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Kids Loves

Things I don’t expect of my young toddler

July 25, 2018

Things I don’t expect of my young toddler

My son’s big phrases right now are “no, self!” (I want to do it myself) and “not yours, mine!” This perfectly demonstrates where he is in life; he’s learning that he’s a separate human being, and he’s figuring out what that means and how that feels. People talk about the terrible twos, but if we can adjust our expectations to ones toddlers are capable of meeting, we can have a less terrible time.
Two year olds don’t look like babies anymore, and they are starting to be able to articulate their ideas, feelings and preferences, but there’s a lot we often ask them to manage that they just can’t handle yet. Often I hear parents talking about how their toddler was awful in a certain situation, and while I understand in the depths of my very exhausted soul how incredibly challenging it can be to be responsible for a person at this stage of life, the phrase I try to remind myself of is “he’s behaving the best that he can.” Kids don’t want to be jerks (even though they are sometimes.)
 If my son is really struggling, it’s either a) something he needs to struggle with, or b) because I’ve put him in a situation he doesn’t have the tools or ability to handle yet.
There are so many situations that I just can’t expect my kid to understand or be able to navigate peacefully at this age, and the more developmentally appropriate my expectations are for him, the less miserable we all are. I don’t remember all of these all the time. I lose my shit. Sometimes I say these words through gritted teeth or have to excuse myself to take some deep breaths and flip the f@#* out by myself before I return to my kiddo, but having appropriate expectations does help.

I don’t expect my kid to understand or respond to punishments or elaborate explanations of consequences.

Time outs are popular for kids in my son’s age group, despite the fact thatthere is a boatload of evidence they don’t work. Taking away something he likes isn’t really helpful either, especially if it’s unrelated to the behavior I’m trying to stop. If my kiddo is out of control, discipline in our house takes the form of “I can’t let you do ________. I’m going to help you not _______.” that’s it. We set lots of firm boundaries in this way, because toddlers are boundary testing machines, but punishments, as they are generally conceived of, don’t exist in our house. Discipline certainly does.

There have been times his behavior has trended down hill when he’s had too much screen time, but we haven’t announced to him “you hit me and so you can’t have any screen time anymore!” We simply take away the screen time and continually hold the limit that we’re just not doing screen time right now, and redirect him to other fun options.

Explaining the cause and effect of those actions isn’t going to do anything for him at this age; it’s just my job as the adult to set the boundary and give him the tools to get back on track.

If he starts hitting me with a spatula, I let him know that I can’t let him hit me with a spatula, and he can choose to keep it by not hitting me. If he hits me again, I let him know I am going to help him not hit me with the spatula by putting it away for now, end of story.

I don’t expect my kid to “behave” in situations beyond his capacity.
Going to restaurants and sitting down the whole time. Attending a long presentation, performance or church service quietly. Visiting with people when he’s hungry or tired. Walking the whole way to a destination more than a few blocks away. Attending a wedding or other formal event. Waiting patiently for literally anything for more then 5-10 minutes. Not touching low to the ground objects in an un-baby-proofed house.

Kids with few exceptions are wired for prosocial behavior. They behave as well as they can. I see it as my job as a parent not to set him up for failure, and remove him when I realize a situation is too much for him. That means skipping the birthday party that happens at nap-time, keeping a mental list of restaurants that work well for him and saving the others for date nights, having a back up plan when we’re going to attend an event where he needs to be quiet. These back up plans usually involve each of us parents, and sometimes roping in friends or relatives, taking turns being with him away from the main event. We play this game at restaurants when food is taking a long time too.

This is a situation where using a carrier with our toddler can come in, and I think is totally respectful to him; there’s lots of situations he can handle up on my back that he can’t handle roaming free, and the ability to have him in a carrier at those times means there’s less we need to miss.

This also means not reprimanding him when he has an understandable reaction to an event that was obviously too much for him. In these kind of situations I usually apologize to him, for getting him into a situation that was too hard for him. “Mo, I’m sorry we stayed so late that you were too tired to have fun, we’re going home now.” is something I’ve definitely said to him once we’re back in the car on our way back home from an event that went south. We also don’t humiliate him in situations like this by loudly announcing that we have to leave because of his behavior. It’s on us as parents, not him.

Also under the “situations beyond his capacity” category is what most people refer to as “sharing nicely.” I don’t expect my kid to happily share his what he’s playing with or snacks he’s eating, or not to try and take toys from other kids while they are playing together. Before you stop reading, that doesn’t mean my kid never shares.

Parents get so wound up at play dates when kids don’t share, but we don’t just hand over our phones, or our coffees or anything else just because someone else wants a turn with them, that’s ludicrous. As long as there’s no hitting or other violence involved, my kid is better off learning to navigate the situation with the other kid than he is with me telling him he has to share. This is not to say I never ask my son to share. I watch a smaller child in the afternoons who isn’t really at a place yet developmentally to negotiate sharing with my son.
Situations fall into a few categories:
1. Small kiddo takes an object from big kiddo. If big kiddo is upset, I ask him to find a toy small kiddo would like to play with, and offer her that instead to trade for the toy he wasn’t done playing with. 90% of the time he doesn’t actually care that smaller kiddo took something from him and my intervention isn’t needed.
2. Big kiddo is upset small kiddo is playing with one of his toys that he wasn’t actively playing with. I let him know that when smaller kiddo is here, she has a right to play with stuff if he wasn’t already playing with it. Before smaller kiddo comes, I ask him if there are toys he doesn’t want to share that day, and we put those away to play with after smaller kiddo leaves. Stuff that’s not put away is fair game.
3. Big kiddo takes object from small kiddo. If small kiddo doesn’t care, we leave it alone. If smaller kiddo does care, I tell my bigger kiddo that smaller kiddo was playing with that and can’t ask him for it back themselves yet, so I am doing it for them, and bigger kiddo needs to wait until smaller kiddo is done. Sometimes there are big feelings about this kind of situation, and we talk about them.
I love this article, oddly enough titled “In Defense of Sharing” because I think it gets into the nuances of these kinds of situations, rather than applying a blanket policy of “you must share” or “you never have to share.” I think so often we apply strange end-all-be-all rules to kids behavior that really have nothing to do with being good humans.

I don’t expect my kid to have what I would consider reasonable reactions to totally normal situations.
We’ve all been there. Child asks for banana, parent procures and offers banana, child throws themselves on the floor in total meltdown at the offering of said banana. I could say, and I sure want to say, at this particular moment “boy that’s a ridiculous reaction to receiving the fruit you asked for!” If I offered someone a danish in a meeting, and they suddenly starting crying, I wouldn’t snap “what the heck is wrong with you, Carol?! There’s nothing wrong!” In the face of such an outsized response, I am forced to assume there’s more to the story than I can see, whether a child or adult, and that’s it’s probably not about the issue at hand.
Telling my kid his response is inappropriate, or that nothing is wrong, doesn’t help anybody. In situations like this, I try to respond with a brief “boy you’re upset!” and stop talking about it unless he wants to talk more. With situations like small injuries that get huge reactions, I offer a hug, say my same “boy that really upset you!” and just try to hang there with him. Being two is hard. It’s not going to make sense to us as adults, and we can’t expect kids to respond the way we would. We do everyone a favor when we respond to our child’s response, not to the situation.

I don’t expect him to make the right choice when I ask him a question that isn’t really a choice. I don’t ask “can you get in your car seat now?” when what I actually mean is “it’s time to get in your car seat now.” Giving a false choice doesn’t help his toddler need to make their own decisions, because if they choose no, you have to just disrespect a choice you just asked them to make.
A choice I would give in this situation is “we’re going to get in the car now. Do you want to get in your car seat yourself or do you want me to help and put you in?” If he says he wants to do it himself and then doesn’t, it’s my job to see this is a choice he couldn’t actually make, and let him know that we need to get in the car now and it looks like I need to help him. Often at this point he’ll announce “no no self!” and then actually do it himself, but if he doesn’t I don’t hesitate to pick up him, even if it makes him mad, and put him in his seat, and if he is mad just say “I hear you bud, you are mad, and right now we need to get in the car and go.”

I don’t expect him to respect boundaries I’m not prepared to enforce. Telling my kid something is not allowed is not enforcing a boundary, not for a two year old. Children don’t start to develop impulse control until they are 3.5-4 years old. If I need my toddler to leave my computer alone, it’s my job to put it somewhere he can’t get it, and it’s not fair or reasonable of me at all to get mad at him for playing with it, even if I’ve I told him not to, if it’s left within his reach. He doesn’t have the capacity yet to resist that temptation.
Explaining consequences or reactions to said behavior is also not holding a boundary. If I need my kid to stay out of the road, and he’s running towards the road, holding the boundary is picking him up or holding his hand, not just telling him that he can’t do that because he can get hurt in the road. If my kid hits me, I don’t tell him “don’t hit because it makes me sad.” I tell him “I can’t let you hit, if you’re going to hit me I will need to move my body away from you to help you to not hit.” In the first example, I’m making my toddler responsible for my emotions, and that’s too big a load for any kid to feel responsible for, or understand, and it’s not really enforcing the boundary. When toddlers are doing all this testing, they need to know we’ve got this under control (even when we feel like we don’t), and we’re going to hold their boundaries and keep them safe and loved.
As part of this one there’s a subheading, but it’s an expectation I try to set for myself. I *try not to* set boundaries I’m not prepared to hold, and I *try not to* set boundaries that don’t need to be held.This one is hard, but it’s important. If I tell my kid we aren’t going to do X, and then we do X, that doesn’t feel predictable or secure or helpful to him, even if he gets what he wants.
This is where asking myself if this is a boundary I really want to hold, before I set the boundary, comes in. It also causes me to question my motives for setting a particular boundary; is it about my own shame or embarrassment? Is it because of a rule I had as a kid? Is it to keep him safe? Is it to stop him from making a mess? Deciding before I set a boundary if it’s even necessary to set the boundary is something I am always working on. it’s hard to catch yourself in the moment, but we can all set goals, right?
For A GREAT resource and wisdom on parenting toddlers & younger kids, I love Robin Enzig and her Visible Child approach, and Janet Lansbury- Elevating Childcare for a similar perspective on younger toddlers and babies. Both of their work has inspired and influenced everything I do as a parent. Pin this for later!

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