I recently saw in my Facebook feed a picture of a 2 1/2 -year-old child laying on a bathroom floor and a mother’s explanation of what was going on. This child had been playing with some toy eggs and wouldn’t put them back into the toy carton. Mom had decided to draw a line in the sand with this. She was tired of always stepping on these eggs and was determined that this time the child was going to put the eggs back in the carton.
She and the child had been in the bathroom for an hour now (this was where the child was originally playing with the eggs), and she had decided the child wasn’t leaving until the eggs were back in the carton. The child had so far brushed her teeth, played with the water in the bathtub, played in the toilet, and several other things, but had not put the eggs back in the carton. With this posting I think she was looking for support and she had several comments telling her to stick with it!
I see families with toddlers on a daily basis and this is a common theme, children doing what you don’t want them to do, or not doing what you want them to do. My advice up until now had been just to choose your battles wisely and use “time out,” probably not the most helpful of advice. This Facebook post triggered in me a desire to do some deeper thought and see if I could come up with some ideas that would actually be helpful.
It helps to have a better understanding of a toddler’s developmental abilities and needs. Toddlers have strong needs for choice, freedom, spontaneity, discovery, competence and play. When they make choices, it really doesn’t have anything to do with a conscious choice on their part to reject your values, it’s about getting those needs met.
They will however, just as every person, have a response of pushing back when told they have to do something. Because of our strong need to make choices it’s natural to want to rebel when we believe someone is taking that ability away. So as much as that mom wants her child to pick up the eggs, the more she tells her to do it, the less likely it will happen. And to be honest, you can’t make someone do something they don’t want to, at least without cost.
The cost in this situation will be the development of an adversarial relationship. You can threaten, punish or bribe your children to do something, and they may eventually do it, but they will learn to see you as their adversary. Is that what you really want in the relationships with your children? And to make matters worse, the more you do this, the more your child will see even those things that are a request and not a demand, as a demand.
If they don’t rebel, but agree to your demands out of wanting to please you, you are still not supporting their development in becoming independent thinkers. I’m hopeful that we as parents want to support out children in developing into people who are able to identify their own feelings, be clear on what they need and have the ability to get those needs met in a way that is also supportive of others.
So what can the mom in the above situation do? First she needs to have some self-awareness of what is going on for her. I’m guessing she is feeling frustration and anger, telling herself that a “good parent” makes sure their children pick up their toys. She might also be telling herself that if her child respected her, they would do as she asks. She wants to think she’s competent as a parent and wants respect. She might also be telling herself that if her child doesn’t learn now how to get along with her mother, she won’t have the ability to get along with others when she grows up.
There are lots of stories that may not even be true. She might also be longing for the peace she gets when the toys are picked up and the house is in order, or she may just want to trust she won’t be stepping on eggs again anytime soon. All of these are her needs, and she may be expecting too much from a toddler regarding the stories she is telling herself.
However, if she just wants the peace she gets from an ordered house she can work out something with her child. First, she needs to be authentic about what she needs and why. “I like it when the toys are picked up, and the house is in order. I feel more relaxed.” Then she can make a request, “I wonder if you would like to help mommy with this and pick up your toys?” The trick is, it really has to be a request. In other words, you have to be willing to pick those toys up on your own, and not begrudge your child for not doing this.
So if they aren’t willing to help you pick up toys, make it easy for you. How many toys are you willing to pick up? Make this clear with the child and why. “I can handle about 5 toys out and about at a time, so would you please choose your 5 favorite toys. When you are ready to help some with toy pickup lets talk about this again and figure out a new number.”
Now ask what your child heard you say. You want to be sure they understand this isn’t punishment but your best effort to get both of your needs met, their need to play and have choice and your need for order and peace. In this way you are helping your child to learn empathy and how to work with others in a way that gets everyone’s needs met.
Heather Schlessman, PhD is a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner who has spent her career either working with or teaching about families. She is also a mother who, like so many other parents, spent years muddling her way raising 3 wonderfully different children, one who happens to be experiencing a disability. Fortunately she has a life partner who muddled along with her. Spending most of her time trying to be perfect, as that would be the safest way to live, she became aware of a desire to be able to see people in a more compassionate way. Little did she know that the person she needed the most compassion for was herself. There is a saying that when you are ready to learn a teacher will appear, and so it was for Dr. Schlessman. She was introduced to the work of Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, the developer of Nonviolent Communication, and her world completely changed. She learned a way to have an intimate connection with herself and others, a way to truly contribute. Her passion now is to help others find their way to a more compassionate life. You can find more of Dr. Schlessman’s empathic expressions along with her husband’s, Rev. Mark Schlessman on their website.