart, and certainly shouldn’t be involved in family decision-making!
A final note
If you do choose to take one of the ‘creative problem solving’ approaches, I think it’s worth me sharing with you that, in my experience, sometimes children do just want to be told what to do, and this is one of those eternal conundrums in parenthood – when to be ‘in charge’ and when not to. I guess you have to follow your instincts.
If you say ‘right, we’re leaving now!’, and your child’s face crumples, and he stamps his feet, then it’s clear that he’s not happy to be led right now. If, on the other hand, you say ‘would you like to take some toys to the shop or maybe we could buy a chocolate while we’re there, or you could take your trike, or the buggy…?’ and his face crumples and he stamps his feet, then probably the potential choices are frazzling his brain and really he just wants to be told what to do right now.
And, yes, they won’t understand exactly what you’re saying, but hopefully they’ll sense your intention and feeling, and respond accordingly…well, that’s the idea, anyway!
Working this out gets harder the older they get, by the way…just to warn you!
I would really love to hear what you think about this – are there any approaches I’ve missed out? What have you tried and found works well?