For the past 2.5 years, Curt and I have been blessed to be the lucky parents of one adorable little boy. Sure, there were those dark days of postpartum depression when life seemed bleak, but aside from that there wasn’t much else to complain about. Laird ate well, he slept for hours and hours, he was growing ahead of his curve and he was happy. Happy, well-rested baby = happy parents.
Things got a little more difficult just before Laird hit 18 months. We started placing him in short timeouts to teach him right from wrong. We also simply ignored him and walked away when he threw tantrums. Thankfully, these never lasted very long nor drew much attention from anyone. At the same time, it seemed that Laird’s vocabulary began to increase and expand exponentially. To our amazement, words we muttered in passing were repeated back to us weeks later. Songs that he heard briefly over the radio were sung to us at random times. And somewhere between the ages of 15-18 months, Laird was forming sentences. We could actually have a conversation with him. We thought this was a real blessing as he could verbalize his wants and needs without any misunderstanding and, therefore, avoid some major tantrums. All seemed well.
Right around Laird’s 2nd birthday, however, things began to change. By now, he was speaking in complete sentences and fully immersed in exploring everything around him. And it seemed that Laird was finally beginning to realize that he didn’t always have to do what we asked; that he could, in fact, say (or yell) “no.” Over these past 3 months since Leina was born and I’ve been staying home with the two of them, things only seemed to have gotten worse. Simple requests that had been previously obeyed, now elicit responses such as, “I don’t want to!” “No, mommy, YOU go to time out (finger pointing at me)!” This in addition to full-fledged screaming and rage. So much rage that I wonder if the poor kid has a disorder. I thought, “So this is what the terrible 2’s are all about. Pretty accurate description.”
His tantrums seemed to escalate about a month ago when we spent the weekend at the Oregon coast. What was supposed to be a relaxing, fun-filled family getaway turned into an exhausting lesson for us in patience. Curt and I butted heads with the little guy on pretty much every single thing. “Laird, please hold my hand when we walk through the parking lot.” “No,” as he ran off. “Laird, please don’t get too close to the water, it’s cold and you might get swept away.” “No, I want to go in the water,” only to be knocked to his hands and knees by a wave just a few minutes later. I can’t recall the number of times I rolled my eyes at Curt and gave him the look of, “I don’t know what else to do, I give up.” Of course I didn’t give up, I would never and could never give up. But I felt defeated as a parent and knew that something needed to change before our relationship with our son became irreparably damaged. The way in which we were parenting him wasn’t “working.”
I googled “parenting toddler books” and came across a book focused on techniques for parenting strong-willed children through a nurturing approach. I borrowed it from the library and quickly perused it. The basic premise centered on positive reinforcement, especially for strong-willed children. These kids are so accustomed to getting attention by misbehaving, and not by simply being “good,” that they do the actions they know will bring them attention, even if they are negative. So for the past two weeks, as unnatural as it has been for me, I have praised and acknowledged every, single, little action that Laird does. “Laird, thank you for going potty.” “Laird, thank you for letting me wipe your nose.” “Laird, you know what? You did a good job not drawing on your hands.” Is this exhausting? OMG, yes. But, much less exhausting then dealing with a screaming and raging mini-person. The hardest part of this style of parenting is being attentive to when he is being good, before he has the chance to misbehave. Using phrases such as, “Laird, thank you for not getting out of your seat while eating.” Or, “You haven’t talked back all day today! Yay!” Once I started noticing all the positive things he was doing, it made me realize how much I really had been focusing on the negative.
We’ve been in Hawaii for a week now, and I can’t say Laird’s behavior has been completely stellar. He’s definitely spent a fair amount of time in time out and expressed some artery-popping rage. But I do feel better as a parent.–as there were moments that the two of us would get so mad at each other, I actually had to stop, breathe and pray for patience and restraint that I wouldn’t do something I would later regret. This isn’t so easy when your kid tells you to go to time out. (In retrospect, I probably should have followed his advice.)
After analyzing Laird’s behavior and personality, I’ve come to realize that he is, in fact, just like me. We are both incredibly strong-willed, we hate being told what to do, we are particular about how things are done and the order of our stuff and we have a million things on our agenda that we need to do right now. For example, he’ll ask me for a cup of milk. “Sure”, I say, as I stand up to get his milk. But, on the way, I notice some things on the counter that are out of order. So I clean that up. There’s also a dish that needs to go in the sink. Into the sink it goes. Oh, wait, I need to write myself a post-it note before I forget this fleeting thought in my head. So that gets jotted down. And, after doing three other things, I finally get to pouring his milk and bring it to him. All the while the poor little guy is patiently waiting for his cup of milk. So when I tell him, “Laird, let’s put on sunscreen,” it makes perfect sense that his response is, “No, mommy, I need to put my train here and I want to read this book and where is my turtle?”
This is what I’ve learned from dealing with my strong-willed toddler:
- My child is just like me. Stubborn, hard-headed and busy.
- Toddlers are really little adults. I realized this when Laird once told me, “Mommy, you need to ask me ‘please.'” Or said, “Daddy, you didn’t knock before you came into the bathroom. You need to knock and ask me first.” Toddlers want to be treated like adults. They want to have power and authority. They want to be heard. They have their own schedule. They have things they want to see or do. I love my child, but I wasn’t respecting him as a person.
- I need to treat my children as I would like to be treated. After all, I don’t like being ordered around, or rushed from here to there, or not hearing the words, “please” or “thank you.” Neither do I like trying to get someone’s attention when they’re distracted by their phone, or hearing “I’m busy right now.” I wasn’t giving one of the most important people in my life the same treatment I gave my friends and this was a painful thing to acknowledge.
- Children want our attention. A day will come when Laird will no longer want to sit on my lap to read or cuddle, nor want me to carry him because he’s tired, nor want me to read him “just one more book,” nor think I am the greatest person on earth. At some point in the future, I will be the one fighting for his attention. So, for now, I am doing my best to give my kids all of mine.