Welcome back to the Brilliant Book Club! Five bloggers– Deb of Urban Moo Cow, Sarah of Left Brain Buddha, Jessica of School of Smock, Lauren of omnimom, and I– read and discuss a current parenting book. We hope you’ve been reading along with us- we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
I was both thrilled and relieved when we decided on Tovah P. Klein, PhD’s new book, How Toddlers Thrive: What Parents Can Do Today for Children Ages 2-5 to Plant the Seeds of Lifelong Success, for our July Brilliant Book Club selection. Relieved because, like many (most?) parents of toddlers, I was anxious to find some “answers” to the numerous questions I had about my toddler’s baffling behaviors; I was optimistic that Dr. Klein’s book would point me in the right direction.
- What do we do when our two-year-old refuses to eat dinner… for three nights in a row?
- How can I instruct my two-year-old to stop opening the &*%$ bathroom stall door of the public restroom every time I sit down on the toilet– without inadvertently saying the “wrong” thing or setting up a regular power struggle?
- How could I address her defiance and unwillingness to participate in any activity of daily living, particularly getting dressed (a task that until recently hadn’t been a problem at all)?
- What do I say when she yells at her sister for simply looking at her the wrong way, or worse, when her sister is actually doing something kind?
- Why does my toddler allow me to hug and kiss her regularly, but refuses to be affectionate with Daddy? What should we say when she is downright rude to him?
Dr. Klein helps to explain the science behind some of the most baffling toddler problems; by helping readers gain a better working knowledge of their children during this stage of life, she makes more room for parental patience and empathy. For the parent who is desperate for “answers” and solutions, the entire second half of the book is dedicated to “cracking the toddler code” in a variety of problematic scenarios—transitions, meal time, potty training, etc. Dr. Klein clarifies the paradox of toddlerhood, with which I’m sure we are all familiar— help me/ let me do it myself; I want you/go away!; I love you/I hate you! She explains,
As I read, I began to better understand the world through my toddler’s eyes. The most important feedback I can give about How Toddlers Thrive is this: Because I have gained a better understanding of my toddler, I am actually enjoying her more.
Finding Your Toddler’s Point of View
My daughters—ages eight and two-and-a-half— and I happened to be visiting my parents out of state when I began reading the book. One afternoon, we’d spent a few hours downtown having lunch, seeing some sights, and riding the local trolley. We decided to grab a few cookies from a bakery before heading home.
My toddler’s cookie was gigantic—far too big for her to eat by herself. So naturally, I broke a small piece off and handed it to her. I think you can see where I am going with this.
Sophie began wailing. “I didn’t want Mommy to break my cookie part!” I sighed, apologized, and explained that I was trying to make it easier for her to eat. As she fussed and whined, she began attempting to pick out the M&Ms from her cookie. “It keeps breaking apart!” she shouted in frustration. “It’s not fair!”
I suggested that we should bring the family dog out to the car to clean up the crumbs later, and Sophie exploded, “We can’t do that!” At that point, her indignation began teetering on ridiculous. “That cookie place used to be across the street, next to that Chinese restaurant,” my father commented conversationally. “That’s not a cookie place!” Sophie roared. “Oh, there’s a nice view of the river,” he added a few minutes later. “I can’t see the river,” she sobbed.
We continued our drive home, suppressing laughter at her contrarian tendencies that had begun to resemble a Saturday Night Live sketch. “I only have two M&Ms,” she lamented, dissolving into tears yet again. “Look, Sophie, there’s a firetruck,” my dad pointed out the window. “There are two firetrucks!” she said angrily, while her sister whistled from the backseat. Finally, she smacked her hands down onto her thighs with exasperation. “Sissy’s whistling! Whistling is for outside, not inside!”
I had finished about one third of How Toddlers Thrive at the time, and I tried to see the situation from her perspective: we had been traveling for over a week, seeing new things and visiting new places nearly daily. Her routine was disrupted, her sleep schedule was off, and she was desperately trying to maintain some sense of control and order over her environment. Imagining life from Sophie’s perspective opened up space for more compassion, and empathy (mixed with humor) took the place of frustration. It was a nice change.
Toddlers and Shame
When I initially glanced through the How Toddlers Thrive table of contents, the section that piqued my interest the most was about shame– namely, how to avoid shaming our toddlers. I’m not sure what it is about the word shame that pushes all kinds of buttons in me, but if there’s one thing I desperately want to avoid as a parent, it’s creating or perpetuating feelings of shame in my children.
I couldn’t wait to read what Dr. Klein had to say about shame and toddlers. In general, I have always believed that as a parent, I bring a lot of empathy and compassion to the table. I fight the urge to dismiss my children’s feelings (Oh, don’t be silly- you’re fine!) and instead reflect the very real emotions they are experiencing. (I know that really hurt; that must’ve scared you!) But I suspected that there was more to the toddler shaming phenomenon than simply validating their feelings, and I worried that– without knowing it– I had been accidentally shaming my toddler.
Why is it so important to avoid shaming children this age? Dr. Klein explains that shame prevents children from accepting both the good and bad parts of themselves, it interferes with crucial self-regulation development, and it hinders the development of empathy. According to Dr. Klein, correcting a child is another way of controlling him, and these repeated interactions can often cause a child to internalize a belief that he or she is bad, or not good enough.
What can parents do to actively avoid shaming their toddlers? Here are some tips:
- Stop interfering in their efforts. Type A mamas (yes, I’m raising my hand, too.), even though it causes you great pain to refrain from grabbing your toddler’s chubby wrist and forcing that puzzle piece into the right space, let her do it alone. Making mistakes is how toddlers learn, and when we insist they do things the “right” way, not only are we sending them a message that they are not good enough, we are sabotaging their opportunity to struggle, manage frustration, and persevere on their own. I know it’s hard– I often grit my teeth when my toddler has chosen to do something differently than I would recommend, and I would be lying if I said I hadn’t jumped in too often in the past. (I’m working on it!) Let them play the game their own way, take as much time as they need to fit the Legos together, and make their own choices– even if those choices seem ridiculous to you.
- Avoid criticisms and comparisons. This is a tough one– of course none of us sets out to intentionally criticize our toddler, but we often do so unconsciously. Have you ever asked your child, “Look how nicely your friend is sitting on the potty! Why can’t you try that?” or even, “Are you sure you want to wear those pants? They don’t match the shirt!” These types of remarks, however innocently they were intended, send a clear message to a child– I am not OK the way I am. Through making their own unique choices, our children are learning about who they are as people.
- Don’t talk about your children in front of them as if they weren’t there. I am guilty of this. So often, tantrums, disasters, or struggles make for great stories to our mom friends. I think we are all aware of the fact that our kids are always listening. Relaying the epic meltdown or ridiculous power struggle while your child is standing next to you, while cathartic for you, can be shaming for your child. I’m going to do my best to save up those “must-tell” stories for moments when my toddler is clearly out of ear-shot.
- Repair a connection when needed. Sometimes we mess up, and sometimes those corrections and parental control attempts are necessary– a parent shouting at his child before he does something dangerous, for example. If you were harsh in the moment–whether or not it is justified– make amends later. Try to see the situation from your child’s point of view, to recognize what his feelings might have been in the moment, and reflect that back to him. It’s helpful to say something like, “Even though I yelled at you to get off the counter, I still love you. I know I scared you, and I was worried you might get hurt.”
- Help your child navigate her negative emotions.Dr. Klein maintains that it is not a parent’s job to make their child happy, that the opposite is actually true. She asserts,
Your most critical role as parent is to help your child through the negative feelings, disappointments, and life’s hurdles.
When we try to stamp out our child’s negative feelings, including anger, disappointment, frustration, and fear, we invalidate their reactions and make them question whether their feelings are okay. If we can instead communicate to our child that we understand why they are upset, reassure them that their feelings are OK, and help them cope, we are able to help them avoid experiencing shame.
We Always Love Each Other
Life with a toddler isn’t always a picnic. As Sophie nears three years old, I am bracing myself for the escalating control issues and tantrums that characterized this year of my oldest daughter’s life. Fortunately, I feel better equipped to deal with these challenges after reading How Toddlers Thrive. In gaining a better understanding of my toddler’s point of view, I have noticed I react with more empathy and less irritation these days.
At lunchtime today, I offered my toddler some string cheese and fruit. When she arrived at the table, she burst into tears; having misunderstood me, she was expecting Mac and Cheese instead. Although her anger and disappointment resulted in several minutes of intense wailing, I believe she calmed down more quickly because I did not try to reason with her, argue with her, or minimize her reaction. “You thought I said Mac and cheese! And now you are really disappointed! You really wanted that Mac and Cheese instead!” Sure, she had a fresh wave of tears minutes later when her apples were not cut into thin enough pieces, and then, when I’d rectified the situation, they “didn’t stand up very well,” but my perspective had changed. I could see how important these things were to my daughter, and I was better equipped to handle the situation.
As Dr. Klein puts it, “When parents understand why toddlers behave the way they do, when they have a clearer understanding of the main developmental challenges that all toddlers are trying to meet, then suddenly parents can guide their child instead of control them.”
In my family, we have a mantra that gets a lot of use. Though I try to avoid power struggles and disputes with my toddler, we live in the real world, and conflicts happen. Whenever frustration is running high–my daughter has run naked to hide behind the chair rather than put on her pajamas; she is angry with me for turning off the TV; we disagree on the next activity– I gently repeat this phrase when the emotions have died down: We always love each other.
A few nights ago, my two-year-old was very unhappy that it was bedtime. She shouted and cried in the bathroom and protested as I placed her into her crib. After I tucked her in and prepared to turn off the lights, she stopped me. “Mommy?” she sniffled. “We always love each other, right?”
I felt tears spring to my own eyes. “Yes, Sophie,” I affirmed. “We always love each other.”
Read what the other Brilliant Book Club bloggers have to say:
School of Smock: Of Muffins and Meltdowns
Omnimom: Should Young Kids Be Expected to Listen to Their Parents?
Urban Moo Cow: With Toddlers, The Name of the Game is Empathy
Left Brain Buddha: The Space Between: Helping Your Toddler Thrive