Emma, the mother of a two-year-old, recently called me. She was furious; her husband had smacked their child. This was a shock to Emma, who had never contemplated she would have to deal with differences in parenting styles.
“I just can’t believe it,” she said. “We’ve both been so on board with responding and guiding Mia with respect. Hitting a child is an absolute deal breaker for me.”
“Did you just assume he would be against it too, or did you have a conversation about your views on smacking?” I asked, already anticipating the answer.
So often as parents, we don’t actually sit down together and really talk about our ‘parenting toolboxes’. We each have our own ‘toolbox’ filled with useful and not so useful strategies for getting through each day (relatively) sanely. These strategies have been collected and stashed away since we were children ourselves. They may include tactics our own parents used, as well as the things we’ve learned from others along the way, including books, media and discussions with friends. Your partner’s exposure will of course be different to your own –and that is where most arguments arise.
The very first step in guiding children’s behavior is to create a positive family environment: little ones are very sensitive barometers to our own stress and chaos, so by supporting each other and working as a team, things naturally run more smoothly all round. One way to reduce stress and arguments with your partner is to sit down together, without the children around, and discuss your parenting toolbox; what you think is useful and positive, and what doesn’t fit.
To work out what we want to include and what to discard, we need to be aware of our own values and expectations and what these are based on, as well as our child’s development and capacity to understand. For instance, we may remember our own parents being fairly strict with us and now see this as a good thing, but our memories may be of a different age and stage than our own child is at right now. In fact, we’re unlikely to remember anything much about being a toddler, so our expectations of a small person with limited language and capacity for impulse control could be completely unrealistic.
As you work together on your parenting toolbox, it’s helpful to acknowledge what you’re already doing that’s working, as well as what isn’t particularly effective or what may be creating conflict within your family. You need to be willing to look at new ways of doing things and how to include different strategies in your toolbox. Ask yourself: do we need more skills? Could we do a parenting class together? Where can we find a class or information that fits with our values?
As you define your family’s discipline style and sort out your parenting toolbox, you’ll find it more productive to discard tactics that set up opposition and power struggles, and to learn more skills to help teach your child how you want him to behave, to help foster connection and cooperation.
One great way to work out ‘what’s in’ and ‘what’s out’ of your parenting toolbox is to ask yourself these questsion:
“Does this maintain my dignity, and my child’s?”
“Is it safe? Is it respectful?”
“Does it feel right?”
Pinky’s top tips for parents of toddlers
Keep expectations realistic
Toddlers don’t understand concepts like ‘hurry’, ‘tidy’ and ‘wait’, and taking turns or sharing depend on developmental readiness, not parental demands. Keep teaching, but be patient.
Notice the good things
Toddlers like to please the people they love, and they delight in attention. Comment positively and give hugs when you notice good behaviour and you will get more of it.
Give clear instructions
Telling children what you do want is more effective than telling them what not to do: “Hold my hand” is better than “Don’t run on the road”, and “Use your spoon” works better than “Don’t eat with your fingers”. Little ones think in ‘pictures’, so only seem to hear the actual request, not the ‘don’t’ that comes first.
Create a diversion
Divert your toddler from potentially harmful or dangerous situations (or things that simply drive you bananas!) by giving her something more acceptable to play with. For instance, if she likes to fiddle with TV knobs, remove her from the vicinity and try offering her a torch to switch off and on.
Offering choices helps your child become a decision-maker and to think for himself. This helps develop self-esteem and enlists cooperation. Don’t, however, offer open-ended choices, and always make sure the options you offer suit you! Instead of asking, “What do you want to wear?” you can say “Would you like to wear your red shirt or the blue one?”
It is better to prevent trouble than react angrily later. For instance, put folded washing out of sight if you don’t want it thrown out of the basket or tracked around the house, and prevent precious things being broken by banning ball-throwing inside and keeping the balls outside.
Think of ‘mistakes’ as opportunities to teach your child to make amends
Instead of yelling or muttering under heavy breath as you clean up an accidental mess, try to problem-solve by saying, “Oops, the milk spilt. If I get the sponge, can you help me wipe it up, please?”
Pinky McKay is the author of best-selling Toddler Tactics: Making Magic from Mayhem (Penguin). Check it out at pinkymckay.com.