“0kay, let’s get on your shoes, time to go home!” You’re being cheerful and reasonable and what do you get as your reward? Your tyrant-in-training hurls a red Mary Jane vaguely in your direction. Next time try singing it! “Where is shoe-y, where is shoe-y?” sung to the tune of that Thumbkin song just might work. I have no idea why singing so often gets kids to cooperate. What matters is that it works with so many two or three year olds. If you play the pied piper you dramatically increase the odds that your child will follow you.. Keep in mind that this is a preventive technique. If shoe leather is already flying through the air, it’s probably too late to strike up a tune.
Two-year-old Michael got tired of walking around the toy store so he flung some boxes of Day-glo Slinkys off the shelves and then tried to total the toy train display with a plastic bat. With diplomacy dripping from her voice his mother asked, “Would you like to get into your stroller now?” “No!” said Michael. “Don’t you think it’s a good time to go home and nap?” This suggestion produced a tantrum of Hollywood proportions. Finally the poor woman wised up, picked him up, plunked him in the stroller and rolled him out of the mall. (He was asleep before she got to her car.) Being a parent would be far less challenging if all it took was giving gentle suggestions to children rather than handing out direct orders. But for the diaper set commands are de rigeur. Yes, you want to teach your child to make his own choices. But there are times when the best motto is (to borrow one of my dad’s favorite cornballs): “When I want your opinion I’ll give it to you.” You don’t ever have to come on like a drill sergeant. But don’t give your toddler a say if there’s only one “right” answer. If there’s no time to spare and your child won’t get into the stroller, exit the playground, or put down the electric cord you need to gently but firmly make him to do what you need him to, whether that means you lift him up or force dangerous objects out of his grip. Just a firm but pleasant (if you can manage it) “time to go” is all you need say. You’re the parent, he’s the child. You make the rules. And that’s the way it is.
Not only does being authoritarian when necessary make life run more smoothly-and safely-it also prevents you from overburdening a tot with decision-making she’s not really ready to handle. No self-respecting two- year-old will willingly get back into the stroller when fatigue strikes at the playground. She’s more apt to get hyper-to try to climb up that slide one more time even if that means she’s going to tumble off. She’s not old enough to know what’s good for her-so you have to make choices for her. Asking her a loaded question isn’t just unfair and manipulative, it’s more likely to make her uncooperative. If your child is feeling disagreeable (and, let’s face, at this age it’s their job to feel that way) all you get for your diplomacy is a major power struggle. To borrow a cornball from my mother: A family is not always a democracy. If you don’t want your child to have a choice in the matter, don’t give her a vote.
With an astoundingly high frequency rate, many toddlers will stop dangerous or annoying antics and become immediately compliant if you simply announce that you’re about to count to three. Why? Maybe the human hatred for deadlines starts early. Or, perhaps when you count you set a time limit on their personal power. They know that if they don’t get into the stroller or out of the car seat by “three” they will have to bear the insult of being repositioned by you. We may never know why “I’m going to start counting!” are the real magic words of parenting. But if you are fortunate enough to have a child who jumps when you count, be careful not to squander this power. To avoid diluting the technique’s effectiveness:
- Don’t wimp out. If your child doesn’t comply by “three” carry through on the promised consequences. This means thinking ahead before you announce a countdown. Are you really going to throw the stuffed giraffe out the window? Or do a turnaround at the airport and not go to Uncle Jeff’s for Thanksgiving? If you’re not, don’t say you are-otherwise your child will call your bluff, see the humbug behind the curtain and never again hup to it when you start counting. Or, in fear that this will happen, you will find yourself stopping the count altogether-which sends another message of weakness, and kids even this young can tell when you’re on the verge of wimping out..
- Don’t overuse it. Employ counting only as a last resort, after the failure of all of your far more creative attempts to get her to brush her teeth, like chasing her into the bathroom as if you’re the tooth fairy. If you’re responding to every act of sudden deafness on your child’s part by threatening to count, you’re using this tactic too much. Limit yourself to one count a day or better yet about three counts a week.
- Don’t teach fourth-grade math to a three year old. Too many children become early whizzes at fractions because they’ve learned that before Mom gets from 2 to 3 a cozy cushion of time will be taken up with 2 1/4, 2 1/2, 2 3/4. In some families, the count even gets divided into eighths. Go ahead, tell yourself that you’re just trying to improve our nation’s abysmal math scores. This is a noble public service that will no doubt help to save us from economic collapse in 2030, but what you’re really doing is stalling. If your child typically needs more time to comply, count to five or ten, but leave fractions out of it. Kids learn soon enough that if you’re threatening them with fourths you’re hesitant to carry through on your threat-which from their perspective means there’s a good chance that you won’t.
Of all the explanations for the typical toddler’s relatively minute attention span, the one I like best is that he is so eager to learn about the world that he doesn’t have time to linger. Once he’s explored something he’s on to the next challenge. New experiences are a young child’s brain-food, which helps explain his ”been there, done that” attitude toward the talking T Rex that captivated him yesterday. A tot’s tendency to favor the unique can make the word “special” a harried parent’s secret weapons. A two-year-old who turns up her nose at a glass of orange juice might gulp it down enthusiastically if she’s told it comes from Grandma’s special supermarket or is being poured for her into a special cup. To little ones, “special” resonates with all things new and shiny. It turns the ordinary exceptional and wonderful-like their birthday or Christmas. Throwing the adjective in before anything is no guarantee. But if you’re lucky, even the antibiotic prescribed for her ear-infection will get gulped down if you mix it with some punch and call it “special juice.”
One morning Brad climbed higher than he ever had before and grabbed a jar of petroleum jelly from a bedroom shelf. He then used it to fingerpaint his entire body, his toddler bed and the walls. Where was his mother while all of this was happening? In the kitchen, reading parenting blogs on her iPad and congratulating herself since it was clearly thanks to her superior mothering skills that Brad was finally learning to play independently in his bedroom. Being a first-time mother, she didn’t realize that silence on the part of a young child should set off sirens in your head. A disaster looms. If you’re fortunate, it will only be an annoying, time-consuming nightmare that makes you feel like a Bad Parent and means you have to give the kid a very soapy bath and get your husband to paint over the greasy palm prints that now decorate the walls. If a non-sleeping child aged three or under is alone and quiet for more than nine seconds, run like hell. You may get there in time.